From the Archives: The time Muhammad Ali asked for Robert Schuller’s autograph
He presides over what is perhaps the most controversial Protestant Church in America, the glittering, all-glass, $20-million Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, just off the Santa Ana Freeway, next door to Disneyland.
He is a superstar of televangelism; an estimated 2.7 million watch his Sunday program, “Hour of Power,” where he preaches his individualized, sunny gospel of success, self-esteem and positive thinking—or, as he prefers to call his theology, “Possibility Thinking.”
And even before his current collision with California tax authorities, Robert Harold Schuller, 56, had become a nationally recognized celebrity.
His office desk is flanked by photographs of himself with Frank Sinatra and Pope John Paul II. He prayed with John Wayne during the actor’s dying days in the hospital. He helped officiate at the funeral of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. He was among the select guests invited to lunch with Queen Elizabeth when she visited Los Angeles earlier this year—and, before the event ended, Muhammad Ali asked for his autograph.
Besieged by Fans
Wherever he goes, he is besieged by wide-eyed fans who want his autograph, his handshake or merely an encouraging word.
“Oh, Dr. Schuller! Is it really you?” shrieked a well-dressed, middle-age woman, her face filled with disbelief as she spotted the silvery-haired Schuller boarding a plane in Dallas. Almost running toward him, fumbling frantically in her purse at the same time for a scrap of paper for him to autograph, she suddenly turned as shy as a girl standing in his presence. “Oh, Dr. Schuller, you’re such an inspiration,” she murmured. “I’m from Kansas City and I watch your program every single Sunday!” As Schuller signed his name, she stared at him in absolute awe.
“God loves you and so do I,” said Schuller, uttering what has become his trademark line. He patted her on the shoulder and, as he walked away, she looked faint.
Aboard the plane, dozens of passengers descended upon Schuller; even the pilot came out of his cockpit to personally shake hands with his celebrated passenger.
None of which seemed to surprise or flatter Robert Schuller in the least.
An ‘Integrity Trip’
Schuller, it quickly becomes clear, not only preaches self-esteem, he seems to possess it in healthy abundance. He believes himself to be “the most sensible theologian in the country today—or, let me put it this way: if there were any theologian that I knew that had something (to say) that made more sense than (what) I’m writing, I would convert, because I’m on an integrity trip, not an ego trip . . .. But I frankly think I have higher standards than the average person.”
Schuller also regards the 17 books he has written during the last 15 years—especially the recent ones —as “very profound.” So profound, in fact, that, they must be read “two or three times . . . to understand what I’m really trying to say . . ..”
If Schuller is proud of his success, it is understandable. It did not come easy. His is the classic American rags-to-riches story.
He was born in Alton, Iowa, a farm town so tiny that there were only 14 students in his high school graduating class. His family was poor and Schuller himself was always overweight, academically mediocre and socially unpopular. Girls only giggled at his shy overtures and the boys groaned when they ended up with him, always the last chosen, on their after-school sandlot baseball team.
His childhood years, he recalls, were lonely, spent primarily by himself tending his father’s cattle in isolated country pastures. His only social activity, he says, was attending church on Sunday.
Attending college, the Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., Schuller says he was “so broke that I lived for a couple of years on almost nothing but Hershey chocolate and sweet drinks.”
He blames that “dietary deficiency” not only for his continuing weight problem in college, but for causing an even more physical problem later on: as a young minister he developed a condition medically known as rhinophyma, genetic in origin but exacerbated by poor diet. Schuller’s nose began to grow larger and larger, gradually turning from pink to rose to beet red, finally becoming so bulbous that he looked grotesque, “like Andy Capp.” Worse, he would often find himself with an uncontrollable nosebleed in the midst of a sermon, wedding or funeral service.
His condition was surgically corrected years ago, leaving only small scars that his Sunday TV makeup artists can easily conceal.
But Schuller’s nose, it comes increasingly clear, is not a subject he wants to discuss.
