Back in 5730, when I was a ninth-grader attending Saturday School at Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, we used to scrawl subversively on the chalkboard: “Jesus Saves. Moses Invests.”
The latest book by lifelong Catholic David Clary of La Mesa might amend that graffito.
In the same way that modern advertising swears by the motto “sex sells,” Clary’s book “Soul Winners” documents another adage: “Jesus sells.”
The subtitle — The Ascent of America’s Evangelical Entrepreneurs — barely scratches the surface of the book’s revelations.
Clary, a veteran news editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, goes well beyond reciting the history of Protestant preachers holding mass revivals and raking in the bucks via broadcast and other mass media.
He brings clarity to the current debate about what the Founding Fathers believed and how conservative politics became entwined with evangelical fervor.
“Another myth is that the nation’s founders were devout Christians,” he writes.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, appreciated His teachings, but “did not believe Jesus to be the son of God and did not accept the Trinity,” Clary writes in a heavily footnoted 265-page masterpiece of scholarship and synthesis.
Ironically, it’s the Jeffersonian separation of church and state (through the First Amendment, which keeps the U.S. from adopting an official religion) that fostered the boom in new religious sects — leading to today’s megachurches and “pastorpreneurs.”
Clary quotes Billy Graham in 1954 writing: “We have the suggestion from the Scripture itself that faith and business, properly blended, can be a happy, wholesome and even profitable mixture.”
The likes of Oral Roberts and Aimee Semple McPherson found ways to sell their faith as a path to cure disease and infirmities. Miracles, in other words.
“Soul Winners” (Prometheus Books, $29.95) quotes an eyewitness to a Roberts event: “As soon as the crippled were touched, they threw their crutches away, deaf ears snapped open, people leaped off stretchers.”
Eventually, Clary notes how faith healers abandoned the practice as their powers were questioned and debunked. (“A woman who believed she had been healed discarded her insulin and later died in a hospital,” he writes.)
The politicization of evangelicalism is thoughtfully traced, even with some humor — as when President Dwight D. Eisenhower (baptized 10 days after taking office) was encouraged to open his Cabinet meetings with a prayer.
When he overlooked that act one day, Ike blurted: “Jesus Christ, we forgot the prayer!”
Clary notes that Richard Nixon and Donald Trump in the 1960s attended the Manhattan church overseen by Pastor Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.”
Another entry for the Quotes Hall of Fame: When Peale decried Eisenhower presidential rival Adlai Stevenson for his divorce, the Democrat said: “I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.”
At his Garden Grove church, aka the Crystal Cathedral, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller would say: “Turn your hurts into halos and scars into stars.” (Johnny Carson would add: “I’m all for the Crystal Cathedral — I’ve got stock in Windex.”)
Another TV comedian capitalized on prosperity gospel promise.
In 2015, “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver made an initial $20 donation to a televangelist. He spent a total of $319 and received 26 letters over seven months, leading Oliver to set up his own church called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.
Not amusing was a stat Clary quotes.
In 1954, when Brown vs. Board of Education meant the end of segregated public schools, the country had only 123 non-Catholic church schools. “By 1970, there were nearly 20,000,” he writes.
And another revelation is the belief that the fight over tax exemptions for church schools had more to do with creating the “Religious Right” than even abortion.
Ronald Reagan won evangelical favor, the book notes, and those forces “directly influenced the Republican Party platform in 1980 — dropping support for the Equal Rights Amendment after 40 years of backing ratification.
That year, when Reagan won the White House, “Three times the [Republican] party promised to ‘make America great again.’”
Among the many interviews Clary conducted for the book was one with Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed, who confessed to “kind of planning (with Pat Robertson) the evangelical takeover of the Republican Party.”
In San Diego, the 48-year-old author spoke to Rock Church lead pastor Miles McPherson, who said: “Evangelicalism has become very political, which is not a good thing.”
This interview, conducted via email in mid-September, also suggests what his next book will take a swing at.
TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: How did you manage to gain trust, and land interviews, with the likes of Ralph Reed and Robert A. Schuller?
DAVID CLARY: It can be challenging to land book interviews because people instinctively know that the interviews aren’t likely to be short. I explained the thrust of the book, and I often had to follow up with multiple phone calls and emails. In some cases, my interview subjects wanted to know who else I had spoken to as a way to assess my credibility. They were all generous with their time — I spoke to Schuller and Reed for nearly two hours each, for instance. I think they could sense that I was more interested in understanding evangelicals than attacking them.
