“We would rather run ourselves down than not to
speak of ourselves at all.”

—La Rochefoucauld

It is a signal of things to come that Gerard Thomas Straub opens his book Salvation for Sale: An Insider’s View of Pat Robertson’s Ministry with a list of quotations that begins with Miguel de Unamuno and winds up with Woody Allen. It is a big signal that the middle of the list (which precedes a Preface that is followed by a Prologue—will this book never start?) holds a shiny offering from Kahlil Gibran.

This resolutely eclectic collection is our first peek into the knapsack of a spiritual wanderer. And through the course of this book he will return time and again to his goody bag, there to find the extracted thoughts of, among many others, Rollo May, Thomas Jefferson, W.C. Fields, Thoreau, Gandhi, and “the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.” These are Mr. Straub’s souvenirs from a “lifelong spiritual odyssey,” a quest for Truth that has taken him from a “guiltridden” Roman Catholic boyhood to “a humanistic philosophy” to an exploration of “Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism” to his current spiritual resting place.

He begins this journey of “torment, prayer and pain” by calling out, “Who was I?” Beats me. Three hundred pages later he asks, “What am I?” and we resist the temptation to tell him. Never mind. He’ll tell us. He is not a believer in “God”; he is a believer in “the probable existence of God and the absolute importance of searching for my own personal truth.” He believes “man is a mystery in the midst of a mystery”; that God is a spot on a treasure map and “the spot is everywhere and nowhere”; that “to listen to and evaluate all the various pieces of advice offered by a diversified multitude would lead to a decision that might be founded in wisdom”; that “confusion and doubt are natural”; that we should all “say it with silence” (and oh, that the author had looked harder at that last little trinket). In other words, Mr. Straub’s beliefs are a grab bag of Eastern mysticism, secular humanism, and Shirley MacLaineism. Sort of an offshoot of The Universe Is So Universal-ism.

Periodically Mr. Straub pulls his head from his knapsack long enough to debate himself on the real definition of sin, the real significance of the Bible, and the real “role God wants to play.” He also takes time to explain the meaning of “authentic Christianity” and the reason so few Christians grasp it. Coming from a man who has replaced basic Christian doctrine with the idea that God the spot is everywhere and nowhere, this is like being lectured by a vegetarian on the proper way to grill a steak. The first question here is. What’s it to you? Since the nature of the author’s thinking precisely matches his idea of God, it’s hard to tell. But it has something to do with a meat eater named Pat Robertson.

On the road to becoming a mystery in the midst of a mystery, Gerard Straub made a pit stop at Pentecostal Fundamentalism, from which he has fashioned this “expose of Christian television.” Feeling “a responsibility to share with the public the dangers . . . in the electronic church,” he moves first to expose the “born-again phenomenon” to an “unsuspecting” America. These revelations are worth going into because in addition to being the big come-on for this book, they provide the only laugh break on a very long trip.

Mr. Straub, who spent two and a half years in Pat Robertson’s ministry as a born-again producer of The 700 Club, was “stunned” repeatedly during that time by his discovery of the following facts. Hold on to your hat. Ignoring all opportunities for “critical examination,” Pentecostals believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and a literal interpretation of Scripture. They believe “they are in direct contact with the Almighty” and have a personal relationship with Jesus. They believe Hell is a real place and that all unsaved souls end up there, “even if they are devout Jews [or] Muslims.” What’s more, they “disregard” Gandhi’s “tremendous respect for Jesus” and consign him to Hell too. They believe in salvation by grace, divine healing, speaking in tongues, and the power of prayer. They believe also in the Second Coming and the events surrounding it (about which the author says: “This was all news to me”). They spend much time, effort, and money—often through the medium of television—trying to convince others to believe as they do. This makes them a “secret kingdom.” Finally, along about 1984, well after leaving the “fortress of fundamentalism,” Mr. Straub “could not help but notice” that evangelical Christians had become “extremely political.”

Humdingers all, especially that last one, a discovery whose timing suggests that Mr. Straub spent at least one leg of his spiritual odyssey in a cave somewhere.

As for the promise of “shocking anecdotes” about Pat Robertson’s ministry, that promise is as rich as the author’s account of the born-again phenomenon. Ready? Pat Robertson believes what he says he believes, totally. So do the people around him. He employs on his audiences “all kinds of oratorical tricks to bring [his] message alive,” including the ability “to exhort, rebuke, threaten, cajole, and entice,” as well as the “persuasive and moving power of frightening . . . metaphors, parables, allegories, [and] paradoxes.” (Could this be what’s known as preaching?) He asks for money from viewers, who voluntarily send him a lot of it. He once offered a spontaneous, sincere, and apparently effective prayer for the healing of a man in his studio audience, but never revealed that the man died soon after. He is a blunt and demanding boss.

