Roger Neville Williams
Extracted from Penthouse Magazine April 1977
Garner Ted Armstrong is a media superstar, but his message is a real bummer. We’re about to blow ourselves up, sayeth the prophet, and, God help us, Garner Ted has discovered the profit of fear.
He’s heard and seen by more Americans each week than Walter Cronkite. His magazine has more subscribers than Newsweek. He calls himself a news commentator but preaches prophecy. His radio, television and printed message is one of impending apocalypse, and his church, which is entirely based on the belief that Jesus Christ will descend from the clouds during our lifetime and ruthlessly organize a world government, rakes in more money to its central coffers every year than most big corporations do.
He’s Garner Ted Armstrong, and you heard him if you’ve ever driven across country at night, his booming golden voice is heard on “The World Tomorrow” on WOAI San Antonio, then he fades and comes in loud and clear on KLAC Los Angeles. He signs off, and you pick him up starting over again on WREC Memphis or won New York or KSL Salt Lake or WRVA Richmond or any of the hundreds of other radio stations that carry his half-hour “The World Tomorrow” broadcast six nights a week. He’s the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, Fear, spreading his warning of the Coming End across the airwaves to 50 million people every week and telling of The Wonderful World Tomorrow that will follow the nuclear obliteration mankind is about to bring upon itself.
He’s the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse…Fear
After the smoke clears, he says, the survivors will find heaven on earth, with Jesus sitting on the throne of David in Jerusalem, reigning over the millennium and running a sort of United Nations in Christ, brooking no opposition, and smiting down those who resist His coming. Or, in the words of one of Garner Ted’s aides: “The good news is that Christ is coming back. The bad news is that he’s pissed off.” And Garner Ted Armstrong and the 100,000 followers of his Worldwide Church of God (WCG) believe it.
Much more tangible, and believable, than The World Tomorrow is the world today of Garner Ted Armstrong and the apocalyptic empire over which he presides. The Worldwide Church of God, which sponsors “The World Tomorrow” radio programs; is headquartered in Pasadena, California, on the campus of Ambassador College, a small liberal-arts institution of 800 students of which Garner Ted Armstrong’ is president. Ambassador College takes up fifty prime acres on both sides of the Pasadena Freeway. Although it is not a Bible college, it is church affiliated and offers a religious correspondence course that more than 500,000 people have completed. There is a hand lettered sign in the student union, announcing “a student project to raise $10,000 to put ‘The World Tomorrow’ on another radio station.”
The college is a Garden of Allah surrounded by quiet streets and manicured lawns and very expensive homes, including Garner Ted’s large, ranch style affair, which is easily worth $150,000. Date palms, Royal palms, Australian gum myrtle, Norfolk pines, live oaks, and sycamores grace the hill sides. Ducks and swans meander on the greensward. There are waterfalls, fountains,’ reflecting pools, and streams stocked with fish. A sumptuous sunken garden separates the modern chemistry and fine-arts buildings. The college recently won an award designating it “The Most Beautiful College Campus in America”.
Dominating this small Eden is the Hall of Administration tanned and of the WCG. It is a honeycomb of white marble with four story atriums; expensive chromium wall sculptures; and, in the lobby, a solid silver, foot high replica of the Mayflower purchased from Harrods’s of London. Garner Ted Armstrong’s radio studio is on the top floor, behind a thick oak door marked “Private.” Inside, behind double glass separating it from the well equipped control room, is the desk where herald-cum-newsman Armstrong sits and makes his six-day-a-week “The World Tomorrow” broadcast tapes, surrounded by dozens of pictures of himself in action: there’s Garner Ted, mike in hand, with the Apollo astronauts; Garner Ted, windblown, reporting from the Golan Heights; Garner Ted, in Hawaiian shirt, standing before a nuclear power plant, his eyes gazing earnestly into the television lens.
Next door are the head offices of the WCG, an executive suite so lavish in its appointments that by comparison the boardrooms of most of the country’s top corporations look simple. Corporations are usually cost conscious; this church is not. The walls are of paneled hardwoods, the huge desks of rich walnut, the long sofas of red velvet, and everything else in leather or wool. No plastic, vinyl, acrylic, or Formica is anywhere in evidence.
“The good news is that Christ is coming back. The bad news is that he’s pissed off.”