“I just don’t care to get into that whole thing,” he snapped. It was the hard, authoritative voice of a man accustomed to having his way, to asking the questions, not answering them. Icy-eyed, his expression stony, he absently reached for a jar of unsalted almonds on his desk and, turning away, spent the next several minutes silently leafing through a stack of correspondence on his desk.
Gone, for the moment, at least, was the warm, witty, self-effacing Robert Schuller who sweeps into his televised pulpit each Sunday, so regal in his flowing steel-blue robes, so seemingly relaxed and spontaneous and filled with fun. And, gone, certainly, was that public apostle of “Possibility Thinking” who so constantly applauds the grace and courage of those who not only accept their handicaps, however large or small, but are willing to inspire others by discussing them before millions on his TV show.
Aloof in Private
(If Schuller doesn’t want to discuss his own prior physical obstacles to success, barely a Sunday passes when he doesn’t mention his own daughter, Carol, 16, who lost a leg three years ago in a motorcycle accident, but remains an avid skier, competing in races for the handicapped.)
As a passing stranger soon concludes, there are two Robert Schullers—and the private Schuller bears scant resemblance to the public Schuller so many see and adore.
The private Schuller—particularly among strangers but even around his faithful staff, friends and wife—is often surprisingly aloof, stiff and uncomfortable, sullen and sour at times, defensive at others. In conversation, he is perpetually dominant, both condescending and pedantic. He displays not the slightest trace of spontaneous humor, rarely smiles and never seems to laugh.
Ultimately, of course, the private Schuller is irrelevant compared to the public Schuller—and only an incurable cynic or a fool would deny that he is performing a valuable social service every Sunday, uplifting the spirits of millions of people who, for whatever reason, would not leave their homes to attend church.
Schuller’s success is no mystery: He combines his own unique, upbeat rendition of religion with extraordinary business sense and flamboyant showmanship.
From the minute he hits his pulpit, he is an irrepressible bundle of energy, strutting, pirouetting, flapping his arms heavenward, whispering and thundering, forever flouncing to and fro. On the floor below, TV camera crews scramble to keep up with him.
A lover of slogans, simple rhymes and catchy one-liners, Schuller often uses a huge chalkboard to write down his wisdoms for harried housewives who might want to scribble “Schullerisms” onto their own kitchen chalkboards to help themselves and their families make it through another week fraught with temptation and strain.
“Inch by inch, anything’s a cinch,” is one of Schuller’s favorite lines of encouragement. But he has dozens more: “It takes guts to leave the ruts,” “Turn your scars into stars” (originally conceived, according to Schuller’s closest friends, from Schuller’s own youthful nasal problems), “What you can conceive, you can achieve,” “There’s no gain without pain,” “Beginning is halfway there,” “Don’t take care, take charge,” and, lately, as advice to the unemployed, “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”
One recent Sunday, in a 20-minute talk, Schuller told his congregation that they can avoid life’s “spills” by guarding against “frills” and cheap “thrills” and developing instead, “skills.” Using his big chalkboard, he wrote down his four rhyming words—and, sure enough, some members of the congregation were taking notes.
Later, Schuller said he regarded his spills-frills-thrills-skills speech as one of his more “profound” Sunday messages, “filled with some very, very good stuff that had to be said.”
Schuller doesn’t find his approach condescending. He has to communicate at the simplest possible level, he says, in order to reach people. “People don’t read, they don’t understand,” he says. “The comprehension level just isn’t good enough.” Sometimes, in fact, Schuller compares his own TV program to a religious “kindergarten.”
An expert mimic with a fine sense of timing, Schuller also fully appreciates the disarming weapon that a sardonic, nearly irreverent sense of humor can be, and so he keeps his audience smiling or laughing aloud about half the time, telling one usually self-deprecating joke after another.
