February 2002 Church & State | Featured

In 1948, the Rev. Tim LaHaye, fresh out of seminary and working on an undergraduate degree at Bob Jones University, accepted a pastorate in Pumpkintown, S.C., a flyspeck of a town so puny it doesn't even appear on state maps. Reflecting on those days many years later, the Baptist pastor remembers being "so poor I didn't have two nickels to rub together."

These days, LaHaye has considerably more than two nickels to rub together. As coauthor of the phenomenally popular "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic potboiler novels, LaHaye is a millionaire many times over. He and his wife, Beverly, have traveled far from Pumpkintown. They now live in an upscale community in Palm Springs, Calif., where gated mansions are tightly patrolled by a private security company.

Even before "Left Behind," LaHaye was making a comfortable living putting on church seminars, penning non-fiction books and running political organizations. As far back as 1981 he told the Los Angeles Times, "What's wrong with making a good living? I don't see that God puts any priority on poverty. I take all I have as a gift from God."

Whether God should get the credit or not, LaHaye's success is undeniable. By some accounts, the books in the "Left Behind" series, now up to its ninth volume, have sold 50 million copies worldwide. All nine books have occupied coveted slots on the New York Times best sellers' list. LaHaye has become if not exactly a household name, at least one of the best-known fiction writers in the United States, rivaling Stephen King and John Grisham.

Yet most Americans who read the "Left Behind" books strictly as entertaining works of fiction may not be aware of LaHaye's record as a key architect of the Religious Right. His millions of readers probably don't know they're buying into the paranoid worldview of a fundamentalist extremist who hates church-state separation, seeks a government-enforced "Christian nation" and who has a long track record of attacking other religions and promoting bizarre conspiracy theories.

Failing to win popular support for his strange ideas through politics, LaHaye has merely repackaged his religio-political agenda and is peddling it with far more success through fiction. "Left Behind" has given LaHaye a vehicle to spread views that, in any other form, would be dismissed out of hand by most Americans.

What is LaHaye's worldview? In a recent non-fiction book titled Mind Siege (coauthored with David Noebel), LaHaye outlines his model society a Religious Right utopia where there is no separation of church and state. Abortion is outlawed and homosexuality is lumped in with pedophilia and prostitution as "perverse sexual practices" that are "universally viewed as immoral and would be shunned." Censorship is rampant as the "Christian and pro-moral community" use the federal government to promulgate "decency" codes.

In LaHaye's perfect world, voucher subsidies for private religious education are freely available. Public schools are turned into centers for fundamentalist indoctrination with daily prayer, promotion of the Ten Commandments and creationism firmly ensconced. The Department of Education has been abolished, and teenagers are given no sex education at school. Instead, children are taught revisionist history about how the United States was founded to be a "Christian nation."

Women, in LaHaye's dream, would "stay at home to raise their babies," eschew feminism and submit to their husbands who would assume their God-given role as "the spiritual head of the family."

For years LaHaye labored through various Religious Right groups to persuade Americans to adopt his views and win support from politicians. Having made only limited progress, he now uses fiction to achieve what he could not get through politics.

LaHaye has been a notable player in the world of the Religious Right for decades. While serving as a pastor at the Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego in the 1960s and '70s, he regularly lectured and ran training seminars for the John Birch Society, activities LaHaye discusses matter-of-factly in his 1992 book No Fear of the Storm (reissued in 1998 under the title Rapture Under Attack.)

In 1979 he and his wife Beverly founded Concerned Women for America, a group designed to counter feminism and the growing women's rights movement. The two, who had penned a best-selling "Christian" sex manual in 1976 called The Act of Marriage, were a type of fundamentalist power couple moving to the forefront of the burgeoning Religious Right.

In 1980 LaHaye was present at the birth of the Moral Majority and agreed to serve on the organization's first board of directors under the tutelage of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, with whom he remains close today.

A year later, LaHaye was co-founder and first president of the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive umbrella group of far right leaders who meet regularly to plot strategy designed to advance a theocratic agenda. CNP activists have included Falwell, Pat Robertson, long-time right-wing strategist Paul Weyrich, the American Family Association's Donald Wildmon, Focus on the Family's James C. Dobson and former attorney general Edwin Meese. (Even R.J. Rushdoony, the now-deceased dean of the radical Christian Reconstructionist movement, was a member.)

The CNP is also rife with wealthy far-right business executives and influential Washington ultra-conservatives. The group remains powerful in the Republican Party to this day. During the 2000 campaign, its members summoned George W. Bush to a closed-door meeting, where the future president had to assure the organization that he was a true conservative.