This is not surprising, considering Armstrong’s $50 million annual budget to do with as he, his father, and his executives see fit. Most of the $50 million is collected from WCG members, who must minimally tithe but give in some cases as much as 30 percent of their income. The rest of it comes from some 300,000 “coworkers” who voluntarily contribute to The Work of the WCG, which is to spread the Gospel, or “Good News”. Ironically, no appeal for funds or donations is ever made on “The World Tomorrow” broadcasts or in the magazine Plain Truth, and all literature is given away free. But the money rolls in from believers around the world. Enough money to buy airtime on 500 domestic and foreign radio stations and 131 television stations. Enough money to support the plush Ambassador College as well as a second campus of bright, modern buildings at Big Sandy, Texas, east of Dallas, where courses in agriculture and mass communications are featured. Enough money for two jets, a Dassault Falcon, and a Grumman G2, the largest private aircraft made.
There is also enough money for the opulent Ambassador Auditorium, an $11 million, 1,200 seat performing arts center that has been acclaimed by visiting artists as the finest small concert hall in the world. It operates under the aegis of the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation (AICF), of which Garner Ted Armstrong is president, and which is “Made Possible By Gifts From The World Wide Church of God”, as the gold plated inscription explains.
The decor includes seventy foot interior walls of rosewood and teak, twentyfour karat gold leaf on the staircase soffits, and Persian rose onyx walls in the foyer’ which reflect a 6,000 pound chandelier The exterior walls are black marble, set off by a white colonnade that is topped by an ornate cornice of gold tile. It is a modern Temple of Solomon. Proceeds from the concert series, underwritten by the AICF go to United Way, UNICEF, the March of Dimes, the NAACP, Tel Aviv University, and toward cosponsoring, with Hebrew University, ongoing archaeological excavations at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where students from Ambassador College dig down through 3,000 years of history, looking for the Throne of David. Where Jesus is going to sit.
What in God’s name is a Christian fundamentalist radio preacher doing in the business of high culture, arranging benefits for Israel and helping to support Jewish archaeological digs? What is a religious fundamentalist doing in the news business, producing a mass audience news magazine and sophisticated color documentaries in his fortyfive man, ultramodern television studio? Who is Garner Ted Armstrong, and why is he engaged in telling fully one quarter of the American people — in the biggest media blitz run by one man the world has known — that we’re about to blow ourselves up?
First of all, Garner Ted Armstrong is the son of Herbert W. Armstrong, who conceived the idea of radio preaching in 1934. Although Garner Ted Armstrong is currently the best known of the two Armstrongs, Herbert’s twenty five years of “The World Tomorrow” broadcasts once made his name a household word to inveterate radio listeners across the country. By 1960 Garner Ted had taken over responsibility for “The World Tomorrow”, the world’s oldest and longest running radio show. But it was his father, now eightyfour, who put the Armstrong Empire together.
Herbert Armstrong is a portly, plump jawed gentleman with a kindly smile who, despite his years, travels incessantly He retains the title of college chancellor and pastor general of the WCG. Herbert was a successful Chicago advertising man during the early 1900s, until hard times cost him his job and he returned to his rural home near Eugene, Oregon. His family quickly sank into hopeless poverty, while his wife became interested in one of the local Jesus sects and began telling him that modern Christianity had it all wrong and totally misrepresented what the Bible really said. “The Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday”, she informed him. She had found the way. “This was the worst news I have ever heard! My wife gone into religious fanaticism!” Herbert recalls in his autobiography to prove his wife wrong, he began studying the Bible diligently and, as if it had been opium, got hooked himself. “It was humiliating to have to admit my wife had been right and I had been wrong. It was shocking to learn that all these churches were wrong” he writes. He decided to switch from advertising to God, ultimately getting the God account and becoming one of the Almighty’s most effective advertisers.
Herbert Armstrong became a minister of a small Pentecostal sect and “these simple, Bible loving people, looking to me for leadership.”’ In 1931, says Armstrong, “Christ ordained me to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom in all the world as a witness to all nations”, which is no small calling. And so he went on the air and published the first edition of his magazine The Plain Truth. “On that tiny powered radio station KORE in Eugene, Oregon — and in that infant, mimeographed Plain Truth — was going out an astonishing Message! Just as the public, 1,900 years before, had been astonished at Christ’s Gospel, so were those who began to hear this SAME Gospel in 1934. It was utterly different from what had been palmed off as “Christianity” he writes. One man, after three and one-half years of per-son al Bible study, had overnight eradicated 2,000 years of biblical interpretation and orthodox Christian doctrine. Astonishing! But the people in his alienated and confused listening audience liked hearing the inside dope on what Jesus and the Old Testament prophets really had to say, from one who knew, or who said he knew. So they kept sending him money, and during the war he went on the air over a 150,000 watt Mexican border station and in 1947 moved his Radio Church of God, as it was then called, to Pasadena. He founded Ambassador College and went for the big time: nationwide radio ministry.
