by Randall S. Frederick
In 1978, LaHaye published The Unhappy Gays, which he later retitled What Everyone Should Know About Homosexuality. The book called homosexuals “militant, organized” and “vile” arguing that gay people shared sixteen “pernicious” traits, including “incredible promiscuity, deceit, selfishness, vulnerability to sadism-masochism,” and “poor health and an early death.” He also insisted, until his death in 2016, that homosexuality could be “cured” or changed, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary by the psychological and medical community.
The language of militant organizations practicing vile wickedness was rather consistent across his novels, self-help manuals and workbooks, marriage conferences, nonfiction books, and interviews. The strange theories he had concocted, repeated, and promoted to explain shifts in culture as a result of Feminist progress and the political and social advances of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 70s became more aggressively hyperbolic, but the core ideas held constant. Gays wanted to kidnap children, they were often depressed, but they could be fixed. Women belonged in the home and their greatest contribution to the world was having children. Uppity black people needed to re-read the words of the Bible. Europe was the seat of demonic activity in the world.
Galvanized by his pervasive anger, outright falsehoods became facts. It wasn’t just “the gays.” LaHaye also believed that the Illuminati secretly engineered world affairs, for instance. In Rapture Under Attack he 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.
The Illuminati was just one of many groups that he believed were (and perhaps still are) working to “turn America into an amoral, humanist country, ripe for merger into a one-world socialist state.” Other secret societies and liberal groups worked together in the shadows to destroy “every vestige of Christianity”, according to LaHaye. These groups included the Trilateral Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, “the major TV networks, high-profile newspapers and newsmagazines,” the State Department, major foundations (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford), the United Nations, “the left wing of the Democratic Party”, Harvard, Yale “and 2,000 other colleges and universities.”
In Mind Seige, an updating of his 1974 work Battle for the Mind, LaHaye expanded his list of secret organizations to include other offenders of what he incorrectly called “secular humanism.” The book’s central thesis was the propagation of the theory that there are many groups, secret societies, and liberal groups, working to “turn America into an amoral, humanist country, ripe for merger into a one-world socialist state.” The groups allegedly involved in the conspiracy include:
- The American Civil Liberties Union
- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
- The National Organization for Women
- The National Endowment for the Arts
- The National Association of Biology Teachers
- Planned Parenthood
- The “major TV networks, high-profile newspapers, and newsmagazines”
- The United States Department of State
- The major philanthropic foundations:
- The Rockefeller Foundation
- The Carnegie Foundation
- The Ford Foundation
- The World Council of Churches
- The National Council of Churches
- The United Nations
- The “left wing of the Democratic Party”
- The Democratic Socialists of America
- “2,000 other colleges and universities”.
Perhaps one of the unnamed colleges and universities is my own, Southeastern Louisiana University, where I teach Freshman Composition and American Literature. In one of my American Lit classes in 2018, I recall saying that the first and “primary concern of the Founders was not giving people guns, but giving them the freedom to express their ideas without punishment.” A student once accused me of being a Socialist when I said, accurately, that the First Amendment was not about gun rights but instead free speech. I even read the Amendments to him, but he maintained that the First Amendment was about gun rights. Pointing to the actual text of the First and Second Amendments made me a Socialist.
LaHaye is not alone in conspiratorial thinking, however. Nor is he the first (or last) to claim universities and colleges are hotbeds of Satanic influence. Frank Peretti, a Christian horror author, made a career of depicting evil in universities and shadow governments.
Conspiratorial thinking is not necessarily a feature of Christian literature. Francine Rivers wrote several Christian romance novels, several of which were made into thoughtful low-budget movies. Jerry Jenkins wrote mystery novels and young adult novels when he was not co-authoring the Left Behind series. Jeff Berryman wrote interesting character studies about Christians experiencing an existential crisis like his 2022 Leaving Ruin. And in terms of fantasy, LaHaye may have sold millions of books but he was unable to replace the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or the seminal Lord of the Rings by life-long Roman Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien.
