Schuller's Big Soviet Coup May Prop Up U.S. Ministry


In 1972, during a visit to the Soviet Union, television minister Robert H. Schuller saw himself, the Pope and Billy Graham vilified in a Leningrad museum as those who "preached the lies of Christianity."

The Garden Grove minister didn't return to the U.S.S.R. until 1989. But this time, he was embraced, encouraged, honored--and suddenly thrust into taping a television message that ended up being aired on Christmas Day to 200 million Soviet citizens.

What happened?

Schuller and other Western theologians agree that the major intervening force was history: Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's perestroika and the opening of Eastern Europe.

But other powerful forces were at work to bring about this incongruous partnership between an officially atheistic country and the United States' most-watched TV preacher.

There was the longtime friendship between Schuller and millionaire industrialist Armand Hammer, whose well-publicized ties to the Soviet Union date back to the birth of the Communist revolution.

And there was the promise of money to be made: not from the Soviets, who soon will get regular televised messages from Schuller, but from millions of Americans whom Schuller and others like him hope to inspire with the prospect of all those Eastern Bloc souls waiting to be saved.

"This gives them a new cause," said Dave Hunt, a critic of television ministers who has written a number of Christian books, including one critical of Schuller.

Schuller, whose ministry has been faltering economically in the wake of televangelist scandals, does not deny that there is money to be made from a Soviet ministry. But he and other prominent television ministers trying to break into this new religious frontier insist that their basic motivation is spiritual.

"I'll do anything I can for those people because I kind of feel like here we have a religious party in this country, and they're missing out on the party," Schuller said in a recent interview atop the 12th-floor offices of his Crystal Cathedral headquarters in Garden Grove. "I feel so bad about it."

Whatever the motivation, the 63-year-old Schuller so far has the Soviet preaching stage essentially to himself. He has been granted approval to deliver monthly religious addresses for at least one year beginning in September.

On May 27--five months after Schuller made history as the first foreigner ever allowed to deliver a religious broadcast within the U.S.S.R.--Soviet television aired a second Schuller broadcast that had been taped in preparation for the U.S.-Soviet summit held in Washington later that week. The broadcast appeared after Gorbachev issued a televised plea for calm following panicked buying in anticipation of commodity price increases.

"Perhaps his sermon was more important than my speech," Gorbachev said, singling Schuller out for praise at a banquet during the summit.

Schuller's journey to this small but heady moment of history began with a phone call last November.

It was from a Soviet emigre who offered to broker a deal in which Schuller could air in the Soviet Union a special Christmas broadcast of his "Hour of Power" program, Schuller aide Rob Owen said.

Schuller did not know the caller, so he contacted Hammer, a longtime friend and Crystal Cathedral supporter, and asked his advice on how to proceed. Hammer, the 91-year-old chairman of Occidental Petroleum, said he would be going to Moscow within a few days and invited Schuller along "to work something out."

On a freezing, overcast day in early December, Schuller and Hammer descended into Moscow aboard Hammer's private Boeing 727, "Oxy 1." Hammer and Schuller would stay in Moscow only three days, in time for Schuller to return to the pulpit of his Crystal Cathedral for Sunday morning services.

Hammer arranged for Schuller to discuss with Soviet officials the possibility of broadcasting Schuller's weekly "Hour of Power" program, which is seen by about 1.4 million Americans and aired in 31 other countries.

On their last full day in Moscow, Schuller and the wealthy industrialist met with Valentin Lazutkin, vice chairman of the Gostelradio television network, which is seen as Channel 1 in homes from Leningrad to Providenia, 7,000 miles away in the Siberian Far East. Gostelradio is also broadcast in Eastern Europe and is seen clandestinely in parts of the People's Republic of China.

Lazutkin said " nyet " to airing Schuller's "Hour of Power." But he offered to let the minister tape a message of "inspiration" for the Soviet people. He explained that it would be difficult to broadcast a religious program across such an ethnically diverse nation, where Muslim is the dominant religion in one part of the country while Christianity is strong in others, Schuller said.

The Soviet official emphasized that he was seeking a charismatic speaker, but not one who emphasized fundamentalist Christian doctrine.

At that point, Schuller recalled, Lazutkin looked him in the eye and asked, "Are you a Baptist?"

"I said no. He smiled and they all smiled on the Russian side."