Today, retired from broadcasting, Armstrong Sr. still trots the globe as “an Ambassador for World Peace without Portfolio representing the Government of God”. In the words of an aide. He is a sort of elder statesman to America’s millions of religious fanatics. He addresses large audiences and public figures in dozens of countries, speaking about love and understanding and human potential.
During the past few years, Herbert Armstrong has met with the leaders of Japan, Jordan, Monaco, The Netherlands, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Israel, the Philippines, Tanzania, Thailand, Iran, South Africa, Kenya, and on and on and on. The man is tireless. However, should he show up in Washington, D.C., few people in the government would know who he is — except for Ellsworth Bunker, former ambassador to South Vietnam.
Bunker invited Herbert to visit Vietnam in 1971. “To give millions of readers true UNDERSTANDING of the Plain Truth about THE VIETNAM WAR, I flew personally to Saigon” (in his Grumman G2), wrote Herbert. In the pages of Plain Truth, he explained that if the United States did not stop Communist “aggressions and invasions at South Vietnam, it would be too late. They would have gained such a grip on conquering the whole world, we would be unable to stop them before they invaded the United States.” His peripatetic aide, Stanley Rader, wrote in the same issue: “Better to have to lose 54,000 U.S. soldiers’ lives than 70 million lives of civilins, women and children as well as soldiers and probably end up SLAVES to the Communists”.
Herbert’s son, Garner Ted, concentrates less on anti-communism, although “he’s anti-Communist like you wouldn’t believe”, as his PR man describes him. He takes a plague-on-both-your-houses approach to the two super nations, whose mad arms race, he is convinced, will end life on this planet as we know it, forcing Jesus to intervene. Garner Ted Armstrong is now in charge of the administration of all the Armstrong institutions. Besides being president of Ambassador College and president of the Cultural Foundation, he is executive vice-president of the Worldwide Church of God, editor in chief of The Plain Truth, and executive producer of GTA-TV–that’s Garner Ted Armstrong Television. And of course he is the honey throated herald whose radio broadcast message that we are living through “the last days” reaches more Americans every day than any of the network news shows.
He doesn’t look the part: he is strikingly handsome, smooth, dapper, a natty dresser in well-tailored suits and bright ties that enhance a strikingly youthful countenance belying his forty-seven years. The silver haired, silver-tongued talker is fast becoming an American institution, with far more spiritual clout than that of almost any other religious leader. He is late night companionship to thousands of truckers, the voice of the morning to millions of farmers, the living room preacher to a subculture of lonely, frightened, disoriented Americans. He is even better known in Canada, where the airwaves are saturated with his television and radio broadcasts. Carried over 150,000-watt Radio Luxembourg, the most powerful commercial station in the world, his voice is well known to millions of Europeans.
GTA, as he’s known around Pasadena, is no “born again” preacher who waves his’ arms in emotional frenzy and asks audiences to “receive Christ as your personal savior”. In fact, he says he doesn’t believe in proselytizing but merely “warning” and “bearing witness of the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God on Earth.” He never really wanted to be a minister, he says, but has “a call from God” to do what he’s doing. He is intensely media shy “He doesn’t feel he’s a public figure–he doesn’t belong to the public”, says Tom Hall, Garner Ted’s PR man in Pasadena, explaining why Armstrong seldom grants interviews. Whatever he is or represents, he is definitely not a mindless crackpot Christer.