LaHaye was a harsh critic of Roman Catholicism, which he frequently referred to as a false religion, even a cult. In his 1973 book Revelation Illustrated and Made Plain, he stated that the Catholic Church “is more dangerous than no religion because she substitutes religion for truth” and “is also dangerous because some of her doctrines are pseudo-Christian.” Elsewhere the same book compared Catholic ceremonies to pagan rituals. It was statements like these that were responsible for LaHaye’s dismissal from Jack Kemp’s 1988 presidential campaign. It was also later revealed that Scott Memorial Baptist Church, the San Diego church that LaHaye had pastored throughout the 1970s, had sponsored an anti-Catholic group called Mission to Catholics; one of their pamphlets asserted that Pope Paul VI was the “archpriest of Satan, a deceiver, and an antichrist, who has, like Judas, gone to his own place.”
The issue of anti-Catholicism also comes up in regard to the Left Behind series. While the fictional Pope John XXIV was raptured, he is described as having “stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the ‘heresy’ of Martin Luther than with the historic orthodoxy they were used to.” It is implied that this is the reason the fictional Pope was raptured, because of his similarity to Protestant reformer Martin Luther. In the novels, Pope John XXIV’s successor, Pope Peter II becomes Pontifex Maximus of Enigma Babylon One World Faith, an amalgamation of all remaining world faiths and religions, another feature of LaHaye’s conspiracy theories. Further, in The Desecration, the ninth novel in the Left Behind series, global political leader and archvillain Nicolae Carpathia specifically refutes all happenings at Jesus’ crucifixion that are part of the Catholic stations of the Cross but not in the canonical gospels, further undercutting Catholic traditions. The logic here, presumably, is that if even the antichrist is able to easily deconstruct Catholic teaching, it must be false. However, that logic doesn’t hold when Carpathia deconstructs Protestant theology, where his dismissiveness is indicative of its legitimacy and truth. Other Catholic writers have said that while the books aren’t “anti-Catholic, per se” they reflect LaHaye’s other writings on the subject. Curiously, despite his strong anti-Catholic views, he praised traditionalist Catholic director Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, saying that “Everyone should see this movie. It could be Hollywood’s finest achievement to date” and endorsed yet another failed political campaign for the White House when Catholic convert Newt Gingrich ran for president in 2012.
When weighed together, LaHaye’s work – in terms of reframing patriarchal marriages, in terms of allowing and accepting anger in males and insisting on submission and tolerance from females, in terms of politics, social cohesion, dogma, and unhinged theology along with unconscionable accusations against non-white, non-heterosexual, non-Protestant, and in terms of long-standing conspiracy theories against anyone and especially any group or organization that did not hold similar ultraconservative views – contributed substantially to the current climate of conspiracy theories that have replaced theological or social discourse in Evangelicalism. Perhaps, more than anyone else, LaHaye “tilled the soil” of rancor and division that defines America in the first quarter of the 21st Century, the constant anxiety and suspicion of one another.
As C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, “There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy.” Tragically, in Lewis’ story, the Enemy is God. “All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged… Tortured fear and stupid confidence are both desirable states of mind.”
Heather Cox Richardson captures so much of the American landscape in her newsletter, Letters from an American. In her daily briefing for August 3, 2022, she writes:
During the Trump administration, after an extensive investigation, the Republican-dominated Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that “the Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multifaceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election…by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin.”
But that effort was not just about the election. It was “part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society…a vastly more complex and strategic assault on the United States than was initially understood…the latest installment in an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States.” It was “a sustained campaign of information warfare against the United States aimed at influencing how this nation’s citizens think about themselves, their government, and their fellow Americans.”
That effort is not limited to foreign nationals. This week, Alex Jones, a purveyor of conspiracy theories and false information on his InfoWars network—the tagline is “There’s a War on For Your Mind!”—is part of a civil trial to determine damages in his defamation of the parents of one of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre in which 26 people, 20 of them small children, were murdered.
Jones claimed that the massacre wasn’t real, and his listeners harassed the grieving families. A number of families sued him. In the case currently in the news, Jones refused for years to comply with orders to hand over documents and evidence, so finally, in September, District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble of Travis County, Texas, issued a default judgment holding him responsible for all damages. Since the judge has repeatedly had to reprimand Jones for lying under oath during this trial, it seems that Jones intended simply to continue spinning a false story of his finances, his business practices, and his actions.
