It feels like I’m living in the sequel to Footloose.
At the Kansas Capitol in Topeka, preachers from all over the state are holding a rally in the rotunda. They’re crusading against the evils not of dancing but of gay people getting married.
Carloads of Christians have slid across the state’s highways in an icy drizzle. A couple hundred of them are now amassed in the marble mezzanine under the dome, beneath cattle-and-tornado murals and across from the statue of a very masculine-looking Amelia Earhart in jodhpurs.
A busybody from Concerned Women for America works the crowd, introducing herself and gossiping about how she worked for Sen. Sam Brownback over the summer, sending out packets regarding the role of churches in government. On an upper floor, a sign holder leans over a railing with a placard admonishing state legislators, who are starting their session today, to “Keep our laws like God’s laws.”
The Rev. Jerry Johnston appears, TV lights go on and the rally’s master of ceremonies proclaims that God has brought this man to help. Johnston, from Overland Park’s First Family Church, has returned to Topeka, he tells the crowd, because — to his utter shock back on May 4, 2004 — he watched as lawmakers refused to let Kansans vote on a constitutional amendment to “protect” marriage.
A heckler tries to drown him out, yelling, “Don’t vote discrimination!” But the congregation just cheers louder for the man they know affectionately as Pastor Jerry. The CWA busybody escorts the heckler away from the crowd. Meanwhile, Johnston thunders, “We’re not going away! For too long, the pulpits in Kansas have been silent!”
The preachers want lawmakers to let the people of Kansas vote on a marriage amendment, and they want it to happen now.
Meanwhile, downstairs, another couple of hundred Kansans are counterdemonstrating, and their applause floats up through the round, open space in the rotunda. These are the gays and the preachers from the liberal churches. Their rally was supposed to be on the Capitol’s south steps, but they’ve come in from the ice storm, claiming equal access to the halls of power. They cheer as Joshua Svaty, a Democratic state rep from Ellsworth, talks about how his own religious beliefs don’t include discrimination. The young Svaty has long, dark, wet-look hair. (If he had a beard, he’d look like You Know Who.) And even though he’s been elected from out in the middle of nowhere, he’s fearlessly urging his fellow legislators not to discriminate against gay people.
Back upstairs, the rally ends when a preacher instructs everyone to walk the Capitol halls and pray, and the crowd responds with an eerie, deep-toned “Amen.”
Pastor Jerry’s heckler, who turns out to be Michael Henry from the Kansas City office of the gay-rights organization Human Rights Campaign, shoves his way over to Johnston. If he could prove that the marriage amendment was discriminatory, Henry says, would Johnston still support it? Johnston says he can guarantee it’s not discriminatory. Then, in a display of God knows what, the two adversaries — along with Johnston’s son and a few other hangers-on — embrace in a group prayer.
All the while, two guys in leather jackets and earpieces stand back, scanning the crowd like low-rent Secret Service agents. Apparently, they’re Johnston’s bodyguards.
If this really were the sequel to Footloose, Kansas legislators would convene a couple of days later to consider the marriage amendment and realize that gay people aren’t doing any harm and that, in fact, it wasn’t like one of those preachers said. Marriage isn’t being attacked, and God isn’t being attacked. So they would refuse to send the constitutional amendment to Kansans for a vote.
Meanwhile, in the movie, Pastor Jerry’s two pseudo-macho bodyguards would turn out to be gay! And everybody would start dancing to Cher: Do you believe in life after love … ?
But this isn’t a movie. This is Topeka, Kansas, January 10, 2005. And the ending isn’t so happy. A couple of days later, the same week that parents urge the Blue Valley School District to remove books from high school required-reading lists because of their naughty words, the Kansas Senate decides that Kansans should be allowed to vote against gay marriage. They send the matter on to the Kansas House of Representatives, which has until February 11 to put the issue on the April 5 ballot.
No, this isn’t Hollywood.
After November 2, I decided to start attending Jerry Johnston’s church. After all, Johnston had been one of the biggest winners in the election.
