Former 700 Club producer: "I knew where the line was. But that didn't stop us." (2023)

In the 1980s, TV producer Terry Heaton was at the helm of one of the most influential media companies of the decade. As executive producer for Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN's) Pat Robertson, one of the world's most celebrated televangelists, Heaton spent the 1980s and early 1990s transforming the network's flagship programming.the 700 club, in a pioneer of conservative opinion journalism.

But decades laterThe 700 ClubHuge successpaved the way for an allianceBetween the Christian right and partisan politics of the Republican Party, Heaton has mixed feelings about their role in the "culture wars." In your new bookThe Gospel of Being: How Jesus Joined the Republican Party, Heaton reflects on his years of association with Robertson and how the publicity 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 has morphed into a need to possess power for its own sake.

Often, Heaton writes, wanting to present a compelling "show" to his audience meant hiding the truth in favor of a more marketable approach: throwing only conventionally attractive, "successful"-looking Christians into his segments and leaning exclusively toward the positive side focus . Aspects of Christianity and imply that faith can bring temporal and spiritual rewards. In other words, the Bible became a "self-help handbook" touted as valuable for its influence on one's life, what Heaton now calls "the gospel of the self."

I spoke to Heaton about Robertson and the future of the CBN-GOP alliance and how CBN helped unite conservative Christianity and GOP politics. The interview has been slightly edited and shortened for clarity.

Tara Isabella Burton

They were instrumental in the development of Pat Robertsonthe 700 clubas a pioneering piece of conservative television. Now you've written a book that speaks far less positively of you and your peers' influence on the Christian political scene.

Terry Heaton

Those of us really wanted to change the world back then, but I don't think we ever really thought about what that would entail. When you have a few [people] against incredible odds, that's a cool experience. But when people suddenly accept what you're offering, you have to find out what you really want to say.

I wrote the book because I felt I had to apologize for my role in what we are about to see today, although I don't necessarily feel guilty about it. I just want to state that I was part of what turned out to be pretty bad.

Tara Isabella Burton

They came to the Christian Broadcasting Network from a more traditional news background. Can you tell more about this transition?

Terry Heaton

I had one of these flaming magical celestial [religious] experiences the year before I was contacted by CBN to work for them [1981]. I worked for them for the first time for five years. I was a TV guy and the knowledge I had about magazine show production, graphics and those kinds of skills was universally accepted at CBN because they didn't really have a lot of that kind of knowledge. This is how we managed to develop a machine that could produceThe 700 Club.And I've always been passionate about making good television. Of course, as a new believer, I was fascinated by Pat Robertson - his knowledge of the Bible, the things he taught throughout give to life

[Also] I've always believed in point-of-view journalism. I think eventually it will be all we have. At that time it was fascinating for me to be a pioneer. But as we got more and more political I could see the handwriting on the wall and so I left, I went back to local TV and the news. A year later I got a call from Pat to help him when he was running for President. And I've made decisions based on the promises Pat made to me if I came back to CBN and executive produced it -- autonomy, the power to create a show -- none of which have been fulfilled.

[Or problem] was [the 700 club] itself increasingly political. Pat's campaign people wanted me [to be involved with the political side of his campaign] all the time. I knew where the line was. But this did not prevent us from going to her and even crossing. This caused me a great inner conflict that led to my salvation in the long run.

Tara Isabella Burton

What things made you quit?

Terry Heaton

I wasn't really singleAhaWait a minute, but there were several. We've always tried to create segments that were vehicles to teach Pat. In polls, our viewers wanted that more than anything else. So we came up with the idea [for example] to do a show with a guy who was always doing everything wrong so that Pat could come later and tell people what to do right. So we came up with a new segment: The Smug One was a character who was always doing the "wrong" things so Pat could come and teach him.

The pilot was a guy who was constantly losing money trying to get out of debt. Then he looked in the Bible, which said, “You get back a hundred times what you give,” and if he owed $1,000, he would give $100 in hopes that he could repay the debt. And at the end he turns to the camera and says, "What am I doing wrong?" And we all thought it was awesome. It was. But one day I showed it to Pat in the dressing room and he scowled when it was done. He said,

Well, that didn't suit me.

I knew Pat's reasoning for all of this was that you don't want to do anything on TV that disturbs someone's beliefs. But I think you can take it to the extreme - and we did. We always show people being healed and overcoming adversity. The strong impression the viewer would get from the show was that if you just followed the formula you would be blessed!

There was only one time that we did a show about the things that weren't going well - it was a show about death. And it was one of the most powerful shows we've done. Anyone who worked on it will tell you that. But Pat hated it because it wasn't "prosperity"! and "everything will work out!"

Tara Isabella Burton

You say you wanted to change the world when you started at CBN. What do you think was wrong with that?

Terry Heaton

I think we felt - and I'm honestly saying this because I don't find it disingenuous - we felt the world was going to hell and we were afraid it was going to take us with it. And so we wanted to present a different view, a news and informational perspective, on what's going on in the world, and build that around a biblical perspective: that God is alive and well and that he is with what going on, the world is not content.

