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How Pat Robertson's Christian TV empire created a "shadow government" — and led to Donald Trump

Former Christian broadcaster Terry Heaton on how "The 700 Club" pushed the Republican Party toward Donald Trump


Chauncey DeVega
August 29, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)

Last week Donald Trump shared a message on Twitter from a racist conspiracy theorist proclaiming that he, the president, was viewed by Jewish people as the “Second Coming of God” and the “King of Israel.”

The mytho-religious aspects of this “endorsement” likely have no meaning for Donald Trump. Such claims matter to Trump primarily because they stroke his megalomania. Trump the malignant narcissist authoritarian and fascist seeks out praise from wherever it may come. As such, Donald Trump frequently praises himself in the grandest and most absurd terms possible: for example, Trump’s looking to the sky last week as if looking for a sign from God and then telling journalists and the world that he is in fact the "chosen one."

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Beyond personal grandiosity, Trump’s endorsement of his status as the “Second Coming” and the “King of Israel” were important signals to his two most loyal groups of supporters.

Christian nationalists, evangelicals, "reconstructionists" and "dominionists" support Donald Trump because they see him as a means of overturning the U.S. Constitution and its rules separating church and state, with the ultimate goal of creating a Christian theocracy. Trump’s racist supporters are buoyed and encouraged by his sharing (another) message from a member of their movement. Collectively, these Trump supporters are eager to put an end to America’s multiracial democracy.

Terry Heaton was a television news executive for the Christian Broadcasting Network during the 1980s, where he worked primarily on "The 700 Club," its signature news and talk show. Heaton also served as one of Pat Robertson's advisers during his 1988 presidential campaign.

Terry Heaton is also the author of several books including his most recent, "The Gospel of Self: How Pat Robertson Stole the Soul of the GOP."

I spoke to Heaton recently about how and why right-wing evangelical Christians have come to worship and love Donald Trump, a man who is an unapologetic sinner. Heaton also offers insights on the direct connection between evangelical-oriented media such as his former employer at CBN, Christian nationalism,  Fox News and Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party and its voters. Heaton also warns about the power and influence of Robertson and his “shadow government” of right-wing  evangelicals, who have waged a decades-long campaign to overthrow secular democracy in America.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my full conversation with Terry Heaton through the player embedded below.

How do you make sense of Donald Trump’s rise to power and why so many Christians support him, given his evident values and behavior?

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One of the things that has always puzzled me about the Trump phenomenon is that he would never have been elected had he not been able to recruit people for whom his policies would be harmful. But many of these voters consider their faith first. As I wrote in my book "The Gospel of Self," they see affluence around them and in their minds there is no reason they too can't be rich one day.

There is also this belief from a certain Biblical perspective that Donald Trump is a type of King Cyrus. Cyrus was the Persian king who released the Israelites from captivity and then let them go back to Jerusalem and build the temple. Connecting Trump to King Cyrus has been written about a great deal in certain Christian publications.

Cyrus wasn't a righteous man. He was a reprobate and a pagan. But the point is that God used him for good. Many of these Christians look at Trump and they say the same thing could be going on with him. The ends then justify the means, and to them supporting Trump means getting their Supreme Court justices, "religious freedom," prayer in schools and all their related concerns about "morality." This of course includes abortion and same-sex marriage.

What should be viewed as major mistakes by Donald Trump, in terms of his behavior and policy-making, are just dismissed by many conservatives because of their religious beliefs. He also promised to "drain the swamp," which these voters find to be very appealing and compelling language.

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But Trump has not in fact “drained the swamp.” He is the head swamp-monster. He is violating the emoluments clauses of the United States Constitution. He has put crony capitalists in charge of his administration. Trumpism is a version of what is known as “state capture” by private interests — the kind of thing that happens in Third World countries and so-called banana republics.

Trump supporters do not see it that way — and that is the problem. In order to reach Trump's Christian evangelical supporters it has to be a Christian message. You will not convince those people with a rational or secular argument. It has to be from a Biblical perspective, because that's the only thing they listen to.