On November 5, for example, he’d joined such estimable company as John McLaughlin, Patrick Buchanan and Eleanor Clift on PBS’s The McLaughlin Group.
Noting that 22 percent of all voters had said that their main criterion for choosing a president was “moral values” and that the one value they’d voted for more than any other was “the value of traditional marriage between one woman and one man,” McLaughlin introduced Johnston as “an evangelical pastor in Kansas,” thereby anointing Johnston as the definitive voice of red-state Christianity.
Technically, Johnston was enjoying a modest victory in Kansas, where he and dozens of other church leaders had campaigned to unseat state legislators — even pro-life Christian Republicans — who had voted against the state’s gay-marriage amendment the previous spring (Kendrick Blackwood’s “Ministers Hate Fags Too,” July 22, 2004). Only a few of Johnston’s targets were defeated, but the evangelicals gained a few seats. More important, they got a hammer.
“You’re talking about, you know, 80 million people. You’re talking about a good 350,000 churches,” Johnston told TV viewers across America. “And I can tell you, these people did not stop talking about it. We all know this [gay marriage] was a cause. It was a hill worth dying for. And it was that kind of spirit, I believe, that delivered a significant impact on this election. And I think even more than that, it sent a message to the American people that we’re going to be able to build on.”
He could barely contain himself.
“And now the great glee we have of appointing Supreme Court justices that would share the version of America of a conservative viewpoint, I mean, I can’t tell you how happy of a day this is.”
Conservatives were having a ball accusing the media of not getting it, so I felt it was my professional obligation to try to understand the values voters. Actually, as a born liberal and a Midwesterner by choice, I understand them all too well. But this was no time to underestimate them. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps the conservatives understood something about the greater good that we liberals had failed to see. So I thought I’d challenge the people at First Family Church to save my soul.
Admittedly, I was skeptical. Though I hate it when people start blabbing about their religion in public, I will disclose that I believe in God. I went to church every Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I sang in the choir, until I graduated from high school. Sometimes Saturday night’s alcohol was still seeping out of my pores; I was a troubled teen, and things only went downhill during my twenties. These days, every week I attend at least a couple of hourlong gatherings that begin and end with a prayer. Often, I pray all damn day. But when it comes to churches, I subscribe to the theory that religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, whereas spirituality is for people who’ve already been there. I once was lost, but now I’m found. So I didn’t particularly think I needed saving.
Friends tried to talk me out of it. “These people are scary,” said one, who’d been brought up in a strict fundamentalist home. (What does it say about a church when a person is afraid to go there?) My girlfriend brooded about the idea all week, as if there were really a chance that going to Johnston’s church might turn me straight, therefore breaking up the happy home where we live in an unsanctified yet sufficiently blissful facsimile of marriage.
Truthfully, the assignment I’d given myself sounded like hell on earth. So I revised my strategy: I would attend a service and tell anyone who asked that it was my first time, that I was a gay liberal who was trying to understand the values voter. And I made a rule, like Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me, who determined that if the server at McDonald’s asked if he wanted to supersize his order, he had to say yes. If, after hearing why I was there, anyone at First Family Church invited me back, I’d have to keep going.
November 14 was a cold, gray Sunday. The modern church sits on 51 acres atop a hill at 143rd Street and Metcalf, looking like a heavenly strip mall out on the newly subdivided prairie. Inside, a concourse is lined by storefront amenities, including the Dinky & Coco’s snack shop (stocked with Snapples, sodas, bottled water, muffins, cookies, candy bars and coffee) and a Waldenbooks knockoff. (“The Entire Bookstore is on Sale!! Prices have never been so LOW!”) The congregation gathers in a giant, white-cinder-block room with removable metal chairs and basketball hoops retracted to the ceilings. (Three hundred “incredible kids” are registered in the church’s basketball ministry.)