After duty as a seaman aboard an aircraft carrier in the Korean War, and “after I got tired of slopping around and wasting my money on cigarettes and beer”, he says, “I decided to look for a new kind of life”. So he took a Ph.D. in theology at Ambassador College — where else? — and adopted his father’s rigid biblical literalism. Later his father ordained him (Herbert, remember, insists he was ordained by Jesus Christ himself). Little Garner Ted was entirely mute until he was two and one-half, and his father believes it was a direct answer to his prayers, a “miracle from God”, that cured his son of his speech problem. “And he’s been talking ever since”, says Herbert. As God’s mouthpiece while the end of the world gets nearer, GTA draws a comfortable salary of $50,000 a year, enjoys his Falcon jet, which he pilots himself (he’s also qualified to fly the church’s several prop aircraft), and gets into the back country of Colorado several times a year for hunting and fishing. He drives a 1970 Cadillac and a remodeled 1930 Model-A. He is lead guitarist and vocalist in a Country and Western band; a devoted basketball, chess, and bridge player; and an artist in oils. He speaks fluent Spanish, reads stacks of Western novels, and writes most of the free booklets that are promoted on “The World Tomorrow” radio program. He concludes every broadcast with “Write for the free booklet… [title]. It’s absolutely free. Write to Garner Ted Armstrong, Pasadena, California.”
These free “booklets” which are read by millions, contain the beliefs of the WCG and Garner Ted Armstrong. There is the Four Horseman series, on famine, pestilence, and war. There are pamphlets on over-population, crime, racial conflict, political corruption, and pollution, all of them telling people what they already know, that the world’s a mess. There are booklets entitled Is Sex Sin? Why Were You Born? and Does God Exist? Some, like The Modern Romans: The Decline of Western Civilization, are respectable pieces of historical scholarship and current political analysis. Militarism is denounced: “The principal contribution of modern science and technology has been the production of constantly more terrifying weapons of mass destruction”, writes Garner Ted. “Our peoples today stand on the brink of disaster greater than Rome’s”. The American parallels to Rome’s decay are exhaustively outlined, from “welfares”, to “sodomy and legalized homosexuality”, to the “collapse of the home”, to the “mad craze for pleasure” He cites “the ascendancy of the cults which takes place in times of confusion” such as the latter days of Rome and draws comparisons with the modern Western obsessions with Buddhism, Indian gurus, Sun Myung Moon, and so on. However he fails to make the connection with the cult of Garner Ted Armstrong, which is also prospering in these times of confusion. Nor, of course, does he count himself among the “false prophets” that the Bible says will proliferate just before the End.
He writes of the Last Days in which, he says, we live: “We have appraised the major facets of modern Civilization — this world’s Education system, its Science and Technology, its Commerce and Industry, its systems of Government, its Social Order, and its Religions, and we have found them all WRONG–all EVIL–all DECADENT. They are ready to die. But the ETERNAL GOD will soon usher in the UTOPIAN world of peace and happiness. World famous scientists now say frankly that the only HOPE for SURVIVAL on earth is a supreme, world ruling government, controlling all military power. They admit that this is impossible for man to accomplish.”
Few people would argue that the world just may be going down the tubes. But Garner Ted Armstrong and his “gospel machine” as he likes to call it, have answers. Here lies his phenomenal success. The “answers” are found in the free booklet and his handbook of doom and human salvation, The Wonderful World Tomorrow: What It Will Be Like. Garner Ted explains in great detail exactly how the whole world will be saved at the last possible moment. “The nations will be engaged in a climactic BATTLE of coming World War III, with one battlefront at Jerusalem, and then Christ will return!” The warring nations will turn their nuclear weapons on Jesus and his host of angels, including the resurrected apostles and the prophets and kings of the Old Testament, but will be “put down by FORCE — divine supernatural force.”
The Bible predicts, says Garner Ted Armstrong, that Jesus will come exactly “when delay would result in blasting all life from this planet.” They quote Matthew, chapter 24: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved [“no human flesh left alive” in the King James version], but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.”
Asks Robert Kuhn, GTA’s second hand man for the entire vast apocalyptic organization, “When before in history has man had the potential to blow himself up? That possibility has only emerged since the advent of the hydrogen nuclear bomb. That’s why we believe this is ‘the time of the end’ that the Bible talks about”, However, according to this prophecy, it sounds like Jesus and his Sword of Iron will be doing a little zapping of his own when and if he arrives.
