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Salvation for Sale: AN INSIDER'S VIEW OF PAT ROBERTSON'S MINISTRY by Gerard Thomas Straub (Prometheus: $18.95; 323 pp.)

May 03, 1987|Robert S. Michaelsen | Michaelsen is the author of "Piety in the Public School" and "The American Search for Soul."

This book focuses more on the author than it does on televangelist and presidential hopeful Pat Robertson. But what gives it punch for today is its attention to Robertson, who, it now appears, won nearly as many delegates as did George Bush in Michigan's precinct voting last August.

Unfortunately, we learn little more from it than what is already known: Robertson is complex; he is both shy and proud, tough and tender; he is talented and immensely persuasive; he is ambitious, and he has the power of utter certainty. What finally comes through, however, is the author's hard-won conviction that Robertson is dangerous; he is, in Gerard Thomas Straub's view, a threat to both individual freedom and social well-being. This Straub believes to be the case because Robertson is a prime concocter and purveyor of that "lethal mixture of religion, politics, and television" which is so potent today.

What are Straub's credentials? He knows both television and fundamentalist religion first-hand. He spent 30 months as a producer for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) sandwiched between several years as a producer with secular television.

For six years, Straub was a "born-again" Christian, first in the charismatic movement among Roman Catholics and then in the hard-core Pentecostal fundamentalism that is the way of life at CBN. Only since leaving CBN in 1980 has he become concerned about the political implications of the "lethal mixture." This concern led him to his basic caveat: Let the buyer of televangelism beware.

While that caveat is stated at the beginning and again at the end of this volume, what lies between consists of a rambling account of Straub's personal pilgrimage intertwined with sometimes scathing descriptions of belief and behavior in televangelistic fundamentalism. We follow him from his early conditioning in a traditional pre-Vatican II Catholic home, through his failure in a minor seminary on the road to the priesthood, his intense preoccupation with sexual fantasies and fumblings, his born-again experience, his adulterous acts and failed marriage, his CBN experience, and, finally, his current religious position-- which he describes in a publisher-induced epilogue as "secular humanist."

Life in the televangelist's empire is described by Straub as authoritarian, rigid, humorless, censorious, and conspiratorial. Here is a people daily engaged in the struggle to control sin within themselves and in others, locked in an epochal battle between good and evil, God and the devil. These people are convinced that the Bible is literally the word of God, which provides detailed guidance to daily behavior and the shape of the future, and that Pat Robertson is in direct communication with the Almighty. In effect, Straub calls this movement a cult--i.e., a group fanatically devoted to its authoritarian leader and controlled by rigid standards of belief and behavior. This is, in his words, a "religion of extremes" that grossly distorts "authentic Christianity" and whose practitioners manifest in their daily lives what he labels "paranoid schizophrenia."

Given these harsh conclusions, why, one is led to ask, was Straub attracted to this community? First, he was a true believer. Then, as such, he was thrilled to have the chance to utilize his talents to spread the word with the help of the best equipment and facilities money could buy. In the end, in fact, Straub left CBN only because he was fired for committing adultery with one of the other married employees.

Through it all, Straub retains some affection and even respect for Robertson. Rather than attack him directly, Straub gets at Robertson indirectly, through those around him and through other televangelists. For example, he directs some of his sharpest passages at another of the top draws among televangelists, Jimmy Swaggart. And, after describing a particularly dramatic act by the co-host of Robertson's "700 Club," Straub concludes: "I would be terrified to have the President of the United States be a person who has daily conversation with both God and the devil."

It is tempting to describe this book as a secular humanist tract written in retaliation for all of those attacks on secular humanism by fundamentalist Christians. But the author teaches us very little about secular humanism. He is more concerned with destroying a house of faith than with building one. Perhaps his most directly religious message for our age is an underlying stress on the legitimate role of doubt and the importance of free inquiry in human affairs.

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