The church claims 3,000 members, which is still far behind Johnson County’s signature megachurch, Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, which boasts an astounding 13,000 souls. But Johnston’s $15 million campus has outgrown its current 54,000 square feet; the church has announced a 70,000-square-foot, $8.5 million expansion. Once that’s done, First Family plans to set up satellite churches, first throughout the metro, then the country, then the world.
Already Johnston is overseeing a massive operation with ten other ministers. (His son Jeremy’s official title is executive pastor and COO of media; there’s also a media ministries director, an Internet ministries director and a minister just for married couples.) His wife, Christie Jo Johnston, who credits God for helping her heal after years of panic disorder, now directs the women’s ministry, overseeing the 22 groups that meet every Monday night to provide support for folks suffering from traumas such as eating disorders, abandonment issues, single parenting, divorce, alcoholism, pornography addiction and, yes, homosexuality.
With its lite-rock entertainment, the 9:15 service is one of three every Sunday morning. (There’s a “traditional” version with a choir and orchestra at 8 a.m., a “blended” service at 10:45 and another on Wednesday evenings.)
When Johnston asks first-timers to identify themselves, I raise my hand.
An elderly man brings me a carnation, and a few people smile and say welcome.
The congregation has been studying John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. (Here’s the Amazon.com synopsis: One of the most powerful dramas of Christian faith ever written, this captivating allegory of man’s religious journey in search of salvation follows the pilgrim as he travels an obstacle-filled road to the Celestial City. Along the way, he is confronted by monsters and spiritual terrors…. An enormously influential seventeenth-century classic, universally known for its simplicity, vigor, and beauty of language. ) Today’s sermon is about one of those monsters, a character called Deceiver.
“Deceiver is a scary, scary person,” Johnston begins. “His hood is pulled down over his eyes. He hides himself from you. He doesn’t want you to know who he really is. And in the 31 years I’ve been a Christian, I can’t think of a time that Deceiver ever walked up to me and said, ‘Hello, Jerry, I’m Deceiver.’ … But he worked in all sorts of other ways, many ways I never anticipated. He was always trying to keep my eyes off the eternal truths. Get me to doubt God. He used all kinds of influences, and occasionally he actually used people.”
I begin to squirm. Does Pastor Jerry somehow know that I’m here and what I’m up to?
“We have a command in Scripture, Galatians, Chapter 6, Verse 7,” he continues. “It’s just one verse: ‘Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.'” He makes us repeat it a couple of times. God is not mocked.
I’m starting to feel guilty. Am I here, despite my honest desire to understand the values voter, with the ultimate intention of mocking God? No way!
But mocking Jerry Johnston? Perhaps a little of that is in order.
Johnston and I have a couple of things in common. He, too, was a teenage drug abuser (until he accepted Jesus Christ at youth camp one summer).
And I’m not in love with the concept of gay marriage, either. But that’s because I question whether my gay brothers and sisters should bother trying to imitate the most overrated institution in heterosexual culture (“ Behind the Veil,” November 18, 2004). But, hey, if that’s what they want to do, I’ve never argued that they shouldn’t have the same right. Mostly, I’ve argued that the gay-marriage debate isn’t about marriage at all; it’s about the Republican Party’s craven effort to turn out conservative voters by demonizing one relatively defenseless minority group, and how Democrats have caved in (“Altar Ego,” Feburary 12, 2004, and “Queer Bait,” June 17, 2004).
Johnston might actually believe that marriage is under attack from gay people — instead of from half the straight people who currently abuse the privilege. But he also understands perfectly well that hammering on the issue is a beautiful way to keep himself in the spotlight and his followers positioned for political power.
Throughout the Deceiver sermon, it’s obvious how Johnston turns anxious suburbanites into values voters like Jesus multiplying fish at the Sea of Galilee.
First, all that election stuff about Hollywood being the great Satan? Do not be deceived: Johnston loves Hollywood!
Pastor Jerry begins his Deceiver sermon by noting that he has spent the past week reading Tatum O’Neal’s book A Paper Life, which chronicles her trajectory from 10-year-old Oscar winner to child-abandoning drug addict.
