By Deanne Stillman
Letter From the West is a monthly series by Deanne Stillman that explores what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to one another and all that lives there.
California may be a blue state in terms of voting patterns, but it’s very involved in red state politics, if you consider the role of evangelical voters—as Obama himself did when he asked Pastor Rick Warren of Orange County’s Saddleback Church to give the invocation at his inauguration. To make sure that Newt Gingrich won’t be left behind in the South Carolina primary election, Southern California-based Timothy LaHaye, author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series of books, has just endorsed him. In doing so, LaHaye provides a rapture-ready seal of approval for the former speaker of the House, and may deliver enough votes to upset Mitt Romney, a Mormon whose church has a different approach to saving people, often involving sending young men to France, which was where Mitt once preached “The Book of Mormon”—this, not this. (The latter, by the way, is one of the best American plays in recent memory.)
In the case of the LaHaye endorsement, the idea is that Gingrich is ready to meet his maker … or at least he knows that certain things need to be in place for the Messiah to return and usher in the end times. If you don’t know what those things are, click here for my look at the biblical breakdown, and find out about the hottest affair on the planet—evangelicals and the Holy Land. Are rapture A-listers correct in their literal interpretation of the good book? Well, we may be on a fast track to doomsday as I write this—if you believe along with millions of others that bar codes on consumer goods are a sign of the apocalypse. I happen to count myself among that group, although I’m not sure why we have to decode the New Testament for the news. In any case, now that Gingrich has received LaHaye’s endorsement, I can’t get the following image out of my head: President Gingrich is in the Oval Office, taking that critical 3 a.m. phone call. Our nation has just been attacked! In the middle of the call, he ascends through the roof of the White House as the Messiah makes a landing in Israel. Big surf ravages the land and the fur flies in many nations. Those who are not rapture ready are left behind, at which point the looting begins—and bar codes are instantly meaningless!
Can a nod from LaHaye really make this happen? Perhaps not. To hurry things along, Jerry Falwell has also checked in with an endorsement—from the grave. “As my friend, the late pastor Dr. Jerry Falwell told me personally,” LaHaye said, “ ‘Speaker Newt Gingrich is the most qualified man in America to run as president of the United States.’ ”
Certainly blessings from religious figures for presidential candidates—as well as commanders in chief themselves—are nothing new. We often speak of a separation between church and state in this country, but on some level it doesn’t exist. Is there any living ex-president who hasn’t conferred with Billy Graham moments before launching a war? And what about the role of the black church during the civil rights era? Dr. Martin Luther King’s alliance with the Kennedy brothers—President John and Sen. Bobby—had deep ramifications; without the involvement of the black church in the South, there would have been no civil rights legislation. And then there was Jimmy Carter—a deacon! A man of the Word (cloth? Cloth?) in the very Oval Office, a living embrace of God and the Constitution.
Of course, let’s not forget the curious case of Bill Clinton. After the strange public flogging in which Republicans basically forced him to drop his pants (remember all of the discussion about his penis during the Paula Jones hearings?), he hied himself to a prayer breakfast, where he repented in front of network microphones as—who else?—Graham presided.
Strangely, Clinton’s fate may have been affected by another dead pastor, an evangelical from California who fanned the Jones flames from upstairs, helping to create a situation whereby the president was almost burned at the stake. I speak here of Aimee Semple McPherson—“Sister Aimee,” as she was known—founder of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel in Los Angeles during the 1920s. With her theatrical sermons and flair for luring the press, she was not just the most renowned revivalist of the day but one of the most celebrated women in the country. On the day she “drowned” in Santa Monica Bay, a Cecil B. DeMille film opening went coverage-free while reporters swarmed the beach to cover the search for her body.