For example, in talking with these voters, how about we agree that God put Donald Trump in office? Now if we agree on that, then we also have to also come to an agreement that throughout the history in the Bible where God has done such things, it was not always for the good of the believers. God has put certain people in power in order to punish others, to disappoint them.

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I think that could well be going on with Donald Trump. Trump's Christian supporters believe that God is upset with America's culture. But the Bible says that judgment begins at the house of God. So if God is angry with the culture, guess who he holds responsible? Not the culture, but the church. And I think that's an argument that you can win with Trump's Christian supporters.

Do these right-wing Christian leaders actually believe that Donald Trump is a tool of God? It isn’t simply transactional, where they and others are getting what they want, but they know in their hearts and minds that Trump — by their own criteria — is a wicked sinner?

Yes, they do believe it. They believe the King Cyrus argument. It is being used in many places all over the Christian world now. Yes, Trump’s behavior is terrible. Yes, Donald Trump is the opposite of what we would hold up as good Christian. But it doesn't matter, because God used King Cyrus and God can use Donald Trump in the same way. This is why it Is so hard to speak in rational terms with Donald Trump’s Christian evangelical supporters. King Cyrus is their ultimate explanation.

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If you know the Bible, then you also know the places in the Bible to which these people turn for everything. Then you can make opposing arguments within the scope of the Bible itself. And that's what I'm trying to do. It is not easy.

In terms of biblical hermeneutics, how can one group of Christians actually believe that Jesus Christ — assuming he even existed — is some type of gun-toting, nationalist plutocrat who wants to punish the poor and bless the rich, while other Christians believe exactly the opposite? 

The doctrines of the church are man-made.  A person can argue for the inerrancy of the Bible, but they cannot make a compelling claim that man-made doctrines are perfect. Either people are infallible or the Fall of Man never took place.

White evangelicals and other white Christians also need to confront the racism and white supremacy in their churches and religious communities.

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The Southern Baptist denomination was formed for one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to keep whites from interacting with African-Americans. It's tragic. If one believes that the rise of Trump means the death of all that is good and holy, then we may be missing out on some real good that can come out of how Trump and his movement are really exposing the deep problems in this country with racism and other social issues. Trump is putting all of America’s problems on the metaphorical table for the whole world to see.

How did you initially get involved with "The 700 Club"?

I was working for a TV station in Louisville, Kentucky, called WHAS. I was a host and producer of a magazine show that was popular back in the late '70s called "PM Magazine". I got this packet in the mail one day from a young woman who was going to CBN University, and she was doing a study on magazine show burnout — what happens to people who produce these kinds of daily high-pressure programs.

I filled out the questionnaire and sent it back to her. She called me the next week and said, "You must be a Christian because the way you answered the questions is not like the other people."

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The first story on my audition reel was a story about a thoroughbred horse photographer in Lexington, Kentucky. I did not know that Pat Robertson was obsessed with thoroughbred horses. And the fact that I did that story with just a photographer and myself was impressive to Pat Robertson and the network, as they were struggling with how to do that kind of work. I really could have written my own ticket. The fact that they offered me a job wasn’t really a surprise. I was out of work when I accepted the job. But it wasn’t just the money. I was really up for the challenge.

Many people believe that Ted Turner's gift to television is 24-hour news. But Turner’s real gift was that he took graphics production technology out of the hands of engineers and put it in the hands of artists. That revolutionized television production on a scale that most people do not realize. It was remarkable. I knew that, so I hired a gentleman from New York who was the godfather of television graphics and he came in and built a graphics production facility that was second to none.

Many of the techniques perfected by Fox News were actually borrowed from CBN, such as the style, tone and obvious bias that is used to frame the narrative.

Ten years before Fox News, there was CBN News. There was "The 700 Club." CBN had a slogan, “TV Journalism with a Different Spirit.” We pioneered point-of-view journalism for television. In so doing, because Pat Robertson was very conservative politically, he was able to blend Republican Party politics and conservative politics with the Bible, and in so doing he presented a consistent message that if you were for Jesus, then you were for the Republican Party. From a journalistic standpoint, we were presenting a right-wing version of the news.

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Where did that slogan come from? It is so seductive.