“I met Deceiver in the pages of this book,” Johnston notes. “I’m reading another one now, by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He, too, has met Deceiver along the way.”
First Family’s glossy, four-color pamphlets are already hyping a national women’s conference that the church is hosting in May, called “Desperate Housewives … Desperate for God!”
“Over 12 million American women tune in every Sunday to ABC’s hottest new show, Desperate Housewives,” Christie Johnston writes. But women who attend this conference will hear about “women in the Bible, who impacted their surroundings during desperate times … as we discover what ignited a passion in those desperate for a new touch from God!”
If it weren’t for Hollywood, Johnston might have a hard time livening up his material.
Clearly, though, the biggest tactic for securing values voters is by scaring ’em.
The biggest thing to be afraid of? Preachers who aren’t Jerry Johnston.
“You know there are so many in our world today that have no idea who Deceiver is,” Johnston says. “I mean, there are legions of people in churches this morning where nobody’s even warned them about Deceiver! They act like he doesn’t even exist!”
But the preachers at these churches aren’t just harming their congregations by not telling them about Deceiver. These preachers are Deceiver! “Lying spirits speak through false teachers, and we become deceived when we join churches which do not teach God’s word.”
A couple of Johnston sermons reveal other things to be afraid of.
Living anywhere but the U.S.A. “The enemy, Deceiver, deceives entire nations…. You know it’s against the law in Saudi Arabia to do what we’re doing right now? It’s against the law in China to do what we’re doing right now. It’s against the law in Pakistan to do what we’re doing right now. Entire nations have been enslaved in unbelief in God.”
Reading newspapers. After a November 13 Kansas City Star story quoting Johnston and other conservative and progressive religious leaders talking about the election results, Johnston told his congregation, “I knew that she [Star religion reporter Helen Gray] would write an article quoting this side and that side and every side. You know what, folks? It doesn’t really matter what I think or anybody else thinks, but it makes a world of a difference what God says, right?”
Sending your kids to college. “You know how many university campuses Deceiver has been to, luring kids to do all sorts of crazy things?”
Driving. Having reminded his congregation to memorize Bible verses by writing them on 3-by-5 cards and carrying them in pockets and visors, Johnston notes, “You try it when you’re in a car — boy, I tell you, the enemy doesn’t like you to memorize Scripture. You’ll be amazed how fast those red lights will turn green when you start using that time to memorize Scripture.”
Arguing with your spouse. “Now, ladies, I want to tell you. Be the kind of wife that keeps your husband on the straight and narrow. Don’t be the kind of wife that’s always trying to pull your husband back from obeying God and serving God and loving God…. And gentlemen, I want to tell you. Be the kind of man who helps your wife not question what God has said, but lovingly encourage her to accept what God has said…. We become deceived whenever we question or we ignore what God has said.”
Listening to what anyone else says about First Family Church. “You know the people who talk about First Family? And tell their little juicy stories in town? They’re jealous Christians. That’s so sad. I would hate to be so small in my thinking that if somebody’s doing a work for Christ, that I’d want to talk about them…. Even if people talk about Pastor Jerry and about this and that, and our TV ministry, tune all that out.”
Thinking for yourself. In an example from 1 Chronicles involving King David making a dumb decision, Johnston says, “David is getting ready to do another battle, and he starts thinking with human logic instead of spiritual wisdom, and I want to tell you that’ll take you down every time. There’s many of us in here today that are thinking with human logic right now.”
By the end of the November 14 sermon, it was hard not to be scared of Deceiver. Leaving the church that day, my heart felt a burden — and it wasn’t because, as I left the sanctuary-gymnasium with hundreds of other people to make room for the hundreds waiting to get in, no one had stopped to invite me back. For that, I was grateful. But something else troubled me, until I remembered another thing that Pastor Jerry had said.
“I know how quickly life comes and goes. They were getting me ready in the back this morning, and I looked in the mirror and I thought, ‘My gosh, I’ve got wrinkles everywhere.’ … Thank God for makeup.”