In1982, LaHaye joined the steering committee of the openly theocratic Council on Revival, a far-right group that boldly proclaimed its goal of imposing "biblical law" on America. Many COR members were leaders of the "Christian Reconstructionist" camp, whose advocates favor scrapping democracy and basing all U.S. law on their narrow interpretation of the Old Testament's legal code. Although LaHaye disagreed with the Reconstructionists on some matters of theology such as how the "End Times" would unfold he joined forces with the movement with the aim of bringing about an officially fundamentalist "Christian" America.

In 1983, LaHaye opened the American Coalition for Traditional Values (ACTV pronounced "active."). The group, which drew support from powerful religious broadcasters and other right-wing church leaders, pledged to mobilize "Christian" voters to elect ultra-conservative candidates to public office. LaHaye called President Ronald Reagan a friend and asserted in a 1985 interview with Church & State that Reagan's election in 1980 and reelection four years later had been engineered by God.

As the '80s progressed and the Reagan years wound down, however, Tim LaHaye's public profile dropped. Although he spoke enthusiastically in 1985 about backing TV preacher Robertson for president in 1988, by the time the first round of GOP primaries got under way LaHaye had switched candidates and was an official adviser to former New York congressman Jack Kemp.

When he joined the Kemp team, opponents of the Religious Right began digging into his past and soon uncovered a litany of intolerant statements. Four days after signing on to the campaign, LaHaye was forced to resign after information came to light noting that LaHaye had called Roman Catholicism "a false religion" and had on one occasion asserted that the Jews were responsible for Jesus' death.

More damaging revelations soon leaked out. It came to light that LaHaye's church in San Diego throughout the 1970s had sponsored an anti-Catholic group called Mission to Catholics. One pamphlet produced by the group asserted that Pope Paul VI was the "archpriest of Satan, a deceiver, and an antichrist, who has, like Judas, gone to his own place."

Critics of LaHaye also circulated a report from 1981 recounting how LaHaye fired the principal of Scott Memorial's private school because the man was a registered Democrat who dared to take issue with his pastor's far-right political views.

LaHaye was also damaged by revelations that he had accepted money from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the controversial Korean evangelist. Bo Hi Pak, a longtime Moon operative, gave ACTV $10,000, and LaHaye subsequently agreed to serve on the board of directors of Moon's own Religious Right group, Christian Voice. LaHaye also joined the board of another Moon front, the Council for Religious Freedom (CRF), which was formed primarily as a vehicle to protest Moon's 1984 imprisonment after he was convicted of filing false tax returns and obstructing justice.

The LaHaye-Moon tie was laid bare after a fawning letter surfaced that LaHaye had penned to Pak thanking him for the $10,000. LaHaye resigned from the Christian Voice and CRF boards and tried to distance himself from Moon, but the damage was done. The puritanical LaHaye, who never hesitated to blast anyone whose Christian beliefs were not as narrow as his own, was unable to explain his relationship with Moon a man who holds unorthodox theological views that fall far outside the mainstream of Christianity and has a habit of stating that he is a messiah sent to complete the failed mission of Jesus. (Despite the flap, LaHaye never did sever all ties to Moon. Beverly LaHaye spoke at a Moon event in Washington, D.C., as recently as 1996.)

After the Moon and Kemp debacles, LaHaye left the public political stage. Although Beverly LaHaye continued to run Concerned Women for America, Tim LaHaye's political work moved behind the scenes with the CNP. In the wake of the Moon scandal, ACTV collapsed in 1986, and LaHaye accepted a low-profile position as an assistant pastor at a large Baptist church in Rockville, Md.

LaHaye resurfaced in a big way in 1995 with the publication of Left Behind, the first book in the series. Last May LaHaye told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he got the idea for the first book during an airplane flight, as he observed a male pilot flirt with a female flight attendant. LaHaye noticed that the pilot was wearing a wedding ring and wondered what would happen if the biblical "Rapture" were to occur and the pilot's wife went to Heaven while the pilot was left behind.

LaHaye's books are based on a reading of the Book of Revelation popular among many fundamentalists. Revelation is a symbol-laden book that is fertile ground for those interested in the apocalypse. Under LaHaye's "premillenialist" interpretation, which is common in some fundamentalist circles, the end of the world begins with the "Rapture," when all "Bible believing" Christians are whisked off to Heaven, leaving only their clothes and jewelry behind. Non-believers are forced to stay on Earth and endure the "Tribulation," a period marked by war, confusion and death, as well as the rise of the Antichrist.