During the Jones scandal, Sister Aimee returned from the dead. For the second time. The first time was in 1926, after she faked her own drowning and ran off for an illicit love affair, only to return following her memorial service and claim that she had been kidnapped. She died in 1944 and was buried with her telephone, lest she fall out of touch with her legions of parishioners. Years later, someone may have picked up the phone: This was Susan Carpenter McMillan, an astute and formidable conservative activist who at the time of the Jones scandal lived in San Marino, a wealthy enclave next to Pasadena. To the dismay of liberals, she took up the cause of Jones, whose case was about to go the way of former O.J. girlfriend Paula Barbieri’s memoir until McMillan came along.
As a child, McMillan worshipped at Sister Aimee’s church. McMillan’s mother and grandmother were ordained ministers there, her mother attending McPherson’s seminary for four years. But it was McPherson who attracted the crowds. Every Sunday, legions of the down-and-out converged at Sister Aimee’s Angelus Temple in Echo Park for the melodrama advertised movie-style on the sanctuary’s marquee. Dressed up as a football player, she carried the ball for Christ. As a fireman, she put out the fires of evil. She exploded onto stage as a motorcycle cop, placing sin under arrest. Strange things were afoot in the promised land: Healed devotees heaved crutches, braces and prosthetic devices onto an ever-growing mountain of testimony to McPherson’s powers. The halt, the lame and the sick had a voice, and newspapers had a story.
Although Sister Aimee was no longer alive when McMillan first attended services, such was the religious atmosphere of McMillan’s childhood, the beginnings of the path that could lead to, of all destinations, the public viewing of the president’s private parts. “I loved the Foursquare Church,” McMillan said at the time. “Although as I got older I wanted something a little more sedate. But I grew up with powerful female role models. Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the first feminists of the century, one of the great champions of the downtrodden.” To be sure, her followers had “mall hair” way before there were malls. They were not stylish. They read the wrong magazines. Kind of like … Paula Jones.
Until McMillan came along, the Jones case had nearly faded away. It was telling that the case was born again in Los Angeles, and carried aloft by McMillan. When Jones’ original legal team quit the case, McMillan helped her find representation, despite her first lawyers having rendered the task nearly impossible by filing an $800,000 lien against the pending suit. Whether it was rushing to a deposition or waving to reporters as they left Jones’ Long Beach apartment, McMillan was always right there, hand at her elbow, helping the most ridiculed woman in America walk and talk. She may have even supervised a makeover; Jones went from an afternoon talk show look to evening around the time that McMillan entered this story.
In the end Jones settled her claim against Clinton. But it was the first time in American history that a citizen had taken a sitting president to court. It was also the strangest thing to happen to the presidency since Sammy Davis Jr. told Richard Nixon that he had soul (though he did have a surprising, secret side; click here for details). It occurred to me at the time that otherworldly forces may have been swirling around Jones, the beleaguered girl from Arkansas. McMillan was at her side, but it was the voice of McPherson who was guiding that case, showing the way to redemption, lighting the path of the socially awkward as she called out across time, over her crypt-bound hookup in Forest Lawn, graveyard of golden dreamers. “Sister Susan,” came the message, “you just make Bill Clinton march right over there and apologize to Sister Paula. And if that doesn’t work, then the whole world’s gonna see the Clinton family jewels. Then we’ll find out who’s got balls. Pardon my language, but I’m dead and I can say what I want. Now praise the Lord! And please put some money in the tray on your way out. Sister Aimee needs to pay her phone bill.”
What counsel will Gingrich seek if he’s elected president? If Falwell checks in from the beyond, what will he say? Of course, we do not know, but surely private entreaties for guidance may involve a higher power and perhaps the dear departed as well, for who among us does not seek this light and favor? But regardless of outcome in the election, California will be a factor, urging evangelical voters one way or another, whispering thoughts, suggestions and even commands. After all, it’s the state where the entire population is born again, where everyone goes to start over, reinvent, make up stories about the past, present and future, as far west as you can go without being left behind, the alpha and the omega of end times.
AP / Mary Ann Chastain
Authors of “Glorious Appearing,” Tim LaHaye right, and Jerry B. Jenkins, sign their 12th and final book in the “Left Behind” series during its national release in March 2004.