Perhaps there was a little bit of Deceiver in Jerry Johnston, too.
Johnston has said that he wants to build “a prevailing church that will impact this city.”
Before establishing First Family Church in 1996, he was a traveling preacher. “I could go speak two or three times a month and be fine for the rest of my month,” he said in a January sermon. “And then the Holy Spirit began to deal with me and said, ‘You know, that little blond-haired girl who’s captain of the cheerleading squad over there at Blue Valley North? Jerry, it [her relationship with God] could be a lot deeper if you’d be willing to start a church…. I wanted all three of my kids to go in the ministry, and the Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, ‘Pay the price. Start a church.'”
Since we’re stuck with him, I wanted to get to know him a little better. Hoping to do an in-depth profile of the man, we asked in early January for interviews. But Johnston’s son Jeremy, minister of the media, turned us down. The church was unhappy with last summer’s “Ministers Hate Fags Too” story, he told us, and disappointed that Kendrick Blackwood’s article didn’t include a reference to First Family’s outreach to homosexuals. (If you’re gay and don’t want to be, and a conversion ministry turns you straight and this gives you peace, God bless you. We just feel those sorts of stories are best covered by papers such as The Johnson County Sun, which on January 20 gave lots of ink to that other, less-well-known side of Johnston’s special love for gay people.)
Besides, the younger Johnston told us that his father was having misgivings about all of the attention he was getting and was trying to limit his interviews to those discussions about his ministry. “He’s worried it’s becoming ‘The Jerry Johnston Show,'” Jeremy told us.
That same day, though, Johnston was giving plenty of interviews to local TV news stations from the anti-gay-marriage rally at the Capitol in Topeka.
And he was proud to show those news reports in church the following Sunday. On January 16, the part of the service when Johnston talks about all of the great things the church is doing — just before he collects the offering — consisted of a video montage Johnston and his crew had made in Topeka.
It opens with Johnston in the rotunda. The preachers have finished their rally, but the pagans are still giving speeches and cheering on the floor below. “Nearly 1,000 evangelical churches have all come together and said, ‘We’re not going to stop until we have a marriage amendment in Kansas,'” Johnston says, looking into the camera. “Now below me are men and women on the first floor here in the rotunda, listening to Reverend [C. Welton] Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, that’s trying to say that if we protect the family, defining it as one man for one woman, that we will be taking away people’s freedom. Individuals like this — from the religious community, if you can imagine — believe that homosexuality and homosexual marriage should be approved in this country. And if homosexual marriage becomes law, then it will immediately descend to our educational system. They’ll begin teaching elementary schoolchildren that mommy does have a partner, another lover.”
The video cuts to WDAF Channel 4’s Phil Witt and a live shot from First Family Church, where reporter Rob Low explains that, unlike last year, Johnston “and other like-minded ministers … now believe they have enough politicians on their side to allow a public vote on banning gay marriage.” Then there’s a similar report from KMBC Channel 9’s Dan Weinbaum, which gets lots of applause from the First Family congregation.
In fact, it seems odd that anyone at First Family would be worried about the church’s activities turning into “The Jerry Johnston Show.”
After all, the preacher is fond of publishing pamphlets with film-strip pictures of himself with Ted Koppel, with Bill O’Reilly, with Deborah Norville, with Charles Gibson, with Joe Scarborough. Back on December 8, First Family held its third annual “World Outreach Media Event” with a couple of other Christian TV and radio stars. “Let’s pray for God to expand the territory of our television ministry for 2005!” Johnston wrote in the accompanying pamphlet.
Every Sunday, Johnston pays for a half-hour on KSHB Channel 41 right after Meet the Press and another at 10:30 p.m.
On January 17, he started a regular radio gig from 3:30 to 4 p.m. on KCCV 760.
Johnston clearly believes he’s a celebrity.
The bodyguards who trail him, wearing their leather jackets and earpieces? That screams Hollywood.
For a while last week, it looked like I might actually get a chance to talk to Pastor Jerry for this article.
