Every wonder why the Republican party is the party that self-consciously allies itself with the Christian Faith, even as its leadership has suspect moral values and betrays the biblical call to care for the vulnerable? According to Terry Heaton, the answer is Pat Robertson, the 700 Club, and his CBN empire. Heaton writes:
When I worked with him the 1980s, we practiced and promoted a brand of Charismatic Christianity that was seen as a breath of fresh air to a faith that had grown stale in every aspect from its music to its preaching, and we worked long, hard hours to move hearts and souls in the way we felt was right. In so doing, we altered the course of political power in the United States, and it was as natural as our Christian calling. Taking positions on social issues formerly held by conservative Democrats such as the sanctity of life, religious liberties, patriotism, family, school prayer, and respect for individualism and tradition, we spoke to primarily rural and suburban Christians on behalf of the Republican Party. We presented as Biblical mandates or “laws” economic views that catered to a culture, teaching that being one of the haves was available for everybody. Our arguments and teaching helped move the GOP to the right on the political spectrum and created a following that continues to baffle even the smartest political analysts in the country who are confounded by how such people would act against their own interests in giving power to Republicans. (2-3)
Jesus joined the GOP because as Pat Robertson wagged on about God, he wagged the dog, diverting evangelicals toward partisan politics and Republicanism. Heaton tells this story in The Gospel of Self. He had a front-row seat for most of this. In the 1980s, he was the executive producer of The 700 club, helping to transform it to its news-style format which would, in turn, influence the shape of conservative politics. Heaton sees their work at CBN as pioneering the sort of point-of-view-journalism which prefigured the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Conservative Talk Radio, and Fox news.
History will record that The 700 Club was the tap-root of that which moved the Republican Party to the right and provided the political support today for a man like Donald Trump. A 2015 Harvard report concluded that right-wing media was driving the GOP, not Republican leadership, but this assumes that in order for people to behave as cultural radicals, they must be manipulated into doing so. This is a misleading interpretation of human nature and the power of personal faith. (12-13).
Heaton sees the work of CBN, and later right-wing media outlets, as instrumental in manufacturing political opinion. Much of the book recounts the story of CBN’s success in the 1980s and the political genius of Pat Robertson. The book is called the Gospel of Self because of the evangelistic emphasis on self-interest in Robertson (and other evangelicals) which dovetailed with fiscal conservative concerns for personal, economic prosperity. Heaton describes the growth of Robertson’s empire, his influence, his nearly successful bid for the GOP nomination, before being investigated by the IRS (Heaton suggests the government pressure came because George H W Bush was Vice President and Robertson’s chief opponent). In the final two chapters, Heaton offers his critique of media manipulation and the return of real independent journalism, and his suggestions for the emerging church in the post-Christian/postmodern era.
This is a critical look at Pat Robertson and his influence, but Heaton is not vindictive or bitter about his experience at CBN. Like Robertson, he was convinced they were doing the Lord’s work. So even as he talks about the way The 700 Club’s sometimes exaggerated or manipulative claims of healing, or Robertson’s overstated prophesies, Heaton also extolls the good. The ways Robertson and CBN impacted real lives and made a difference, Robertson’s genius, and fundraising and commitment to Christian mission. Heaton now advocates a brand of Christianity that is less top-down, more relational and less manipulative (204), but I didn’t feel like this book is out to smear Robertson’s character (even as he points at some glaring problems).
The real value of the book is the insider perspective that Heaton offers on Robertson. Robertson and his impact on Evangelicals in politics are highly significant for understanding American political landscape. Of course, Robertson was not alone. There was also Falwell’s Moral Majority, Francis Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, and a host of other voices. Heaton doesn’t really tell their story (he briefly mentions Falwell, or segments Colson did on The 700 Club), but he was too close to the sun all other luminaries paled in comparison. Heaton linking Robertson’s 1980s empire to Trump did seem a bit tenuous, other than to point out ways in which conservative politics and Evangelical sociopolitical identity became entangled. Though he does make some interesting suggestions on how motivated conservatives and evangelicals are by self-interest, and the ways social-care, a gospel prerogative, was short-shrifted by evangelicals (and the GOP). A book like Francis FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals (Simon & Schuster, 2017) does a better job of tracing the movement of Evangelicalism towards the GOP and the rise of Trumpism, but Heaton’s perspective is interesting as one. I give this three-and-a-half-stars.
Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.