American Christianity has been nothing if not a graveyard for once-powerful preachers who fell under the weight of their own hubris, but few holy men fell harder and farther–and more deservingly–than the Reverend Robert H. Schuller, who passed away this morning at 88.
This was the man, after all, who revolutionized American Christianity upon reaching Orange County in the 1950s by preaching the power of "possibility thinking" through Christ from the roof of a snack bar at the old Orange Drive-In to churchless suburbanites. He's the guy who invented the modern-day American megachurch with his Crystal Cathedral, a campus so bombastic that it featured TWO iconic houses of worship: one built by Richard Neutra, another by Philip Johnson. His Hour of Power television show broadcast The Word across the world a way not seen since the days of Charles E. Fuller's The Old-Fashioned Revival Hour radio program. He published reams of best-selling books. And if all Schuller's legacy was that Rick Warren got the final inspiration for Saddleback Church after attending one of Schuller's church workshops, that would've been good enough to secure his name in the annals of American Christianity.
If Schuller had just retired a decade ago, he would've been golden. But he threw all that legacy away by letting his hubris get in the way.
Oh, Schuller was a legendary asshole, a pathology he always masked with his grin and grandfatherly ways. He gleefully engaged in the anti-commie witchhunts of the 1960s, a past that he tried to mask long afterwards. He hobnobbed with corrupt politicians like Ronald Reagan, former Congressman James Utt, and OC's felonious sheriff, Mike Carona. Waitresses in South County knew that Schuller was a bad tipper and a terrible customer. Remember that incident where Schuller abused an airline stewardess, and he claimed he was trying to give her a blessing, which led to the Rev getting a misdemeanor? Asshole.
And yet the world would've still remembered Schuller as the titan of American Christianity he was if not for the last years of his life, a span that saw Schuller kick out his heir apparent, son Robert A. Schuller, that saw the Crystal Cathedral go into bankruptcy because his successors kept up the lavish ways of the Father, that saw Schuller still live on the high horse while his elderly congregation wondered what was going to happen to the church where they had given millions of dollars to over the decades. And that answer was the Schullers selling the Crystal Cathedral to the Diocese of Orange, and the remaining congregation reduced to taking up refuge in St. Callistus in Garden Grove.
Schuller wasn't evil, like, say, Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith, or any of the pedophile-protecting bishops of Orange. Nor did he defend drunkards like fellow OC shyster Paul Crouch. No, Schuller could've been a Billy Graham, a Rick Warren–but Schuller got in the way.
PS, as an interesting local journalism note: the Los Angeles Times Schuller obituary has as a co-author William Lobdell, their former legendary religion writer who hasn't written for them since 2008, I believe. He's now a spokesperson for the Irvine Co.–talk about a fall from grace…