The year 2004 ended on a tearful note forthe Reverend Robert H. Schuller, head of Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral and one of the most powerful men in American Christianity. On Dec. 17, his longtime musical director, Johnnie Carl, committed suicide in a Crystal Cathedral office after holding off police for about nine hours. In a Sunday service a couple of days after Carl's death, a visibly shaken Schuller told a crowd of thousands and a television audience of millions, “Christmas is a time for joy, a time to put our petty grievances behind us and sing 'Joy to the World.' But many people find this very difficult. The line that comes to me is this: Christmas is a time to cry, too.”
That's not the only time Schuller wept in December, though. In a Dec. 9 OC Metro cover story, editor Steve Thomas disclosed that Schuller “got caught up briefly in the excessive anti-communism of the 1950s,” an epoch in his life Schuller described as “a sad, sad time.”
Of the multitude of profiles on the always-positive reverend over the years, only one other mentioned his commie-bashing past—a 1995 piece Knight-Ridder newspapers published in advance of Schuller's “spiritual autobiography,” Prayer: My Soul's Adventure With God. Thomas' 5,167-word Metropiece would've been the second. But instead of expanding on this fascinating, rarely discussed topic, Thomas instead regurgitated tired-and-true facts about the Schuller odyssey—how he began his ministry from the top of the Orange Drive-In snack bar and expanded it into a multibillion-dollar ministry, blah, blah, blah.
Perhaps Thomas was just following precedent. In the 1995 Knight-Ridder piece, reporter Clark Morphew asked Schuller why his ministry had succeeded while others failed. Schuller credited a nonpartisan approach to the pulpit. As proof of this philosophy, Morphew referenced Prayer.
According to Prayer, Schuller was “politically neutral but quite possibly a liberal, at least in spirit” when he arrived in California from the Midwest in the mid-1950s. The young man's ideology changed, however, after hearing a lecture by Fred Schwartz, a self-proclaimed expert on communism who headed the Long Beach-based Christian Anti-Communist Crusade.
“I had no inkling,” Schuller recounted in Prayer, “that many leaders in mainline Protestantism were sympathetic to Marxism as an alternative to capitalism, which they saw as systematically evil.” As a result, Schuller pulled his Orange County congregation out of the mainstream National Council of the Churches of Christ.
“I was now tempted for the first and last time to accept an invitation to go full-time into anti-communism and join [Schwartz],” Schuller wrote. And then, according to Prayer, God spoke to Schuller, saying, “Watch out for communism, and watch out for anti-communism, and watch out for anti-anti-communism.”
“[Schuller] turned his back on the movement,” Morphew wrote, “and all public displays of political loyalty.”
That's where Schuller and Morphew end the story. The truth, however, is more complex. According to Lisa McGirr's excellent 2001 examination of 1960s Orange County politics, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Schuller was very active in anti-communist activities. Suburban Warriors revealed that Schuller served on the religious committee of Orange County School of Anti-Communism, a five-day celebration held in 1961 to lecture students on the Red Menace, culminating with a midday rally held in Anaheim's Glover Stadium and attended by more than 7,000 students.
Members of Schuller's congregation at the time, McGirr wrote, were some of Orange County's most active conservatives and included Congressman James Utt, best remembered nowadays for insisting in 1963 that “a large contingent of barefooted Africans” was in alliance with the U.N. to take over the United States. In addition, Schuller joined the Californians' Committee to Combat Communism, a group formed to help pass the Francis Amendment. This 1962 ballot initiative would've required “teachers and employees of public institutions to answer congressional and legislative committee inquiries concerning communist affiliation and subversion”; The New York Times called the Francis Amendment “a gross violation of the federal constitution.”
The Francis amendment was defeated by a 3-2 margin (it passed in Orange County, though), and soon afterward, Schuller left what McGirr called “controversial political activities.” But the template was set. John Birch conservatism, while popular in Orange County, didn't translate into nationwide success, so Schuller quickly ditched the polarizing and embraced the gospel of prosperity—”God wants you to succeed!”
God and money. Could anything be more anti-communist?