Did you try to interview Jim Garlow, the former Skyline Church pastor who became a Trump disciple (and Oval Office presence) and author of “Well Versed”? which he markets to politicians?
I didn’t approach Garlow, but I did interview Jeremy McGarity, who is now lead pastor at Skyline. McGarity has become increasingly outspoken about politics. Skyline opposed coronavirus vaccine mandates and helped people who wanted religious exemptions to the shots. He openly told his congregation to vote to recall Gavin Newsom as governor in September 2021.
When I asked him whether it was proper to do that from the pulpit, McGarity said: “It’s just time that the church speaks out … about candidates that hold biblical values versus candidates that completely the opposite of biblical values.”
Who did you try to interview and strike out with? Why did they decline an interview?
I attended a service at Saddleback’s main campus in Lake Forest, and approached Rick Warren afterward to tell him about my project and that I’d like to interview him. He introduced me to his top assistant and told me to put my request through him. I followed up with the assistant, but ultimately Warren declined to talk due to schedule constraints.
Have any Trump-aligned evangelical clergy or leaders read your book? If so, have you heard their reactions? How are sales going?
I don’t know if any of them have read the book. The book’s publication date was Sept. 15, so no idea yet how sales are going.
You conclude the book with a statement that could be a question: “Evangelicals must now decide if their movement is primarily about winning souls or winning power.” But much of your book is about winning money. Does this tie together both strains?
You’re giving away the ending! It’s true that you need money to achieve both ends. Evangelicals today are struggling with which one is their primary purpose. Some leaders I interviewed believe that churches need to de-emphasize politics and concentrate on the traditional role of churches, which is to win souls for Jesus and foster discipleship. Others are leaning into politics and say that’s what their congregations want. That tension is at the heart of the evangelical world.
While researching and writing the book, did you see any or many parallels with the gambling entrepreneurs of your previous book — “Gangsters to Governors: The New Bosses of Gambling in America”?
Both sets of people share much in common, even though their aims were of course entirely different. They were highly driven risk-takers who found a need and filled it, like all entrepreneurs do.
San Diego’s Awaken Church, with its several campuses, appears to be an example of evangelical political extremism. What are your thoughts on the emergence of this kind of church? How common is this kind of church? Might it crash and burn as other pastor-centric churches have (which you document)?
I attended a service at Awaken Church’s main Balboa campus, and I found it to be the most prosperity-gospel flavored of the nine churches I visited. There were many appeals to contribute tithes by text and app, and prayers frequently mentioned prospering in your finances.
They promoted an Emerge men’s conference with a video that struck me as a blend of a boot camp and a militant nationalist gathering. Awaken has hosted speakers such as Tucker Carlson, Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk who have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with political rhetoric. It’s inaccurate and unfair to say a church like Awaken represents the entirety of the evangelical movement, but it undoubtedly serves a market that is growing.
You deeply document the faith healing movement. But you also cite reports that healing didn’t take place and some evangelical leaders backed off from promises. Are you aware of any true “miracles” of faith healing (beyond unverified anecdotes)?
It’s difficult if not impossible to determine the truth of these claims. If people believe that their health improved through prayer or a laying-on of hands, who can judge whether they are right or wrong? It’s an element of faith that is unfathomable to outsiders. I didn’t witness any faith-healing exercises during my church visits. But I know it goes on from watching preachers like Paula White and Benny Hinn online or on TV.
You document that Founding Fathers weren’t the Christian nationalists that many Republicans allege and want to emulate. Was this intended to educate Trump voters and the like?
I did try to illustrate how wrong it is to claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. In fact, the United States was the first nation in history founded without an official church or religion. The First Amendment guarantees that people are free to worship without government interference or support. The founders respected religion but few of them were devout Christians. They preferred to see a variety of sects fight it out in a free marketplace where they would succeed or fail on their own. They explicitly did not want one denomination to dominate as the one national religion.
You quote former Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, a Trump critic. Now Moore is at the center of exposing a sex-abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention. How come evangelicals seem to have these recurring issues — the Bakkers, Jimmy Swaggart, etc.?
Unfortunately, we have seen sex-abuse cover-ups in a variety of religions, most notably the Roman Catholic Church, so I don’t think there is a unique trait in evangelicals that makes them susceptible to scandal.
