Terry Heaton is skipping church, as he does most every Sunday morning now. He is at home listening to bluegrass. Across town at Willowbrook Baptist Church, Pastor Mark McClelland’s sermon segues seamlessly from the story of John the Baptist to abortion. “People who support abortion are flat wrong,” the Huntsville, Alabama, minister booms into the microphone. He’s answered by a chorus of “amen.” It’s a familiar Sunday scene, one that plays out in likeminded churches across the country. Heaton believes it’s also part of the empire he helped build.
Heaton worked in the 1980s as senior producer at the Christian Broadcasting Network. The right-hand man to The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson, he churned out video testimonials of miracles and calls to action for a burgeoning audience of Christians upset with the trajectory of modern U.S. culture.
Earlier this year, Heaton, now 71 years old, published a book about his time running production at The 700 Club. It’s called The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP. He has been sober for just over 19 years, and he considers the memoir-turned-political exposé to be part of the 9th step of his 12-step program: making amends. Heaton feels responsible for helping create the conservative news bubble that reshaped the American religious right and ushered President Donald Trump into office.
“We are the ones who invented Fox News,” he tells me. “And I can tell you how we did it. We did it by just assuming we had the right to be on the same level and same spectrum as anybody else in the press.” (The only problem, he adds, is that The 700 Club wasn’t producing news; it was producing propaganda.)
Heaton has sent me to Willowbrook to “capture a little Roy Moore flavor” while I’m in town to interview him. The crowd (mostly white and affluent, if the cars in the parking lot are any indication) is friendly, and I have no visible reason to feel out of place. But when a jovial door greeter asks me where I’m from and what I do and I tell him I’m a journalist, his brow furrows. “Well,” he answers after a pause. “That’s an important job, especially if you’re telling the truth.”
Heaton laughs when I tell him this later. He doesn’t believe he and the door-greeter agree on what truth in news is. We’re sitting in his office, which is a corner of his bedroom in the suburban house he shares with his daughter and son-in-law on the outskirts of Huntsville. He bought the house and they all moved in together, he says, so he could be closer to family. His bookshelves are filled with various texts and tchotchkes, including a set of old bibles and CBN ministry manuals. On the other side of the room are the remnants of his former life in the music business, including two guitars and a five-string banjo.
Dressed in all black, Heaton at first glance could easily be mistaken for an aging roadie. He’s got a graying beard and long, silver hair pulled into a braided half ponytail that runs down the back of his neck. The hair gets him noticed in Huntsville, he says. “You just don’t do that around here.” Two of the family’s dogs are relegated to the living room for the duration of our interviews, but the oldest, a miniature dachshund named Brandy Fate, sits on Heaton’s lap, tucked into the black vest he’s wearing, throughout our two interviews. He calls her Boo Boo, and he says she’s his muse.
Heaton left CBN in 1988, but for decades resisted the idea of writing anything about his time there. “I have a lot of friends and I try not to make enemies,” he says. His mind changed in 2015 on a drive home from Birmingham while listening to “The Paul Finebaum Show,” an ESPN radio program dedicated to SEC football (Alabama’s other religion). An impassioned caller came on the air to tell Paul about “the smartest man on the planet.”
“Paul, he’s a billionaire, his name is Donald Trump,” Heaton paraphrases, mimicking the man’s thick Southern drawl. “You mark my words, he’s gonna win, and he’s gonna clean up everything that’s going on.’” Heaton says he was captivated by the purity of conviction coming from the caller, whom he assumed was “a country guy” and thus likely also “a church guy.” Heaton says, “I felt that was pretty astonishing, because if [Trump] had this guy, he was gonna have all the kinds of guys we courted on The 700 Club.”
So he went back to his office and began to pull out old documents, journal entries, and interviews from his time at CBN. His aim was to expose the hijacking of the Christian brand, and to come to terms with his own role in it.
HEATON WAS BORN in 1946 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and had the sort of innocent, wandering-around-alone-until-sunset childhood idealized by conservative baby boomers. In 1965, as “Vietnam was knocking,” he avoided the indiscriminate pull of the draft on a stroke of luck owing to his young music career. After receiving a draft notice, Heaton tried enlisting at a Detroit Coast Guard recruitment office, only to find the waiting list was over 500 people long. But when the recruiter recognized Heaton as one of banjo players on a local station’s regular bluegrass show, he moved him to the top of the list. Heaton was never sent to Vietnam, but he took a Coast Guard radio course that set him up for his first news job in Milwaukee when he left the service in 1970.
It was in Wisconsin that Heaton first started abusing drugs, he says, “when things didn’t go my way.” Living next door to an owner of a local head shop, Heaton became “the media drug dealer,” spending his time taking pot, LSD, cocaine, mescaline, quaaludes and anything else he could get his hands on. “Didn’t matter if I went up or went down,” he says.