There’s more. Some salvation and healing testimonies that come into Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network are later filmed by CBN crews who have no interest in functioning as “investigative reporters” or “a team of skeptics.” While in Jerusalem, CBN staffers left Christian tracts on the pavement, in the hope that they would be seen by Orthodox Jews. Twenty-four employees were once fired for economy reasons. No one at the Christian Broadcasting Network ever wanted to discuss the teachings of Gandhi with Mr. Straub.

Last, apparently on the unheard-of principle that the man in charge gets to call the shots, Pat Robertson has strict rules against smoking, drinking, and extramarital sex, rules that were accepted by all employees and broken by some employees, including the author, who was observed breaking the second rule, caught lying about the third rule, and summarily canned. He claims to have been followed before the firing and to have been told by “the vice president” (no names are ever given) that his office phone was tapped. These are unattractive facts, if true, but in any case, they did not prompt a flood of indignation from Mr. Straub. He was sorry for the affair, sorry for the lie, and “devastated” by his “forced exodus” from a job he “loved” among “the nicest people with whom [he] had ever worked.” (A large portion of the book is devoted to this affair, and to the author’s failed marriage, and to his explanation that both are connected somehow to his “parents’ sexually repressive attitudes” toward what he calls his youthful “arousement,” and then there’s something about life being “like wearing a Halloween mask in June,” and take my word, more than that you don’t want to know.)

His “investigation” complete, his case airtight—and being, by the way, one who has made every effort at “understanding and appreciating other faiths,” one whose “nature much prefer[s] gentleness” and whose “tireless tolerance” extends all the way from smokers (“we should be tolerant and understanding of the smoker”) to pornographers (“at worst, they are people who don’t know any better”)—Mr. Straub proceeds to label Pat Robertson, directly or by association, a “ruthless con artist,” a “scoundrel,” and a “bigot,” as well as “a threat to all free-thinking, freedom-loving Americans who respect the dignity of humanity and who desire to live in peace and harmony with each other and the world.” Somewhere along the way, the word “madness” is thrown in. And he’s not finished yet. Twice he compares Robertson’s beliefs and methods to those of Adolph Hitler. And with the entrance of Hitler comes the second question about Mr. Straub: Is the inability to make sense of any kind an excuse for a comparison that is, from several perspectives, despicable? (It doesn’t seem to matter much that the answer is no, since “Hitler” is invariably the last belch of every sloppy mind on a moral toot.)

What, exactly, is this man’s problem? As near as I can figure it, he has two. First, there is Pat Robertson’s “hidden agenda,” which Mr. Straub wants revealed to the public, right now: Pat Robertson is thinking of running for President. This upsets Mr. Straub because Robertson’s insistence on embracing one religion at a time makes him “a threat to all freethinking, freedom-loving, etc., etc.” Mr. Straub never really explains why this poses such a threat (unless you count the fact that the religion being embraced is Fundamentalism); he simply repeats his assertion that “God is not a member of any political party,” becoming a little more hysterical each time.

But then, during yet another private debate on the definition of sin (conclusion: sin “is a religious term”), an odd thing happens. In a totally unaccountable burst of insight, the author stamps his foot and pipes, “God gave us free will, and Pat Robertson and the religious right cannot take it away from us.” If Mr. Straub were less committed to the belief that confusion is natural, he might be able to see that free will travels right into the voting booth, where Americans—a “diversified multitude” of them—demonstrate a time-tested willingness to enlighten Presidential candidates who fail to appreciate their diversity (or their commonality).

The second of Mr. Straub’s problems—and this would seem to contradict his claim of free will, but what else is new?—is his certainty that none of us, not one, “is immune to the lure of the hucksters of holiness . . . that dominate religious television.” They could “hook anybody,” he tells us—”a movie star, a college professor, a corporate executive.” And if these folks could hook “a transcendental meditation teacher,” if they could hook “even an astronaut,” if they could hook—and here’s the important part—a man familiar with both Kahlil Gibran and Woody Allen, then it’s for sure that every “poorly trained spiritual conscience,” every “naive yet well-intentioned” viewer, every “poor soul” and “common man” is done for. His patronizing concern for the capacity of what he calls “the masses” to think for themselves raises the third and final question about Mr. Straub: Aren’t guys like this a pain?

In his Postscript (which follows an Epilogue—will this book never end?), the author, one last time, displays a Thought, this one his own: “The ability to constantly question has two enemies: the desire for constancy and the holding of convictions.” What do you know—the man’s finally on to something. “Next year,” he continues, “I hope that I’m not as ignorant as I was this year.” (And I, for one, have my fingers crossed.) Then, bringing his Thought full circle, he concludes, “[C]onsistency requires that I be just as ignorant.” Perhaps I’ll just say it with silence.


[Salvation for Sale: An Insider’s View of Pat Robertson’s Ministry, by Gerard Thomas Straub; Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books]