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Former 700 Club producer: “I knew where the line was. But that didn’t stop us."

Pat Robertson's former producer Terry Heaton talks The 700 Club, Trump, and turning the Bible “into a self-help manual.”

Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally At Regent University In Virginia Beach
Christian Broadcasting Network’s Pat Robertson has been one of Trump’s staunchest media allies
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the 1980s, TV producer Terry Heaton was at the helm of one of the most influential media properties of the decade. As executive producer for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN)’s Pat Robertson — one of the world’s most famous televangelists — Heaton spent the 1980s and early ’90s transforming the network’s flagship show, The 700 Club, into a pioneer of conservative opinion journalism.

But decades after The 700 Club’s massive success paved the way for an alliance between the Christian right and GOP party politics, Heaton has more mixed feelings about his role in the “culture wars.” In his new book The Gospel of the Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, Heaton reflects on his years working alongside Robertson, and how the advertising strategies he brought to CBN helped transform and politicize a generation of Christians. Heaton presents Robertson and his team as well-meaning idealists whose desire to use the power of the media to bring people to Jesus morphed into a need to hold on to power for its own sake.

Often, Heaton writes, the desire to put on a convincing “show” for their audience meant eliding the truth in favor of a more marketable approach: casting only conventionally attractive and “successful”-looking Christians in their segments, exclusively focusing on the positive aspects of Christianity, and hinting that faith could bring temporal as well as spiritual rewards. In other words, the Bible became a “self-help manual” advertised as something to be valued because of its impact on one’s own life, what Heaton now calls “the gospel of the self.”

I spoke with Heaton about Robertson and the future of the alliance between CBN and the GOP, and about how CBN helped bring together conservative Christianity and Republican Party politics. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Tara Isabella Burton

You were instrumental in the development of Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club as a groundbreaking piece of conservative television. Now you’ve written a book that’s far less positive about you and your colleagues’ influence on the Christian political landscape.

Terry Heaton

Those of us back then really wanted to change the world, but I don’t think we ever really thought about what that would produce. When you’re a few [people] against incredible odds, it’s a neat experience. But when suddenly people take you up on what you’ve been offering, you’ve got to figure out what it is that you really want to say.

I wrote the book because I felt I needed to apologize for my role in what we have in front of us today, although I don’t necessarily feel guilty about it. I just want to get it on the record that I participated in something that has turned out to be pretty bad.

Tara Isabella Burton

You came to Christian Broadcasting Network from a more traditional news background. Can you talk more about that transition?

Terry Heaton

I had one of those flaming, magic-from-the-sky, born-again [religious] experiences, one year before I was contacted by CBN to work for them [in 1981]. I worked five years for them the first time. I was very much a television guy, and the knowledge that I had about magazine show production, graphics, that type of skill, was broadly accepted at CBN because they didn’t really have a lot of that kind of knowledge. So we were able to create a machine that could manufacture The 700 Club. And I was always excited about creating good TV. As a new believer, of course, I was fascinated by Pat Robertson — his knowledge of the Bible, the things he’d been teaching throughout his life.

[Plus], I’ve always believed in point-of-view journalism. I think eventually it’s going to be all we have. So to be pioneering in that era was intriguing to me. But as we got more and more political, I could see the handwriting on the wall, and so I left, went back into local television and the news business. A year later, I got a call from Pat to help him while he was running for president. And I made decisions based on the promises Pat made to me to if I returned to CBN and be his executive producer — autonomy, the power to create a program [of my own] — none of them were fulfilled.

[The problem] was [The 700 Club] itself, getting more and more political. People from Pat’s campaign wanted me [to get involved with the political side of his campaign] all the time. I knew where the line was. But that didn’t stop us from going right up to it and even crossing over. That caused great internal conflict for me, which resulted — in the long run — in my salvation.

Tara Isabella Burton

What kinds of things gave you pause?