Lazutkin went on to say that Schuller's sermons would fit in nicely with Gostelradio's new half-hour program on Sunday nights, in which philosophers and Soviet religious leaders are interviewed "to understand the meaning of life."

Lazutkin asked Schuller, "When are you going home?" Hammer's wife had fallen ill, so Schuller replied that the two would need to leave Moscow the next day.

"They said, 'Could you tape record today?' and I said yes," Schuller recalled. "They said, 'Do you have your robe with you?' and I said I didn't but that I wouldn't mind doing it in my suit. They cleared out a studio, much like an American studio."

Sipping coffee and tea in a nearby office, Schuller waited until the first half of the program was taped before being summoned into the studio and handed a microphone.

For the next 15 minutes, he spoke unrehearsed and uncensored.

"There was not enough time to get nervous," Schuller recalled. "It came from my heart, quite spontaneously."

Schuller opened his historic address by saying: "I have a confession to make. There has been a great deal of distrust between our countries. But now, I can say to you that the American people trust the Russian people, and that's so beautiful, because trust sets the stage for a real love."

Schuller and Hammer left Moscow the next day not knowing when, or if, the taped broadcast would air. Schuller's next contact from Moscow was on Jan. 2, when he received a telex from Lazutkin informing him that the broadcast had aired on Christmas Day and was viewed by more than 200 million Soviets.

"We had a powerful feedback from the audience as telephone calls and other expressions of deep spiritual concern," Lazutkin said in the telex. "My heartiest thanks to all your kindness."

Elated, Schuller and Hammer arranged a hasty return to Moscow to negotiate for more broadcasts. In their next visit in February, Hammer and Schuller spent a week touring Moscow and visiting Soviet religious leaders. Schuller even took the pulpit on a Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Moscow, and afterward both he and Hammer delivered a satellite message to the Crystal Cathedral congregation back home.

"People tugged at my elbow, they grabbed at my suits and they begged to touch me," Schuller told his American followers, with his visage appearing on a giant video screen inside the Crystal Cathedral.

Seated nearby, Hammer, 92, said, "I think your visit here, Bob, has been a tremendous help in bringing good relations between the two countries."

In another meeting, Lazutkin told Schuller that the Dec. 25 broadcast had gone over so well that Gostelradio was considering a regular series of messages.

Schuller left Moscow with negotiations still pending. In a March 11 telex, Lazutkin assured Schuller he was still working on the proposal and that he had even come up with a name for the broadcast: "From Heart to Heart."

"What do you think, Holy Father?" Lazutkin said in asking Schuller about the proposed title. "God loves you, so do I."

Schuller, meanwhile, was dispatching assistants to the Soviet Union to help work out details and to assist in a Moscow-based telethon to raise money for victims of the 1987 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in the Ukraine. Schuller's church had donated $50,000 to the Children of Chernobyl fund last December.

While in Moscow in April on the first of two negotiating trips, Schuller aide Owen received some startling news.

Owen "called me from Moscow and said, 'Are you sitting down?' " Schuller said. "He said they wanted me to deliver another message. They want this for the Sunday night before the summit. They feel that it would be a good thing for their country."

The Soviets attached some stipulations.

"They did not want me to do it from the pulpit," Schuller said. "They wanted me to do it from my Crystal Cathedral gardens, so people would not have to feel like they have to step into a house of worship."

This time, they also insisted Schuller wear his gray robes. Unlike in December, Schuller had a lot of time to plan this address.

"Do you know what's happened?" Schuller asked the Soviet people in his second address. "What's really happened is, something has been born. A heart-to-heart association between people in the United States and people in the Soviet Union."

Owen took the tape to Moscow, where Gostelradio had it translated into Russian and prepared for broadcast on May 27. Although the Soviets have been responsible for translations of his messages, Schuller said he has verified through independent language experts that they are retaining his words.

"They told me that if this one went well, they would be able to offer a regular series of messages," Schuller said.

Once again, though, Schuller was able to find out only after the fact that his second broadcast had aired.

On Friday, May 25, the country was thrown into a state of turmoil when Gorbachev announced the next stage of economic changes that called for dramatic price increases of basic goods. The turmoil was so serious that Gorbachev decided to preempt the Gostelradio programming Sunday night and speak to the Soviet people.

"I thought, 'Oh boy, there goes my program,' " Schuller said. "We didn't know if we aired or didn't air."