The marketing genius of CBN cannot be underestimated. The people who worked there were brilliant. George Gallup was our researcher. We had very smart people who saw marketing as a way to move people to make social and political change — and the change that CBN wanted was to move people from wherever they were to the right. Not only did Pat Robertson and CBN move people to the right, we moved the Republican Party to the right. This was all built upon a fallacy that it was OK for us to present right-wing news programming because everything else was supposedly left-wing. To say there is left-wing news is just not true.

We at CBN had no business presenting political propaganda as news, and other people picked up on what we were doing. For example, Fox News says that they’re “fair and balanced.” What are they balancing? Well, they claim they're balancing the liberal media. It is based on a false assumption.

CBN is a business. How did faith mate with profit-seeking? How did the “faithful” reconcile making all that money with the network and "The 700 Club" in particular? Were there ever any conversations about how poor people were being exploited by the pledge drives, for example?

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That's a very cynical way of looking at it. I appreciate your question, but that is not the way it really was. We were trying to change the world for Jesus. These were really wonderful, well-intentioned people. That's what we were doing. We never did anything that messed with people's faith. We wanted to present this all as "You, the viewer, are being a faithful Christian." Now if you go back and look at Pat Robertson's book “The Secret Kingdom,” which he wrote in the early to mid 1980s — which is a handbook, a self-help book based on the Bible — that is where I started to really have problems with what we were doing at CBN. Because it is so easy to get caught up in that aspect of the message that you forget the other parts of the Bible, such as helping the poor.

I had a meeting with Pat when I became senior producer and responsible for fundraising on TV. I said, "Pat, if I'm going to do this, you're going to have to teach me about fundraising." So we had lunch one day, and we ate and had our pleasantries, and then got a pot of coffee and cleared the table away. And he said, "Write this down. People give to this ministry for these reasons, and in this order. How does it help me? How does it help my family? How does it help my neighborhood? How does it help my community? How does it help my state? How does it help my country? And how does it help somebody else?"

So if you can craft a message that appeals to the self, then you can raise money. And the last reason people give is so they can help somebody else. If you really want to raise money, you've got to appeal to the person's sense of self-interest. You've got to talk to them in a way that they understand that you are talking to them. Craft the fundraising message in a way that appeals to their sense of self-worth, their sense of self-growth, their sense of place in the world. Speak to their ego.

How do we connect the dots from Pat Robertson’s decision to run for president with where America is today with Donald Trump and his takeover of the Republican Party?

Pat Robertson was very effective at creating a shadow government of religious conservatives. That was his message. Pat wrote a book about this shadow government after he dropped out of the presidential race. Robertson said that his greatest contribution was raising up people like Sarah Palin. She is a classic example of the shadow government of "The 700 Club." But this shadow government and people like Palin are all over the United States now. This was a grassroots effort to build the reserves, if you will, for the legislature, at school boards, city councils, then state legislatures and on up.

You would be amazed at the number of people who are in key positions right now. It is why the religious right and Robertson’s shadow government have been so much more effective than many people know. If this was a top-down approach it would be easy to stop because all you have to do is identify the top leadership and then you can cut it off. But now you can’t. This Christian right-wing shadow government is very much a grassroots movement that starts with the message of conservatism. Now I would go so far as to say it is nationalism. It is not just rural, red-state Christians. This movement is in the suburban churches too, the big megachurches where the congregation then takes the message back to their neighborhoods and their friends and so on.

You need to understand that white Christian nationalists, Christian fundamentalists, are not in any one denomination or any one particular church. They are everywhere. Many of them were raised on what we created at "The 700 Club." They are in charge of a large voting bloc. They are not going to be swayed by logical arguments. It will take people from within their own version of Christianity, that world, to help right the wrongs they are doing to the country.

Can we draw a more or less straight line from Pat Robertson and "The 700 Club" in 1988 to Donald Trump's presidency today?

Absolutely. I don't see how it's possible for it not to be. The role of evangelicals in the election of Donald Trump is still underestimated because he is such a reprobate. Many people have difficulty believing that the church could possibly be involved in Donald Trump’s election. But again, those who do not want to accept how Christians can support Donald Trump are not properly thinking about how this all came to pass in America.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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