The construction of a world based on lies is a key component of authoritarians’ takeover of democratic societies. George Orwell’s 1984 explored a world in which those in power use language to replace reality, shaping the past and people’s daily experiences to cement their control. They are constantly reconstructing the past to justify their actions in the present. In Orwell’s dystopian fantasy, Winston Smith’s job is to rewrite history for the Ministry of Truth to reflect the changing interests of a mysterious cult leader, Big Brother, who wants power for its own sake and enforces loyalty through The Party’s propaganda and destruction of those who do not conform.
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt went further, saying that the lies of an authoritarian were designed not to persuade people, but to organize them into a mass movement. Followers would “believe everything and nothing,” Arendt wrote, “think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” “The ideal subject” for such a dictator, Arendt wrote, was not those who were committed to an ideology, but rather “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction…and the distinction between true and false…no longer exist.”
It has been a source of frustration to those eager to return our public debates to ones rooted in reality that lies that have built a certain right-wing personality cannot be punctured because of the constant sowing of confusion around them. Part of why the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has been so effective is that it has carefully built a story out of verifiable facts. Because House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) withdrew the pro-Trump Republicans from the committee, we have not had to deal with the muddying of the water by people like Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), who specializes in bullying and hectoring to get sound bites that later turn up in on right-wing channels in a narrative that mischaracterizes what actually happened.
But today something happened that makes puncturing the bubble of disinformation personal. In the damages trial, the lawyer for the Sandy Hook parents, Mark Bankston, revealed that Jones’s attorney accidentally shared a digital copy of two years’ worth of the texts and emails on Jones’s phone and, when alerted to the error, didn’t declare it privileged. Thus Bankston is reviewing the material and has said that Jones lied under oath. This material includes both texts and financial reports that Jones apparently said didn’t exist.
This is a big deal for the trial, of course—perjury is a crime—and it is a bigger deal for those who have believed InfoWars, since it reveals how profitable the lies have been. Bankston revealed that for all of Jones’s claims of low income, in 2018 InfoWars made between $100,000 and $200,000 a day, and some days they made $800,000. But there is more. People calculating the math will note that if indeed there are two years of records on that phone, the messages will include the weeks around the events of January 6, 2021.
Adam Rawnsley and Asawin Suebsaeng of Rolling Stone report that the January 6th committee will request the text messages and emails, which should cover the period around January 6. Jones, who has already spoken with the committee, played a role in the events of that day, whipping up supporters and speaking at a rally on January 5. He is also close to Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, who appeared often on Jones’s InfoWars show and provided Jones’s security. When he testified before the committee, Jones invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 100 times.
The January 6 insurrection relied on the Big Lie that Donald Trump had won the 2020 election, a lie that has dramatically destabilized our country. Republicans have only deepened their commitment to that lie since January 6. After yesterday’s Republican primaries, in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, all key states for 2024, election deniers have clinched the Republican nomination for secretary of state—the person in charge of elections—or the governor who would appoint that officer.
In Arizona, Republican candidate for governor Kari Lake claimed there was fraud in her election, without evidence and even before the votes had been counted. “I’m gonna go supernova radioactive,” she told supporters. “We’re not gonna let them steal an election.” (Lake’s election is still unresolved as ballots are being counted.)
If indeed Jones’s phone turns out to have key texts that go to the January 6 committee, it might provide more facts that will help to diminish the Big Lie. Tonight another piece of information about that lie came from Maggie Haberman and Luke Broadwater, who reported in the New York Times that John Eastman, the lawyer who produced the memo explaining the plan to have then–vice president Mike Pence overturn the 2020 presidential election, told Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani that they must continue to fight even after January 6, suggesting they contest Georgia’s election of Jon Ossoff and the Reverend Raphael Warnock to the Senate in the hope that those races might yield the evidence of voter fraud that until then they hadn’t found. “A lot of us have now staked our reputations on the claims of election fraud, and this would be a way to gather proof,” he wrote.
Eastman also asked Giuliani to help him collect a $270,000 fee from the Trump campaign for his work on overturning the election, and he implied that the effort could be ongoing.