You quote Rock Church Pastor Miles McPherson of San Diego as saying: “Evangelicalism has become very political, which is not a good thing.” He’d rather see focus return to focus on Jesus and the Bible. Is his strain of faith leader on the rise or a rarity?
I really think most church leaders share McPherson’s attitude. They are trying to build communities of faith and genuinely want to serve people’s spiritual needs. I certainly picked that up during my visits to a range of church services. However, the extreme voices get the most attention in our overheated social media age because it’s easier to raise money by ramping up extreme rhetoric, as Russell Moore told me.
Will the Johnson Amendment barring political preaching from the pulpit ever be enforced — or removed?
The Johnson Amendment bars charitable organizations such as churches from using tax-exempt funds to endorse or oppose political candidates. Unlike other nonprofit groups or charities, churches are not required to file annual disclosures to the IRS. The amendment has never been seriously enforced — only one church in 60 years has lost its tax-exempt status because of it — and it has since been weakened to the point of being a dead letter.
What does the Supreme Court’s hard-right turn to evangelical interests mean for the future of the evangelical movement?
The evangelicals who supported Trump often cited his nomination of conservative federal judges, including three justices to the Supreme Court, so they see the court’s recent rulings on abortion and religious liberty as payoffs on that investment.
Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress told you that his supporting Trump in 2016 was a political calculation — as the only way to beat Hillary Clinton. Could this backfire if Trump loses favor?
Trump was not the first choice of most evangelicals during the primaries in 2016, but they rallied around him when it became clear that he was going to be the Republican nominee. Some evangelicals I spoke to don’t like Trump’s style, but they do like the results. If Trump runs in 2024, it will be interesting to see if evangelicals gravitate toward potential rivals such as Mike Pence or Ron DeSantis.
Rick Warren, whose Saddleback Community Church eventually landed in south Orange County, shopped for land in San Diego, you report. Do you know exactly where?
San Diego was one of Warren’s finalists as a site to found Saddleback, but I don’t believe he went so far as to look for a specific location in 1980. Saddleback didn’t open a permanent church in Orange County until 1995. In between, the congregation met in a variety of rec centers, school and theaters. Many startup evangelical churches do this today, especially in Southern California where it is so expensive and difficult to build. Saddleback does have a satellite campus in San Diego at Canyon Crest Academy.
You document how radio and TV turbocharged the evangelical movements and the wealth of megachurch founders. Will social media be a platform to fuel another wave of evangelical fervor (and fundraising)?
Definitely. The collection plate is a relic of the past: Donations and tithes are now received via apps. It’s much easier to raise money online than in the past when people were asked to call a number or mail in checks. Social media was essential in keeping churches connected during the pandemic, and many continue to stream their services.
You spent a lot of time on the rise of Billy Graham. How would he have viewed Donald Trump’s turn toward authoritarianism (and away from traditional Republicanism)?
I suspect Billy Graham would have been troubled by Trump’s term in office, especially the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump’s continuing refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election. Graham receded from partisan politics after being badly burned by his support for Richard Nixon during Watergate.
In his later years, Graham tried to serve the nonpartisan role of “America’s pastor,” speaking at events such as presidential inaugurations and occasions of national mourning. He made a point of meeting with Democrats such as the Clintons and Barack Obama as well as Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. I don’t see anyone today who could credibly claim that role, certainly not Graham’s son, Franklin, who is a fervent Trump supporter.
Given the threats to journalists for any reporting seen as Trump-critical, have you taken any steps to assure your safety from Christian nationalists who might see your book as a threat?
I haven’t, and I would be disappointed if evangelicals perceive the book as an attack on them. There’s much about the movement I admire, which I tried to express in the book. Evangelicals are innovative, creative and practical in ways that traditional religions are not. I approached the book as journalist, letting the facts and reporting dictate the book’s direction.
Besides your recent Warwick’s appearance, where might you do book appearances?
I’ll be on a panel about journalism with Dean Nelson and Kirsten Grind at the San Diego Writers Festival in Coronado on Oct. 8 where there will be a book signing. I’ll also be having an event at Laguna Beach Books on Oct. 11 at 5 p.m.
What’s your next book about?
I’m starting research on a book about baseball. Too soon to say exactly what shape it will take, but I’m already excited about embarking on a new project!