That was after a routine search of public records revealed that, according to the Johnson County Treasurer’s office, the minister had not paid the real estate taxes on his half-million-dollar home in the pastoral woods on the far reaches of the suburbs.
He was delinquent for a significant chunk of change — he owed around $7,000 for 2003 and more than $3,500 for the first half of 2004. So I put in a message to Jeremy Johnston, who handles all of his father’s media requests.
Jeremy was friendly enough and suggested that I e-mail all of my questions so that the pastor could “review” them before responding. Specifically, though, he wanted to know more about the tax question so he could clear it up right away. He was certain that his dad had never been delinquent on his taxes.
I never heard back from the pastor. I did, however, get a nice note from his lawyer. After sharing a few choice thoughts about what I should and should not print, the attorney wrote, “It is my understanding that all real estate taxes on the private residence have been paid.”
A supervisor at the Johnson County Treasurer’s office confirms that the county has received full payment for all of Johnston’s delinquent real estate taxes for 2003 and the first half of 2004. The check was posted on February 3, the same day I called Jeremy.
This was a big relief, because I remembered what Johnston had said during the Deceiver sermon about people who don’t pay their taxes.
“You know, some of us, if we’re not careful, we will deceive ourselves. And that’s really scary. You’re going to tell yourself you’re really right with God when really things aren’t right with God…. I deceive myself when I’m filling out my tax return and the accountant says, ‘Pay this,’ and I say, ‘Let’s just rip the government off here.'”
I was glad that Johnston had paid up. Because I’d hate for the man pushing a constitutional amendment to be, you know, ripping off the government.
On January 30, just a few days before the Kansas House was slated to vote on the gay-marriage amendment, Johnston devoted his half-hour TV show to a rerun of his sermon “Same Sex Marriage vs. Marriage God’s Way.” If gays were successful at redefining the institution of marriage as we know it, Johnston warned, they would “again pursue an agenda that’s almost unbelievable.” It was a litany of horrors.
“If gay marriage became law in the U.S., it would quickly destroy traditional marriage and families…. Children would suffer in significant ways…. Public schools in every state would teach homosexuality to children as a normal lifestyle…. Foster-care programs would be forced to accept homosexual families…. Adoption rights would be extended to homosexual unions…. The health-care system would be severely crippled and potentially collapse…. Religious freedom would be threatened with censorship and potential criminalization…. The U.S. would become the catalyst for the destruction of the family and moral decay globally! … Other deviant groups would seek acceptance and normalization.”
And Johnston’s greatest fear: “Similar to the disobedient nations of the Old Testament, America would experience the judgment of God.”
On Tuesday, February 1, after Johnston sent state reps a transcript of this sermon, along with copies of Marriage Under Fire by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, the House of Representatives decided to send the marriage amendment to Kansans for a vote on April 5.
This amendment would be even stronger than Missouri’s. It wouldn’t just ban gay marriages — it would prevent all civil recognition of gay couples.
For the wonderful straight couples in his church, though, the ones who could get married, Johnston had a special treat: a “passionate” February sermon series called “How to Find Love, Enjoy Love and Rekindle Love.”
While life had just grown a lot colder for gay people in Kansas, Johnston and Christie were set to leave for a very romantic “escape to paradise” — along with First Family members and TV friends who could come up with $2,195 a person for a February 21-28 getaway to Honolulu.
“This is a trip you don’t want to miss to one of the most beautiful places on earth,” Pastor Jerry wrote in the vacation brochure. “Over the course of our marriage, we visit Hawaii at special times. It has given us time to relax and unwind, to grow closer to the Lord and to keep the romance alive in our marriage.”
He’d just saved marriage, so I guess he’d earned it.
Besides, he had a lot of hard work ahead of him now that he’d dealt with the gays. Now, he told the Star on February 2, it was on to other issues, such as abortion and evolution. “If I was a liberal in Kansas right now, I would be rethinking my agenda,” he crowed.
Don’t be deceived, though. It’s not just gay people or liberals he’s after.