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Who would have imagined that when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole lashed out at Hollywood during the 1996 campaign, it would bear fruit four years later? In fact, the Bush presidency may usher in a golden age for evangelicals in the entertainment industry, giving them their biggest opening in many years.
By the end of the year 2000, Cloud Ten Pictures had shipped more than two million copies of the video version of Left Behind-The Movie. The film, made with a $17 million dollar budget, set a record for a Christian production. It is based on the first book in the wildly popular Left Behind series that has sold close to eight million copies—heading Amazon.com's bestseller list for a month. If you haven't heard about this movie, don't worry, you will. Left Behind-The Movie was released in early February. The man behind the Left Behind book series is no stranger to fundamentalist Christians and those following the political developments of the Christian Right over the past 25 years.
With the Rev. Jerry Falwell he co-founded the Moral Majority. He's a graduate of the ultra- conservative Bob Jones University. In 1987, he was forced to resign as national co-chair of Representative Jack Kemp's presidential campaign. He was the paid chair of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's now defunct Coalition for Religious Freedom. His latest novel in the Left Behind series was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than three months. He's the Rev. Tim LaHaye and he's having the time of his life.
LaHaye and his co-author Jerry B. Jenkins are the creators of the Christian fundamentalist Left Behind series. Their latest installment, the seventh book in the series, is called The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession. According to the New York Times, with more than 1.9 million copies in advance orders, this work has accomplished “an unparalleled achievement for an evangelical novel”—a brief, yet historic appearance in the number one spot on both the Amazon.com and the New York Times' best-selling fiction lists.
According to USA Today, Rev. LaHaye, a retired Southern Baptist minister, has written about 40 nonfiction books on subjects ranging from religion to relationships and family.” However, the Rev. LaHaye doesn't write the novels, he is the “engineer” and Jenkins is the “mechanic”; LaHaye provides the vision and plot, while Jenkins does the writing. (Jenkins has been on bestseller lists several time before, having written biographies for sports heroes, including former Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, and assisting Rev. Billy Graham with his best-selling memoir, Just As I Am.)
Born in 1928, the 73-year-old Rev. LaHaye has a long history of involvement in Religious Right organizations and activities. In 1989, the Unification Church-owned Washington Times newspaper described him as “one of the lightning-rod clergy of the Religious Right.” Rev. LaHaye earned a doctorate from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, was president of Family Life Seminars, co-founder of the Moral Majority, founder of the American Coalition for Traditional Values, and an organizer of the Council on National Policy (CNP), a highly secretive, ultra-conservative organization comprised of almost every major right-wing leader and personality in the country. (In October 1999, then Texas Governor George W. Bush addressed the CNP; the transcript of his remarks remains unreleased.)
LaHaye's wife, Beverly, whom he met at Bob Jones University, is founder of the conservative Concerned Women for America, an organization that claims to be America's largest women's public policy group. Beverly LaHaye was most recently seen rallying the troops on behalf of Senator John Ashcroft's confirmation as Attorney General. She is also co-author, with Terri Blackstock, of two very popular Christian-themed novels, Seasons Under Heaven and Showers in Season: Book Two.
Guy Manchester, author of Acts of the Apostles, a novel about theocracy in America, writes in Freedom Writer, a publication of the Institute for First Amendment Studies: “Today, LaHaye has gone from activist to novelist. Instead of using sensational fundraising letters to exploit people's fears, he writes sensational novels. One might say that he's exchanged one form of fiction for another. Yet, in his new role, he's reaching more people than he ever dreamed of back at the Moral Majority.”
In an article for the Southern California Christian Times, Rev. LaHaye wrote, “Most of all, I believe God has chosen to bless this series. In doing so, he's giving the country and maybe the world, one last, big wake-up call before the events transpire.”
What is the message behind the Left Behind series? Manchester writes that the phrase “left behind” derives from “the Christian fundamentalist belief in the Rapture, that is, at the sound of a trumpet, Jesus will soon appear in the clouds to take believers up to meet him, thus escaping the horrible calamities foretold in the Book of Revelation.” Those who do not believe [in Jesus] are left behind to “engage in a three-and-a-half year battle with the forces of Satan.”
According to the dogma, Jews, amongst others, will be left behind to suffer during “the Great Tribulation” as this period is called. But before it's over “144,000 of them will accept Jesus as their savior. The rest will perish.” The message, as Rev. LaHaye told Larry King, is that you must accept Jesus or be left behind. These ideas may lend themselves to fiction, but in politics these views get you into heaps of trouble, particularly with some of those slated to be left behind. In 1987, in some of his more incendiary writings, LaHaye called Catholicism “a false religion” and wrote, “the reason for Jerusalem's historic troubles was the rejection by Jews of Jesus.”
For Rev. LaHaye, getting the message out via fiction is proving to be more profitable than sending out fundraising letters. To date the Left Behind series has earned its authors more than $10 million.
What's next for LaHaye and company? Several books remain in the Left Behind series. Then there's the movie based on the first book in the series, which, if successful, could spawn several sequels. Actor Kirk Cameron, best known as the star of the hit television series “Growing Pains,” plays the lead role in the film. According to AFR News, Cameron, a committed Christian, is excited by the part. “It's just a great, great story that will make people consider their life in light of the truth of the Rapture,” Cameron says. “If the Rapture were to happen tomorrow…if people were to start really thinking about that and thinking about the genuineness of their faith…would they be left behind?”
Although the Left Behind series is rewriting the record book for sales of Christian books, many Christians in the entertainment industry believe that film and television will become the most effective venues for spreading the word. In The Intersection of Hollywood and Christianity, appearing in the December 2000 issue of NRB, the monthly magazine of the National Religious Broadcasters, Doug Trouten, senior editor for Beard Publications and a journalism teacher at Northeastern College in St. Paul, MN, writes optimistically about the future of “movies with a message”: “If Left Behind, The Omega Code and The Ride show that it's possible to create a film with a strong Christian message and to have it succeed in the world of secular movie distribution, then ABC's “The Miracle Maker” breaks the same barrier for network television.” Judith Tukich, a Christian who is director of synergy and special products for ABC, was largely responsible for bringing “The Miracle Maker” to the air. She tells Trouten, “The single greatest way to evangelize the world is through the media.... We send our kids off to Borneo and New Guinea, but I reached more people that night than probably every church on the Pacific Coast…. This is the reality of it; this is where the power lies. Clearly we touched a lot of people that night.”
Barry Werner, director of operations for World Wide Pictures, the film division of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, notes, “Christian filmmaking is probably where Christian music was 10 or 15 years ago—it's really on the edge of breaking loose.” Peter LaLond, President of Cloud Ten Pictures and co-producer of Left Behind with his brother Paul, is also optimistic, asserting that Left Behind-The Movie could usher in a new era for the making of “good films” in Hollywood. “When Star Wars came out it started the science fiction trend,” he says. “Die Hard started an action trend, and Airport started a disaster trend. Left Behind could amaze Hollywood. If we fill the theaters, it will empower other independent filmmakers to rise up and make good films.” Whether these films wind up leaving behind the majority of us remains to be seen. Z
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance journalist covering the religious right and related conservative movements. Research assistance by Greg Paroff.