Terry Heaton

I didn’t have an actual single aha moment, but there were several. We were always trying to create segments that were vehicles for Pat’s teaching. In surveys, that’s what our viewers wanted more than anything else. So [for example] we had this idea to do a series featuring a guy who always got things wrong so that Pat could then come on afterward and tell people what to do right. So we developed a new segment: The conceit was a character who always did things “wrong” so Pat could come out and teach him.

The pilot was a guy who was constantly losing money because he was trying to give his way out of debt. So he’d look at the Bible where it says “you receive a hundredfold for what you give,” and if he was a $1,000 in debt he’d give away $100 expecting to be able to pay off the debt. And at the end, he turns to the camera and says, “What am I doing wrong?” And we all thought it was brilliant. It was. But I showed it to Pat in the dressing room one day, and he got this sour look on his face and when it was finished. He said,

Well, that didn’t go down very well with me.

I knew that Pat’s rationale for all of this is that you don’t want to do anything on TV that will interfere with anybody’s faith. But I think you can take that to an extreme — and that’s what we did. We always showed people getting healed, overcoming the odds. The strong impression that the viewer would get from the program was that if you just followed the formula, you would be blessed!

There was only one time we did a program about things not going right — it was a program about death. And it was one of the most powerful shows we did. Anyone who worked on it will tell you that. But Pat hated it because it wasn’t “prosperity!” and “everything’s going to work out just fine!”

Tara Isabella Burton

You say you wanted to change the world when you started working at CBN. What, from your perspective then, was wrong with it?

Terry Heaton

I think we felt — and I say this in all sincerity, because I don’t think it was insincere whatsoever — we felt that the world was going to hell and that we were afraid it would take us with it. And so we wanted to present a different view from, a news and information perspective, about what was taking place in the world, and build that around a biblical perspective: that God is alive and well and that he’s not happy with what is going on in the world.

But we used as evidence [for God’s presence] every self-centered trick in the book. When you get into black-and-white theology, you have to be able to explain things in a very simple way. For example, if you believe that God rewards good Christians by making them prosperous, and you’re not prosperous, you have to ask yourself why. And there’s really only two answers to that question. One is that you’re doing something wrong — a.k.a. sinning — and the other is that somebody out there is taking what rightfully belongs to you and you’ve got to do something about that. And that’s a pretty easy sell to human beings — we all want what we don’t have.

And that’s really what we did.

Tara Isabella Burton

How did you accomplish that?

Terry Heaton

We taught the Bible as a self-help manual. And it was very easy to move people [doing that], because who doesn’t want to have a sanctified self-help deal going on? [The conceit is that] you need a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ so that he can make [your life] better. … I’ve learned since that, really, I think God wants us to be better human beings, and that’s a far cry from building up spiritual points that you can cash in for reward at the end of your life.

Tara Isabella Burton

What issues did you and your colleagues focus on?

Terry Heaton

It turns out that abortion, gays and lesbians, and birth control — they’re all about sex. Sex, more than everything else, scares people who want their children to be safe and to live in a sanctified world. I don’t want to overstate that, but it’s the truth.

There’s a strong sense among people that they wanted to do something about it. And guiding them becomes an easy task — what we gave them was Republican Party politics. We had an explanation for all their fears — the lack of personal responsibility, big government, people trying to take from you what really belongs to you, self-responsibility, self-responsibility, self-responsibility. All those things worked very well with the type of Christianity we were preaching.

Tara Isabella Burton

You say “they’re” all about sex. Did you, personally, not feel that sexual morality was the be-all and end-all of Christian morality?

Terry Heaton

I don’t know that I had that concern. I was a TV guy! We all had a mission — to restore the USA to a godly nation. The fact that all that revolves around sex — it was convenient. To me, people who tout that all the time — they’re looking at [the biblical story of] Sodom and Gomorrah [used by some Christians as biblical proof that God punishes people for homosexuality]. But the Bible says that God didn’t destroy Sodom because of their sexual sins. He destroyed them because they didn’t take care of the poor or the afflicted.