After moving to a competing news show in Milwaukee, Heaton moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to become a host and producer of PM Magazine, a syndicated 30-minute television show with a mix of news and entertainment. It was there, following a tearful conversation with an evangelical Christian friend, that he dumped his drugs and was born-again.
At the time, the Christian Broadcasting Network was already 20 years old. The 700 Club, which Robertson began as a telethon with the goal of getting 700 members to each contribute $10 per month to the station, turned into a daily show in 1966 and entered national syndication in 1974. By the early 1980s, its mix of news, lifestyle segments, and interviews was being broadcast in homes around the country.
CBN tried to recruit Heaton in 1980, but it wasn’t until 1981, after budget cuts slashed his new job as a Louisville Tonight producer, that Heaton packed his bags and moved to Virginia Beach, where Pat Robertson’s soon-to-be empire was still in its fledgling phase.
As a producer at The 700 Club, Heaton was tasked with churning out high-production-value news segments and testimonials from CBN viewers who had experienced miracles after donating money to the ministry. The show began with the news, moved on to the doings of the ministry, and ended with prayer.
According to Heaton, part of his job was to create segments that would inspire Robertson to react as passionately as possible on-air (hot-button issues included sexual morality, abortion, taxes, and Israel). The stories had a basis in reality in the same way that reality television does. Segments were edited to elicit specific reactions from The 700 Club audience. Chris Roslan, a spokesperson for CBN, says Heaton’s job was “to create compelling segments about issues of importance to a Christian audience; these are issues that Dr. Robertson is always passionate about anyway.”
A Gallup survey commissioned by Robertson in the early days of CBN found that Americans viewed Christians as “country hicks, bible-thumpers, polyester-wearing, overweight idiots,” according to Heaton. “And so we set about to create an image just the opposite of that,” he says.
“That’s why we didn’t show any fat people,” he says. “In the studio show, cameramen were told to never focus on overweight people in the audience.” (Roslan says he is “not aware of any survey showing such an extreme negative view of Christians in America or any concerted efforts to dispel survey results through on-camera visuals.”)
Former 700 Club co-host Danuta Soderman, who now goes by Danuta Pfeiffer, tells me that Robertson also forbade moles, crutches, wheelchairs, and lost teeth, because “as Pat said, ‘half-healing is half-faith.’” Roslan says this quote is “blatantly untrue, as it contradicts basic biblical teaching.” He adds, “Anyone who watches CBN programming knows that the network regularly features guests and stories of people with physical challenges.” According to Heaton and Pfeiffer, though, The 700 Club combined the most potent forces of glamorous show business with the promises of the prosperity doctrine.
At the height of the Reagan administration, personalities like Rush Limbaugh were entering the public sphere and televangelism was a rising force. On the cusp of that change, Heaton says there was “a different energy in the air.” The real problem at CBN, according to Heaton, was the cult of personality, where “you have one guy, and then everybody else,” drawing his hands out in a horizontal line. Robertson was often joined by co-hosts Pfeiffer and Ben Kinchlow, but they weren’t equals and it was clear Robertson was running the show.
Pfeiffer, who now operates a winery in Oregon, says she has always considered herself a “liberal feminist Democrat,” even when she worked at CBN. She tells me Trump’s candidacy and presidency remind her of Robertson, who had the same “style and arrogance” combined with a desire to eliminate things like the Departments of Energy and Education. Since taking office, Trump has made it a point to cozy up to the religious right, and CBN has been especially receptive, with the network’s chief political correspondent, David Brody, recently co-writing a spiritual biography of Trump. Robertson and Brody are among the few media personalities who have been granted one-on-one interviews with the president. In October, Robertson used a segment of The 700 Club to argue Trump should “shut down” Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, saying, “there’s no such thing as a president obstructing justice.”
“Had Pat become president, it wouldn’t have been much different then as it is now,” Pfeiffer says. But Robertson’s 1988 presidential primary run did much to pave the way for Trump. After Robertson’s defeat, she believes that biased, conservative Christian journalism flourished.
Heaton says he agreed with about 80 percent of the politics he was producing, enough to make him cringe at the occasional crossed line but not enough to feel like an outsider. “I led worship at CBN,” he says. “It’s not like I was there as a spy or anything. It’s just that I still had a modicum of skepticism that I had learned in my years in the news business.” He also admits it never occurred to him that someone like Donald Trump might come along and capitalize on the audience he was building.
Nevertheless, Heaton remains proud of some of what he accomplished during his tenure at CBN. “I did fabulous work there, he says. “I created things in TV that weren’t really done before.” In fact, he worked so hard that he says he developed stomach problems and lost sight in part of his right eye as a result of stress. “I see a blotch,” he says.