On Monday, May 28, Schuller boarded Hammer's private jet and they flew to Washington for the summit--they had been invited by the Soviets. Waiting for Schuller at his Washington hotel was a memo from Lazutkin asking to meet him privately at 1 p.m. and that they then would attend a joint news conference.

"Wow, that was good news," Schuller said. "I hadn't seen him since February. He hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks. And he said: 'Dr. Schuller, we had to change our schedule. Then we put your whole sermon on.' "

At the press conference, Lazutkin announced that Schuller would videotape once-a-month religious programs for the Soviet national television for at least 12 months, starting in September.

Michael Taratuta, San Francisco bureau chief for Gostelradio television, explained that the reason Soviet officials allowed an American minister on the air was because of the "new life" under Gorbachev.

"It is just part of the new television," Taratuta said. "We are coming to understand that religion is part of our life, to those who need it. To give the floor to an American broadcaster is nothing special."

Taratuta added, though, that the Schuller broadcasts were strictly experimental.

"We will see how it works" before deciding whether to prolong them or invite other foreigners to preach, Taratuta said.

Schuller's words most likely will fall on millions of deaf ears, said Georgia Shchekochikhin, press officer for the Soviet Embassy in Washington. That's because there are more atheists in the Soviet Union than believers, he said.

In the United States, there is also skepticism.

"I would be very surprised if it was an effective missionary tool because you need all kinds of follow-up and personal contact with the people," said David Harrell, a televangelism scholar at Auburn University in Birmingham, Ala. "Once a month on television won't do it."

Nevertheless, Jeffrey Hadden, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on television ministers, finds it extremely significant that the Soviet Union is allowing religious freedom at all after 70 years of suppression under communist rule.

The cynical view, Hadden said, is that the Soviet government knows that religion can be used as "an opiate of the people" and that it wants Schuller to pacify the masses during this time of radical social and economic change.

The less cynical view, Hadden said, is that the government is sincere in its efforts to open the country to religion and earnestly believes it could help infuse more meaning into the lives of Soviet citizens.

Schuller said he faces an immense challenge in the Soviet Union.

"It is absolutely mind-boggling," he said. "There is probably no other person ever given that opportunity to influence the mental attitudes of people. That is a tremendous responsibility. If I didn't believe sincerely in the guidance of God, I wouldn't touch it for the life of me."

Schuller is expanding his religious outreach at a time of financial crisis for his Crystal Cathedral ministry. The ministry's coffers have been sinking, in part, because of the rising costs of commercial air time and a loss of credibility resulting from the fall of PTL Club evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, plus other televangelism scandals.

Donations have dipped so low that Schuller appealed to his American audience in May for an emergency infusion of $3.2 million, saying he might otherwise have to curtail his "Hour of Power" broadcast.

Schuller said his forays into the Soviet Union might benefit his fund-raising ability in the United States.

"It (Soviet sermons) could assist us in the sense that there are always those who say, 'Can you trust this guy?' "Schuller said. "When the Soviet Union, which tends to be cynical, suspicious, critical, and anti-God . . . went with this, I think it has given me tremendous credibility. It virtually assures the fact that our position in America will remain strong and sure."

Meawhile, other television preachers are making or are trying to make inroads into Eastern Europe.

"Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are priorities because the opportunity is presenting itself," said Frankie Abourjilie, a spokeswoman for Pat Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network was granted approval in May to begin supplying Bible-based cartoons to air on Soviet national television. "You don't know how long that window will be open."

Abourjilie, speaking from Robertson's headquarters in Virginia Beach, Va., acknowledged that the Christian Broadcasting Network views a Soviet ministry as a fund-raising "asset."

The fund-raising potential is so great that Harrell and other religion scholars say that some of Schuller's rivals are chafing over the fact that he got his foot in the door first.

"Fund-raising is directly related to how sensational a cause they can keep in front of the people," Harrell said. "I would say from the standpoint of a cause that this is quite a coup."

Other ministers deny they are jealous.

"We are not working at odds with each other to expand the gospel of Christ into the Soviet empire," said Colby May, a spokesman for Paul Crouch, a Santa Ana-based televangelist whose Trinity Broadcasting Network recently reached agreement with the city of Leningrad to develop cultural programs that include religious programming.

Schuller said he is not concerned with jealousy among other television ministers.

"I would hope," he added, "that they would see that I am a ground breaker, a door opener, and that because of what I'm doing, others will be able to do better work."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World