Way back in 2004, an advisor to President George W. Bush told journalist Ron Suskind that people like Suskind were in “the reality-based community”: they believed people could find solutions based on their observations and careful study of discernible reality. But, the aide continued, such a worldview was obsolete. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore…. We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
I wonder if reality is starting to reassert itself.Heather Cox Richardson, “Letters from an American” newsletter for August 3, 2022
This is not a new development, but a uniquely American one.
As Daniel J. Boorstin wrote in 1961’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” Or as Kurt Andersen’s 2017 essay for The Atlantic, “How America Went Haywire” puts it,
Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half-century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.Kurt Andersen, The Atlantic “How America Went Haywire” (2017)
Andersen expounds on this in his 2017 work, Fantasyland, noting that conspiratorial thinking is a foundational part of America and Evangelicals, who have taken a buffet approach to the Enlightenment – they take what they want and demonize anything that doesn’t serve their current theories. It’s so much a part of the American experience that comedians are even able to lampoon our loose grasp on reality and have us laugh at how silly we sound. In 2005, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, comedian Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness.
Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart … Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart … Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, episode 101 (October 17, 2005)
In the last six years, rabid conspiracy theories about pedophile rings, shadow governments, alien landings, child sacrifices performed by former presidents and their wives, and the “infiltration” of social justice reform in governmental agencies and local police forces has held sway, shaping everything from elections to pizza parlors to family dinners. Conspiracy theories surrounded efforts to control the Covid-19 virus, causing many to refuse vaccinations for fear that seeking medical care would trigger government watchlists. And of course, as Richardson noted, there was the insurrection on January 6, 2021. As Andersen punctuates, “If the ’60s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it.”
The battle, as LaHaye would put it, is in the mind. “The battle for what?” we may ask. For, well, everything. Our relationships, a safe and hospitable world for our children, our governments, our churches, even our physical and psychological health. The idea of a multifaceted “war” for every part of the human experience is certainly not a new one. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, talks about a war between good and evil and reminds his audience that, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Many who leave Evangelical communities speak of a persistent sense of fatigue anytime they recall their experiences inside of the churches they left. I’m one of them. Family members, even my therapist, have encouraged me to revisit my experiences within Evangelicalism and I find that each time I do, I am wiped out for the rest of the day. Being at “war” in every area of life, from childhood into adulthood, was exhausting. My body feels tired and heavy, sluggish. My mind becomes cloudy, and a sense of hopelessness overtakes the spiritual parts of my life – I’m less inclined to pray, to believe, to hope, to love my neighbor or even be present. I “time travel” and get stuck in loops, replaying conversations and sermons, becoming filled with regret and shame. Still, the more I talk to others, the more I realize this is not a unique experience. If, as LaHaye claims, we are engaged in a battle for the mind, is it any wonder that so many of us believe this is a private battle? When sin is framed as a personal matter, when we are taught to question and challenge the thoughts and intentions within ourselves, then the consequences of that battle comingle with guilt and shame for every human activity imaginable long after we exit the battlefield.
This confusion is exacerbated by the prevalence of conspiracy theories that create and sustain the destabilization of a sense of reality. In war, there is a sense of uncertainty. Threats exist everywhere. And for LaHaye and other Evangelicals, there has not yet been a reckoning with the ways in which these ministers of good news always seem to focus on bad news, the ways in which their think tanks become echo chambers, perpetuating falsehoods and crackpot theories.
Yesterday, Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist that Richardson discussed, was found responsible in court for spreading disinformation that caused intentional damage and emotional distress to the families of children who were killed. The court awarded $4 million in damages to the family. It makes me wonder about the unintentional damage caused by religious leaders.
LaHaye was certainly instrumental in facilitating the current climate of instability in churches, politics, marriages, and even at the individual level in the therapy sessions of those trying to learn new ways of healing beyond the repression of anger and veneer of domesticity described by LaHaye and his wife. But, sadly, he was not the only conspiracy theorist in Evangelicalism. He was not the only one to profit from the destabilization of Evangelicalism or American politics.
Continued in part III, coming soon