But we use all the self-centered tricks in the book as proof [of God's presence]. When you get into black and white theology, you have to be able to explain things very simply. For example, if you believe that God rewards good Christians by making them wealthy and you are not wealthy, you might wonder why. And there are really only two answers to this question. One is that you are doing something wrong - also known as sin - and the other is that someone is taking what is rightfully theirs and you have to do something about it. And that's a very simple sale to people - we all want what we don't have.

And we really did.

Tara Isabella Burton

how did you get this

Terry Heaton

We teach the Bible as a self-help manual. And it was really easy to move people [through it], because who doesn't want a sacred self-help business to be up and running? [The concept is that] you need a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ so that He can make [your life] better. … I have truly learned since then that God wants us to become better people, and that is far from earning spiritual points that you can exchange for rewards at the end of your life.

Tara Isabella Burton

What issues have you and your colleagues focused on?

Terry Heaton

As it turns out, abortion, gays and lesbians, and birth control are all about sex. Sex, more than anything else, scares people who want their children to be safe and live in a sacred world. I don't want to exaggerate, but it's the truth.

There is a strong feeling among people that they wanted to do something about it. And leading them becomes an easy task - what we gave them was Republican Party policy. We had an explanation for all your fears - lack of ownership, big government, people trying to take what is truly yours, ownership, ownership, ownership. All of these things worked very well with the type of Christianity that we preached.

Tara Isabella Burton

You say "they are" all about sex. Didn't you personally consider sexual morality to be the be-all and end-all of Christian morality?

Terry Heaton

I don't know if I had those concerns. I was a TV guy! We all had a mission - to make America a godly nation again. The fact that it's all about sex came in handy. I think people who keep talking about it are looking at [the biblical story of] Sodom and Gomorrah [used by some Christians as biblical evidence that God punishes people for being gay]. But the Bible says that God didn't destroy Sodom because of your sexual sins. He destroyed them because they didn't care for the poor and afflicted.

But that message doesn't sell if you try to drive people into political madness.

Tara Isabella Burton

In your book you seem to deeply admire Robertson's achievements and charisma while criticizing his methods. How do you juggle the different elements of this man you've worked with 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 United States Senator. It's in your blood, but more than that, it's in your environment. The fact that he became a minister and was able to manipulate a sizable public to become a politician is quite an achievement really, whether you think of it as a good achievement or a bad one.

[But] he was one of the first to contact me when my wife died in 2006. That day it happened. I don't know how he found out. But he called me and prayed with me. And in my opinion, the only way to get there is to reach out to someone who is hurting and pray with them. [But] I just want all the people that we serve and that CBN serves today to understand the extent to which they have been pushed into the Republican Party and the Republican Party has been pushed to the right.

People live, breathe and practice lies. And I don't think anyone who controls these Christians will do anything about it.

Tara Isabella Burton

In today's political climate, it seems that the relationship between CBN and the current government is even stronger than ever. Pat Robertson has landed exclusivelyInterviews with Trumpe CBNsnew shows like Faith Nation continue to blur the line between news and opinion. What do you think?

Terry Heaton

Firstly, in regards to Pat and her relationship with Donald Trump - I find that very, very scary. As smart as Pat Robertson is, and as good as he is at marketing, he's also very vulnerable to his own hype. That's how Trump plays it like a piano. If you look at his last interview, some of the things Trump says to Pat are really over the top regarding Pat's manipulation. He builds it like a salesman and Pat is prone to that I guess. But he wouldn't be vulnerable if Trump didn't speak the language Pat wants.

The right is so afraid of the Supreme Court. I remember a show we taped where Pat prayed that God would kill the Supreme Court justices. We had to stop the tape and let him know he wasn't allowed to say that on TV. But that's how he felt. Trump is truly singing Pat's song when it comes to the Supreme Court, including on the issue of religious liberty. When Trump starts talking about Christianity being "great again," people like Pat sit up and listen. And they will support you whenever it is necessary - even if it means blowing up North Korea!

We are a divided people. So I'm wondering if it's a good thing that Donald Trump's president - at least we're putting everything on the table. In my opinion, that's the only fair reason to put a guy like Trump in the White House. We'll get through a lot - but on the other hand, hopefully it's better than today.

Tara Isabella Burton

As CBN's new initiatives - such as its web-based Facebook Live programs such asfaith nation -reflect a changing media landscape since your activity?

Terry Heaton

As an observer of the internet and media for the past 20 years, I have found that the Church has not really engaged with 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 omnipresent. In the early days of television, the Church was very present. In the early days of the satellite, two of the first satellite's 10 transponders were owned by Christian organizations. So when the internet came along and nobody of the faith came close to it, that fact gave me an epiphany, if you will. The reason they weren't is because the Web is a three-way communication channel. It's not unidirectional. The network is top-down, but [the web] is bottom-down. It does not require hierarchical approval.

And withbelieve nation,CBN is trying to turn a three-way medium [back] into a one-way medium. And to me, that's an artificial use of the internet. It's an open door for problems in the future. [The anarchic nature of the web] is a perfect vessel for the Holy Spirit. But it's not the perfect container for anything hierarchical.

The pulpit will have to give way to [conversations between] people: how to live life as Christians, as believers, whatever, and not marching in accordance with certain beliefs, with those who would choose to manipulate the mass market. .

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Former 700 Club producer: "I knew where the line was. But that didn't stop us." (1)

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