But if you’re converted to God’s way and repent, you will survive and be made a divine member of the elect and get to participate in the government of the New Jerusalem; ruling over the mere mortals who have yet to come around. “The most ABLE, the most RIGHTEOUS, those best fitted for office will be placed in all offices of responsibility and power,” says Garner Ted. “We know that King David of ancient Israel resurrected, will be King over the twelve great nations composed of literal descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel. We know the Twelve Apostles will each be a King, sitting on a throne, over ONE of those great nations…. Mortal man has proved he is incapable of governing himself, so there will be no elections, no political parties. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will function as a topflight TEAM with Abraham as ‘Chairman’ of the TEAM, next under Christ in the coming World Government of God!” He believes Daniel, Moses, and Elijah will be among the “chief executive personnel under Christ”. Noah will head a “vast project of the RELOCATION OF THE RACES and NATIONS”, and “Job will be Director of worldwide URBAN RENEWAL”, rebuilding the waste places and the destroyed cities. Under the New Covenant, for an entire millennium, there will be no crime, no wars, no hunger, no hatreds, and no sex, for men and women “will be made equal.
Don’t worry about America. The Armstrongs believe that America and Britain have joined the Jews as “the chosen people”. They believe the progenitors of “the British race” are two of the lost tribes of Israel, those of Manasseh and Ephraim, which were descended from Joseph and carry the “Birthright of Abraham” Thus the Americans (only of British ancestry?), in addition to the Jews, are the true Israelites, the chosen of God. Confused? Well, there’s the free booklet The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy.
The free booklets and most of the more than 2 million monthly copies of The Plain Truth are sent out of an elaborate mail processing center, which last year mailed 60 million pieces of literature. (The rest of The Plain Truth magazine, published in four languages, is printed and mailed from plants in England and Australia.) At the center a battery of WATS telephone operators receive 40,000 calls a month – average caller’s age, thirty-five – and forty-five full-time computer terminal keyboard operators process requests for material and Plain Truth subscriptions through the WCG’s IBM 370 computer, which takes up a whole building and has 2 million names on file. The ultramodern center, which employs 150 people, receives 45,8,00 inquiries a week and answers them all. Since thousands of the letters contain cash and check donations, admission to the mail receiving area is only by punching the combination in a solid state lock. “This is the backup for Ted Armstrong”, says center director Richard Rice, rising from his Danish leather swivel chair. “If GTA can’t reach people personally, he’ll lose credibility.” And if the people can’t reach GTA, they can’t send dollars.
The Plain Truth: A Magazine of Understanding is for millions of Americans their only news magazine. Highschool students in working-class districts from Montreal to Portland receive The Plain Truth free of charge and rely on it for information about current events. Its theological message is veiled by news reports and slick cover stories, such as “Sadat Jolts the Kremlin” and “The Passing of Europe’s Old Guard” and “Angola Falls to Reds–What It Means for the West.” One series profiled the Soviet-bloc countries, and the reporting was as objective and informative as that in Time magazine, which The Plain Truth with its colored border resembles. “The Plain Truth,” says Garner Ted, “analyzes world news and human experience in light of Bible understanding -something no other magazine does.”
But aside from its news reports, The Plain Truth is largely a right-wing propaganda outlet. Articles rail against “the twisted ideology”’ of the women’s movement, stating that the letters Ms. should stand for “Marxist sisters”. It denounces pornography as “an ideal weapon employed by our enemies to weaken Western civilization”. Garner Ted has looked like a liberal when he’s taken stands against “the death of the oceans” or “aerosol Armageddon” or the American SST. But in his column and occasional articles that appear in each issue, he is happier campaigning against European unity, which he believes threatens United States interests and is the fulfillment of the prophesied resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire. He bewails America’s “isolationist attitudes” and fears that the CIA exposés will weaken our country and the CIA. He vehemently and consistently supported the Vietnam War, right up to the fall of Saigon, fearing at the end that his big “World Tomorrow Campaign”’ planned for Bangkok would be eclipsed by invading North Vietnamese troops. And despite his strong, if abstract, denunciations of world militarism, he whole heartedly supports a strong American military machine: “What doesn’t make sense to me, as a minister, an evangelist, a news commentator, and an observer is this: Knowing we won’t trust God, I can’t understand why we want to tear down our military.”