In the "Left Behind" series, the Antichrist comes to power and, aided by duplicitous United Nations officials, instills an oppressive reign under a totalitarian one-world government. A motley collection of ordinary people who failed to make the cut for the Rapture commit themselves anew to faith and organize a "Tribulation Force" to overthrow the godless regime. Blending science fiction and Biblical literalism, the "Left Behind" books serve up a fundamentalist interpretation of the End Times repackaged for middle-brow reading tastes.

LaHaye's coauthor Jenkins apparently does much of the writing. Jenkins, who had penned previous works of "Christian fiction," relies on LaHaye's knowledge of the Bible to flesh out the theology of "Left Behind." A 52-year-old former sportswriter, Jenkins helped Billy Graham write his memoirs and also wrote biographies of several professional sports figures who were fundamentalist Christians.

LaHaye's political beliefs are perhaps best summed up in a less well-known book that probably few "Left Behind" fans have read: 1980's The Battle for the Mind. In the book, LaHaye asserts that "secular humanists" have taken control of all American institutions, including public schools and universities, the political system, the news media and the entertainment industry, with the aim of driving Christianity from American life and creating a totalitarian state themes that rebound in "Left Behind."

The goals of humanists, according to LaHaye, is to create an "Orwellian Big Brother complex, which will enable the elite humanists to merge America with the Soviet Union and all other countries. This will culminate in the humanist dream of a one-world, socialist state."

In 2001 LaHaye, undoubtedly hoping to capitalize on his newfound popularity, updated and reissued The Battle for the Mind under the name Mind Siege. The new version backs off from claims that humanists plan to merge the United States with the Soviet Union since there is no more Soviet Union but continues to insist that humanists run all influential institutions and labor to create a global superstate.

Conspiracy-theory thinking and contempt for religions that differ from fundamentalist Christianity run through LaHaye's non-fiction works. His 1983 book The Battle for the Public Schools contains a drawing of a tree whose trunk is labeled "Secular Humanism." Some of its roots are labeled "Hinduism," "Buddhism," "Taoism" and "Confucianism." Branches and leaves coming off of the tree are labeled "Crime," "Divorce," "Abortion," "Homosexuality," "Rape," "V.D.," "Public Schools" and "Liberal Politicians."

Humanist leaders in the United States are alternately amused and horrified by LaHaye's smear campaign against them. "Tim LaHaye blames secular humanists for everything from communism to bad breath," Edward M. Buckner, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism in Amherst, N.Y., told Church & State. "LaHaye's paranoid ravings and conspiracy theories about humanists running the world would be amusing but for one thing: He is stirring up hatred against an entire class of people based on their belief system and worldview. That's not funny."

Humanists aren't LaHaye's only target. As might be expected from a Bob Jones University graduate, he also has a long history of vitriolic attacks on Catholicism. In his 1973 book Revelation Illustrated and Made Plain, LaHaye writes that the Catholic Church "is more dangerous than no religion because she substitutes religion for truth.... Rome is also dangerous because some of her doctrines are pseudo-Christian." Elsewhere in the book LaHaye compares Catholic services to pagan rituals.

In 1999's Are We Living in the End Times?, LaHaye and Jenkins imply that the Catholic Church may be the "whore of Babylon" mentioned in Revelation.

"The present pope," the pair assert, "is on record as believing in the Trinity and may indeed pray in the name of Jesus Christ. However, his infatuation with the vision of Fatima and his reverence for Mary (whom he credits with saving his life from an assassin's bullet) concerns some who fear he could be setting up his church and the religions of the world for the fulfillment of Revelation 17, where the 'Mystery Babylon, the mother of harlots,' unifies all the religions of the world during the first half of the Tribulation."

LaHaye also has harsh words for other Christians. For example, he regards the United Methodist Church and other mainline Protestant denominations as "apostate," because they do not take his hardline approach to scripture and politics.

When he's not knocking religions he doesn't like, LaHaye obsesses over off-the-wall conspiracy theories. He believes a secret society called the "Illuminati" has engineered world events since the 18th century. The Illuminati, a frequent obsession among conspiracy buffs, was supposedly founded in 1776 by a cabal of power-hungry Europeans. As the story goes, over the centuries its members have sparked wars and manipulated financial markets to enrich themselves and bring about an atheistic one-world government.