But that message doesn’t sell when you’re trying to whip people into a political frenzy.

Tara Isabella Burton

In your book, you seem deeply admiring of Robertson’s accomplishments and charisma even as you’re critical of his methods. How do you reconcile the varying elements of this man you’ve worked alongside for so many years?

Terry Heaton

Pat is a politician who happens to be a minister. He grew up as a Southern aristocrat in Virginia. His father was a US senator. It’s in his blood, but more than that, it’s in his environment. So the fact that he got to be a minister and was able to manipulate a substantial audience into becoming political is actually quite an accomplishment, whether you believe it’s a good accomplishment or a bad accomplishment.

[But] he was one of the first people to contact me when my wife passed away in 2006. It was the day it happened. I don’t know how he found out. But he called me and prayed with me. And you don’t get any higher in my book than by reaching out to someone who’s suffering and praying with them. [But] I just want all the people that we served and that CBN serves today to understand the degree to which they have been pushed into the Republican Party and the Republican Party has been pushed to the right.

People are living, breathing, and practicing lies. And I don’t think that doing something about it is going to come from anybody who’s lording it over these Christians.

Tara Isabella Burton

In today’s political climate, it seems like there’s an even stronger relationship than ever between CBN and the current administration. Pat Robertson’s been landing exclusive sit-down interviews with Trump, and CBN’s new shows like Faith Nation are further blurring the line between news and opinion. What do you make of that?

Terry Heaton

First of all, regarding Pat and his relationship with Donald Trump — I think that’s very, very scary. As smart as Pat Robertson is, and as good as he is at marketing, he is also highly susceptible to his own hype. In that way, Trump plays him like a piano. If you watch his most recent interview, some of the things that Trump says to Pat are really way out there in terms of manipulating Pat. He builds him up like a salesman would, and Pat is susceptible to that, I think. But he wouldn’t be susceptible if Trump didn’t speak the language that Pat wants.

There is such fear on the right about the Supreme Court. I remember one show that we were taping in which Pat prayed that God would kill the Supreme Court justices. We had to stop the tape and advise him that he couldn’t say that on TV. But that’s the way he felt. Trump really sings Pat’s tune when it comes to the Supreme Court, also on the issue of religious liberty. When Trump starts talking about how Christianity is going to be “great again,” people like Pat sit up at listen. And they’ll support him whenever necessary — even if it means blowing up North Korea!

We’re a divided people. That’s why I wonder if it’s a good thing that Donald Trump’s president — at least we’re getting it all out on the table. In my mind, that’s the only righteous reason to put a guy like Trump in the White House. We’ll go through some stuff — but I hope on the other side, it’ll be better than it is today.

Tara Isabella Burton

How do CBN’s new initiatives — like its web-based Facebook Live shows like Faith Nation — reflect a changing media landscape from the days when you worked there?

Terry Heaton

As an observer of the web and media for the past 20 years, I’ve noticed that the church hasn’t really been involved in the World Wide Web. Because in terms of media development, the church — the message of evangelicalism — has always been at the forefront [of technology]. In the early days of radio, the church was ever-present. In the early days of television, the church was very present. In the early days of satellite — two of the 10 transponders on the first satellite were owned by Christian organizations. So when the Web came along and nobody of the faith went near it, that fact caused me to have an epiphany, if you will. The reason they didn’t go to it is because the web is a three-way communication street. It’s not one-way. The network is top to bottom, but [the web] is bottom to bottom. It doesn’t need any hierarchical approval.

And with Faith Nation, CBN is trying to turn a three-way communication medium [back] into a one-way. And for me that’s an artificial use of the web. It’s an open door for problems down the road. [The anarchic nature of the web] is a perfect vessel for the holy spirit. But it’s not the perfect vessel for a hierarchical anything.

The pulpit is going to have to give way to [conversations between] human beings: how they’re living life as a Christian, as a believer, whatever, and not marching in lockstep with certain beliefs, with those who would choose to manipulate the mass market.

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