Meanwhile, Heaton’s addiction reared its head again in the form of alcoholism. At a store one day, he came across a liquor called Christian Brothers Brandy. “I thought, that’s perfect for me,” he says. “And that became my drug of choice for years until I crashed and burned.”
HEATON ENTERED REHAB in Huntsville in 1998, a decade after leaving CBN. He left in the spring of 1988 after being removed as executive producer and declining an offer to take another job at the network. He spent the next ten years working as a news director for various TV stations in Tennessee, Hawaii, North Carolina, and eventually Alabama. He credits rehab with saving his life, and pulls his 19-year medallion from the pocket of his jeans to show me during our interview. Joining Alcoholics Anonymous also fundamentally altered his relationship with God, which he now views as life itself.
Heaton believes his born-again experience was merely trading one addiction for another. In a way, he became addicted to God. “If you’re chasing Christianity as an addict, you’re going to do well, because the church kind of encourages that. But you will, sooner or later, hit a wall. And then you’re dealing with something that’s even harder to break, which is the rejection of God.”
He stopped attending church, in part because he no longer valued the hierarchical structure of Christianity he had come to know. If he were to invent his own church, it would look something like AA: “Nobody’s in charge, there are elections for trusted servants every year, and they’re always different, and everybody sits in a circle and you talk about how to live life better on life’s terms.” AA is the type of place where Jesus would be, he believes.
“In recovery, you learn to live life on life’s terms,” he says. “I’m very happy to call that God.” He adds, “Consequently I see myself as more of a spiritual being on a human journey, and my task in this life is to be more human, to be a better human.”
For spiritual comfort, he still has bluegrass and gospel music. On Sunday mornings, when his family attends church, Heaton listens to a radio program based out of Knoxville where he knows the D.J.s. “That music really ministers to me, and that’s my weekly refreshment,” he says.
Now that he’s retired, Heaton’s days are typically spent writing in the morning, followed by a mid-afternoon nap, and then catching up with friends, much of which he does via social media. Beyond his family, he’s not particularly rooted in Huntsville. “My tribe is online and my tribe means more to me than my community,” he says. Since his recovery, he estimates he’s written seven books, all but one of them self-published, and thousands of blog entries.
The Gospel of Self is both a personal narrative of Heaton’s time at CBN and his attempt at explaining how he believes evangelical Christianity went off the rails. Heaton chronicles his role as producer through the heady mid ’80’s, mapping his disillusionment with Robertson’s Christianity alongside the growth in the program’s political aims. The ministry retroactively lost its tax-exempt status in 1986 and 1987 after an IRS audit found it had engaged in political campaigning in the 1988 election. Heaton devotes an entire chapter to the IRS investigation of CBN, including a significant portion of his own deposition from 1988. Another chapter examines the parallels between CBN and Fox. He concludes with a wish for a new, decentralized, and post-modern Christianity that doesn’t idolize the self.
His daughter and son-in-law haven’t read The Gospel of Self, or anything else he’s written for that matter, but he doesn’t mind. “I really do want to have a life and they help me with that,” he tells me. Do they talk politics? Not really. Last summer, he says they put out a Trump sign on the front lawn to offset his Clinton sign (the only one in the neighborhood), but it was more playful than anything else.
When I press him on what it means, practically speaking, that he wrote the book to make amends for his past actions, Heaton slows down. “So, this is going to sound weird, and you cannot misinterpret this, OK—but it’s for me.” He says, “Making amends isn’t about fixing broken relationships, and it’s not even about saying I’m sorry. It’s about clearing away wreckage.”
But he acknowledges that yes, he wrote a public book, so there’s more to it. He does want Christians, specifically those who voted for Donald Trump, to read his work. His message: “I want you to know that from where I sit, you were deceived.” By laying bare the extent of his participation, he hopes to gain credibility and, at the very least, “be part of the discussion” about where evangelical Christianity is headed.
After the book came out in March 2017, Heaton was surprised to hear from many past acquaintances who agreed with what he had to say. “I think there are a whole lot more people like myself than you may realize,” he says.
I ask him directly if he regrets working on the show. “Oh no, I can’t go there,” he says. He’s clear-eyed about the work he did, but I sense a hint of nostalgia in his voice too.
“I thought that changing people’s hearts was a good idea, and I still do,” he says. “But the idea that we would actually accomplish the political ideals and political views that we had, that we would actually influence the culture, seriously, to that end, didn’t really occur to me.”
Stephanie Russell-Kraft is a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter covering the intersections of religion, culture, law and gender. She has written for The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Nation, and Religion Dispatches, among others, and is a regular contributing reporter for Bloomberg Law.