In Rapture Under Attack, LaHaye writes, "I myself have been a forty-five year student of the satanically-inspired, centuries-old conspiracy to use government, education, and media to destroy every vestige of Christianity within our society and establish a new world order. Having read at least fifty books on the Illuminati, I am convinced that it exists and can be blamed for many of man's inhumane actions against his fellow man during the past two hundred years."

Aside from conspiracy theories, LaHaye's non-fiction works show unmitigated hostility toward the separation of church and state. In The Battle for the Mind, LaHaye writes that the First Amendment was intended only to prevent the establishment of a national church. He insists that the country was founded on "biblical principles and a clear recognition of God" and asserts that "atheistic, amoral humanists have moved in...they control our nation's destiny and are seeking to separate her from God. This is particularly true of our judges, a high percentage of whom make humanistic decisions."

In Mind Siege, LaHaye calls church-state separation "the big lie" and insists, "[W]ith a false interpretation of separation, the humanists have rendered our government almost as secular as Communist China and the former Soviet Union. In fact, in many ways there is more religious freedom in present-day Russia than there is in the United States."

A revisionist "Christian America" history also runs through the books. In Faith of Our Founding Fathers (1987), LaHaye asserts that America was Christian until it was secularized by thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and a coalition of anti-religious radicals who rejected orthodox Christianity.

Observes LaHaye, "The truth is, there is no 'wall of separation' in the Constitution, unless it is a wall intended by the Founding Fathers to keep the civil government totally out of the church."

According to LaHaye, Jefferson was not an important Founder and by "the providence of God" did not take part in the Constitutional Convention. The goal of the remaining framers, he asserts, "was not to establish a democracy....Instead, they formulated a representative form of government based on divinely inspired law. The Constitution they wrote and the government they founded upon it verified that they never intended to establish a secular nation. Instead, it was and still is 'one nation under God.'" (LaHaye does not explain why, if this is the case, the Constitution contains no references to God and is an entirely secular document.)

Secular humanists, according to LaHaye, consolidated their grip on power by taking over the educational system in the early 19th century. According to his creative account, young educators seeking advanced degrees had to travel to Europe to get them since there were few colleges in the United States offering post-graduate education at that time. While in Europe, these good Christians fell prey to "secularism in its many forms skepticism, German higher criticism and raw secular humanism."

These brainwashed teachers, LaHaye writes, then returned to America and began running colleges and forming early versions of teachers' unions. Shortly after that, he asserts, leaders of the Unitarian Church seized control of Harvard and from that citadel of non-belief directed a successful campaign to secularize the entire nation.

In Mind Siege, LaHaye charges, "America's public education is purposely designed to eradicate Jesus from the scene and replace Him with the likes of John Dewey, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Wundt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and many more."

He predicted in 1980 that within 10 years Americans would be so fed up with the humanism of public schools that 50 percent of schoolchildren would be attending private Christian academies. (Parents apparently do not agree. About 90 percent of American children attend public schools, a figure that has remained stable since 1980.)

LaHaye's conspiratorial thinking and disdain for church-state separation and public education are well illustrated by the fictional preface to Mind Siege. Set in the year 2010, it opens with fundamentalist Christian students being arrested by an armed SWAT team for passing out anti-evolution tracts at a public school. LaHaye and Noebel later blast the idea that "man descended from monkeys," even though this is not what evolution teaches.

LaHaye has long been associated with Henry Morris, dean of the so-called "young Earth" school of creationism, which holds that the planet is only 6,000 years old and that the creation story of Genesis is scientifically accurate. Morris and LaHaye jointly founded the Institute for Creation Research in El Cajon, Calif., a leading "young Earth" organization. In 1974, LaHaye wrote the introduction to Morris' book The Troubled Waters of Evolution, asserting that the scientific theory is "the platform from which socialism, communism, humanism, determinism, and one-worldism have been launched."

LaHaye's views on other topics mimic established Religious Right positions. He is stridently anti-gay and once wrote a book, The Unhappy Gays, insisting that gay people can change and become heterosexual. He and his wife Beverly frequently attack women's rights and the idea of women working outside the home despite the fact that Beverly LaHaye has spent most of her adult years working outside the home, traveling around the nation and appearing on talk shows arguing that women ought to stop working outside the home.

Legal abortion, LaHaye wrote in The Battle for the Mind, is a result of the "amoral influence of humanism." If it is not stopped, he wrote, "we will soon have to apologize to Adolf Hitler."