Ironically, Garner Ted Armstrong’s forty-eight-page monthly was among the first mass publications in this country to deal with the question of pollution. The issue of man’s desecration of his environment was raised in eloquent and gripping terms as early as 1966 but was presented not to urge that man do something about it, but only to show that until Jesus gets here, we’re going to continue to make a mess out of things. The Plain Truth, especially in its mindless inconsistency, offers little hope, but neither does the rest of the news media with its heavy load of bad news. The Garner Ted Armstrong folks have the answer to that: a second magazine called GN: The Good News, a strictly religious monthly magazine with 400,000 subscribers. (The two magazines are currently merging into one called Plain Truth.)
The least religious, most secular, part of the Armstrong empire is GTA-TV, a weekly half-hour series of expertly produced color programs dealing with everything from Yasir Arafat (“Portrait of a Hero”) to the American Farmer (“Caught in the Middle”) to juvenile crime (“Can We Prevent It?”). The U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations recently requested the transcript, for use in its hearings, of Garner Ted’s documentary “Nuclear Power: Risk or Remedy?” The program takes no sides on nuclear energy but concisely examines the complex arguments for and against. GTA-TV technicians last year built a $300,000 “video pod”, a self-contained mobile television studio that fits into the luggage compartment of commercial jets. The only one of its kind, it was shipped to Egypt to be used for televising an interview by Garner Ted with Anwar Sadat, and then to Brussels, where he interviewed the Belgian prime minister and NATO Secretary General Joseph Luns, for a program entitled “NATO: Who Needs It?” The video pod is also used for televising Garner Ted Armstrong’s religious “campaigns” around the country. These, in addition to the documentaries, are shown every week on ninety-seven American television stations.
But it is “The World Tomorrow” that reaches the largest number of people–no less than 50 million a week–and produces among its listeners a reaction the New York Times has called “a combination of fascination and puzzlement”. The Times quoted one Pasadena resident: “He makes so much sense when he’s talking, but afterward it’s hard to remember exactly what he said”. In one recent program Garner Ted touched in his rambling, repetitious, adjective-laced fashion on the Jewish Holocaust, Eric Von Daniken, the pollution of Los Angeles, Zero Population Growth, and the beauty of butterflies, and, after twenty-five minutes of nearly incoherent syntax, ended with the question “Are we living in a biblically prophesied age?” He then intoned in his John Cameron Swazy voice, “Write for the free booklet, ‘Is This The END TIME?’”
The man who wrote this well researched, fearful little publication based on the Bible’s prediction of “the time of the end”, when “the Lord shall lay waste the earth and make it desolate”, is Robert Kuhn, GTA’s Jewish vice-president in charge of just about every-thing. Kuhn, thirty-two, has a PhD in neurophysiology and other degrees from UCLA and Johns Hopkins. Hardly your run-of-the-mill Jesus freak.
The Bible is a record of God’s word, not a dogmatic list of orders and demands”, says Kuhn in his executive office full of original surrealist paintings. Declaiming in the tones of a New York intellectual, Kuhn explains that the Worldwide Church of God does not believe in life after death (“when you’re dead, you’re dead”), does not believe in evolution (neither do 45 million other American evangelicals), and does not believe in the Trinity. Nor do the 100,000 members of the WCG, who attend church on Saturday, celebrate Easter or Christmas. Extra and premarital sex is proscribed but not alcohol. “Make no mistake about it”, says Kuhn. “This is the End Time. It is the most cataclysmic time in human history, and man’s 6,000 year age will soon come to a tumultuous climax. But Christ’s return at the last possible moment will prevent global catastrophe”. Kuhn, dedicated to “preparing the way for His second arrival”, says, “This is not just the ranting of another wild-eyed sect.” He insists Christ will come during the lifetime of this generation and expects to see the whole show himself. Perhaps GTA TV will secure exclusive worldwide rights to broadcast the Return live.
“The Worldwide Church of God is not even in the same camp as Christianity”, says the Reverend Larry Falk, one of the established church’s many critics who regard Garner Ted as an egomaniacal charlatan. Presbyterian minister Tom Green in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, says of the Armstrongs: “It was all I could do to keep from puking after one of my parishioners bent my ear for an hour on the virtues of Garner Ted. I tried to diagram one of his scriptural addresses once and ended up with my left thumb in my anal cavity and a pencil stuck in my ear. He makes no sense. He takes biblical passages and changes words to make the scripture say what he wants. Figuring out what he’s saying on ‘The World Tomorrow’ is like trying to catch a greased pig when you’re bow-legged”.
Green says, “Garner Ted is certainly meeting a need. But is it a sick need or healthy need? Does he enable people to function in a way that celebrates who they are as human beings? Certainly not. He keeps people at their physical level of dependence, like a bunch of pithed frogs”, Green believes that the “God is Dead” period of the sixties is now being replaced by fundamentalist sects representing the befuddled masses who never caught up with modern theology. “Organized religion has failed the masses”, says Green. “The established church keeps calling the American people to account in the now, but the people say, ‘This life is so crummy, the next one has to be better, so let’s concentrate on what’s coming’” Here lies Garner Ted Armstrong’s strength, not to mention Jimmy Carter’s.
It’s not been entirely smooth sailing for the Armstrong operation. In 1972 Garner Ted was ousted from the church, the college, and the radio broadcasts for several months by his father for “personal and emotional problems”, Herbert Armstrong told the congregations of the WCG that his son was “in the bonds of Satan”, The New York Times reported at the time that a source said Garner Ted had written his father, confessing “I have sinned against my wife, the children, and the church”. He was eventually reinstated to his positions of responsibility and leadership after “the process of repentance was complete”, in the words of his father Two years later, thirty-five ministers broke away from the WCG and formed a splinter group, citing the Armstrongs’ domination of the church. Said Walter Sharp of Texas, “What the split actually boiled down to is the realization by many of us that the World Wide Church has a totalitarian system of government”, Several thousand dissidents left the church and went over to the new group. But despite the setbacks, which the Armstrongs refuse to acknowledge, membership in the WCG is growing at the rate of 10,000 a year.
“Figuring out what Armstrong’s saying; according to one critic, “is like trying to catch a greased pig when you’re bow-legged.”
Martin E. Marty, professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, says of the Armstrong phenomenon: “Like the Seventh Day Adventists and Moody Bible people who also preach Pre-Millennialism, the Armstrongs believe things have got to get worse before they get better. Their message does what religions always do: give meaning to life and a sense of belonging. Apocalyptic sects like this tend to appear at moments in history when other explanations give out, at moments when things aren’t right. Sects like Armstrong’s probably drain off discontent into harmless channels among people who might be more dangerous without Armstrong’s alternative view of history to grasp onto. This kind of religion makes elites out of the ignorant and the poor.”
Mainly, this kind of religion is making elites out of the Armstrongs and the executive strata of the WCG, Ambassador College, and the AICF The Armstrong folks are undaunted by their detractors and are charging full-scale into the future, the coming chaos notwithstanding. Last May, in Chicago, Garner Ted Armstrong, the most prolific broadcaster of our time, offered the invocation at a luncheon of the National Association of Broadcasters and told 2,500 media executives: “We plan to make ‘The World Tomorrow’ the number-one religious broadcast in the nation. We plan to have the program on 2,000 stations by 1980.” Armstrong is also aiming at a circulation for The Plain Truth of 10 million.
Herbert Armstrong is continuing to expand the Cultural Foundation’s nondenominational activities. In order that the wealthy WCG may become a patron of the literary arts, the foundation is starting a new, commercial monthly, Quest 77, which they call “The Magazine of Human Potential”. “We think good writers should have a place to appear besides Playboy and Penthouse”, says Kuhn. To edit the magazine, Kuhn hired Robert Shnayerson, former editor in chief of Harper’s magazine. The Ambassador Auditorium’s concert season and the new magazine are both hugely ambitious undertakings. Together they lend prestige and mainstream respectability to the Armstrong cause.
Religious quacks or sincere believers? It’s not easy to say, but sincerity seems to be the signal trait of the cleancut, all-American innocents one sees on the Ambassador College campus. And sincerity is certainly to be read on the faces of the two Armstrongs and the staff of their $50 million-a-year organization.
Keith Thomas, one of the WCG’s ordained ministers, looks out over Manhattan from his office on the twenty-eighth floor of One Penn Plaza and speaks of the Armstrongs reaching 100 million people a week through all its media–radio, television, and its myriad publications. Says Thomas, gazing at the twin monoliths of the World Trade Center in lower New York, “We are living in the last days. Things are focused on a collision course. Either God intervenes, or the world is going to be a cinder. Our commission is to take this message to the world”. PR man Tom Hall says it once more: “This generation will see the return Of Jesus Christ. The drama being worked out here below is such that when He returns, no one will question why He came”.
Any questions? Write for the free booklet . . .