LaHaye holds other odd views. As an early leader of the Religious Right, he once insisted that the federal government reserve 25 percent of all federal jobs for "born-again" Christians, since that is the percentage of the population they represent. In The Battle for the Mind, LaHaye asserts that since World War II, most members of the House of Representatives, Senate, presidential cabinets and the State Department have secretly been humanists who have labored to disarm the nation and deliver it up to the Soviets.

In 1985, LaHaye sparked controversy when he issued a newsletter to ACTV supporters calling on them to pray that God would engineer "the removal (by any means God sees fit) of at least three Supreme Court members while Ronald Reagan is president." The newsletter attacked the "aged flaming liberals of the Supreme Court" whom he said had handed down "disastrous" decisions on abortion and school prayer.

These days, at 75, LaHaye has slowed his overt political activism somewhat, but he and his wife have been using some of his fortune to prop up right-wing political candidates. In 2000, the LaHayes gave $500 to William J. Federer, an ultraconservative Republican who challenged House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt in Missouri. That same year, Beverly LaHaye gave $250 to Rick Lazio, who battled Hillary Clinton for a U.S. Senate seat in New York, and $500 to Demaris H. Miller, a Republican who went up against U.S. Rep. James P. Moran in Virginia.

Beverly LaHaye, who suffers from arthritis, has also slowed down a bit. She remains chairwoman of Concerned Women for America and continues to record "Beverly LaHaye Today," a daily radio program that airs on many Christian stations. CWA, which has an annual budget of more than $12 million and claims 600,000 members, is now run on a day-to-day basis by Sandy Rios, a former Christian radio talk show host.

Aside from political contributions, the LaHayes have made generous gifts to their old friend Jerry Falwell. In June, the LaHayes presented the Lynchburg TV preacher with a check for $4.5 million. The gift, Falwell said, would be matched with money from other sources and used to build a Tim and Beverly LaHaye Student Center at Liberty University, complete with a theater, video-game arcade, ice cream parlor, prayer rooms and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

LaHaye and Falwell also have a business deal in the works. Last month they launched the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy at Liberty, which will offer courses on End Times theology. On the school's website (www.schoolofprophecy.com), LaHaye describes the school as "a continuing one-year resident course of study taught by me and a faculty comprised of some of the most renowned Bible prophecy scholars in the world today." Tuition is normally $10,000 a year, but LaHaye and Falwell are offering an 80 percent discount for first 500 students who enroll this year. (For students who can't travel to Lynchburg, LaHaye offers a special video version of his prophecy classes for $750.)   

LaHaye is also working to expand the "Left Behind" franchise into other arenas. A film version of the first book was a huge flop in 2000, prompting LaHaye to take steps to gain more control over future big-screen adaptions. Angry over the movie's shoddy special effects, poor production values and shoestring budget of $17 million, LaHaye demanded that his name be removed from the credits then filed a lawsuit against the movie's producers. He has since formed his own production company and is working with the PAX Television Network on a TV show.

LaHaye and Jenkins are mining the series in other ways. There are versions of "Left Behind" for young readers, a comic book adaption, "Left Behind" t-shirts, a daily devotional guide, desk calendars and even a "Left Behind" board game. (In the game, players collect "Left Behind Tokens" that they can later use to defeat the Antichrist.)

For all of his earlier criticism of the major media as the playground of secular humanists, LaHaye has been quick to embrace film and television as a vehicle for spreading the religious and political message inherent in "Left Behind."

"We can enter into the arena of the most powerful vehicle the human mind ever invented," he told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in July. "Suppose the Lord doesn't come until 2100 and we give up now? That means our children will live in slavery to a one-world government unnecessarily."

Despite the books' popularity, most Christians disagree with the message and theology of the tomes. Critics, including many mainstream Bible scholars, note that the "Left Behind" books attempt to tie modern-day events to the Book of Revelation. Some find this offensive or just plain bad theology, insisting that Revelation cannot be arbitrarily read outside its First Century context.

LaHaye clearly believes differently, although he is careful to avoid setting specific end-times dates in the "Left Behind" books. In Are We Living in the End Times?, LaHaye and Jenkins strongly suggest that the current generation may see the end of the world but no matter when it happens, LaHaye is confident that the scenario laid out in his books is theologically sound and will unfold as he describes it in "Left Behind."

"It's going to be sudden, secret and take all of the born-again," LaHaye said of the Rapture in a May interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "It could take a half-billion or more people. The world will have to explain what happened, and then people will remember these books."

LaHaye also had words for critics who question his theology: "After a half-billion are gone, they will see it's true. Unfortunately for them, they will be left behind."