Under perpetual attack from critics for his extravagance and emphasis on material success, for example, he recently deadpanned to his congregation: “Have you heard the latest? They’re saying that when Oral Roberts, Billy Graham and Bob Schuller get to heaven, Graham will convert everybody to Christianity, Roberts will heal them and Schuller will be out raising money to air condition the place.” The crowd loved it.
Schuller is also fond of amusing, almost corny anecdotes and gimmickry, often involving the many famous people he knows. (His congregation, in turn, seems to love the idea of their minister the superstar, who symbolizes the very success-oriented gospel he preaches.)
Not long ago, Schuller, who had been invited to Bob Hope’s celebrated Classic Ball in Palm Springs, told his audience that Hope, 80, confined to bed with a brief illness, had been griping about the monotony of sports and religious programming on Sunday morning television.
“Only the preachers don’t wear cleats,” Hope quipped, according to Schuller.
Then, half-moon grin in perfect place, Schuller stepped slowly from behind his podium and, as the audience watched and the cameras zeroed in on his feet, gently lifted the hem of his flowing robe to display a pair of colorful cleats.
“So, Bob,” he said, directly addressing the comedian, “you never know.” The crowd loved that, too, and applauded.
(As it turned out, Hope himself had been watching Schuller’s program that morning, and even the dean of American comedians thought the stunt was funny. “Yeah, it just knocked me out!” Hope said later, chuckling. “It was wild! Funny! That’s a sense of humor! Very few of those Sunday televangelists have that, but Schuller attracts you with his sense of humor. I think he’s quite a personality.”)
Not incidentally, if Schuller is funny in his pulpit, he is truly hilarious when he is performing on secular stage, delivering, for his standard fee of $10,000, one of his 45-minute “commercial motivational” speeches. Unfettered by any need to be even obliquely refer to Jesus Christ, liberated from the need to be a polished TV performer, he turns into a swooping, exuberant, first-rate stand-up comic.
During a quick one-day trip to Dallas, for instance, Schuller kept a convention of about 1,500 cosmetics dealers in stitches by merely recounting the trials and tribulation he had suffered trying to remove some dirt from between the sidewalk and curb in front of his home. At one point, strutting the length of the stage, he whistled the entirety of “Jingle Bells” without sounding a single sour or feeble note.
As far as “motivating” his audience, Schuller, in the space of perhaps five minutes, simply said that everybody in the room could sell more cosmetics if they merely had faith that they could.
Nobody seemed to feel the slightest bit cheated that they had just paid $10,000 mainly for laughs. To the contrary, at the end of his speech, Schuller received a long, standing ovation.
No Gloom and Doom
As usual, Schuller seemed more bored than impressed by the open adulation. Certainly, mere applause doesn’t impress him anymore. Schuller’s congregation frequently applauds him and they routinely applaud the cathedral’s splendid music, especially the majestic strains of one of the most spectacular church organs outside of the Vatican or Westminster Abbey.
This spontaneous applause, unorthodox in a church, seems to particularly upset many of Schuller’s detractors, who apparently believe that, in the House of the Lord, all should be hushed in order to be holy.
Hushed and holy be damned. Robert Schuller knows what sells, and it isn’t gloom and doom. His own marketing surveys tell him that he is reaching those he has always termed “the unchurched,” people who have traditionally found no religion either attractive or uplifting, only restrictive and dreary.
And, so, unlike most of his Sunday morning TV brethren, you will never hear Robert Schuller even mention Satan from his pulpit or promise hellfire and brimstone to those who fail to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts immediately.
Unlike fellow televangelist Oral Roberts of Tulsa, Okla., you won’t hear Bob Schuller talking about faith healing or 900-foot-high visions of God coming to him in the night, promising a cure for cancer if only the faithful will supply $240 million for a new medical facility. Unlike Akron, Ohio’s long-time favorite, Rex Humbard, you won’t hear Schuller blaming the Devil for declining donations.
Instead, to the special horror of fundamentalists, Schuller tells his congregation that they need not take the Bible literally, or even fully understand it, in order to be “saved.”
Mankind, Schuller tells his flock, has too often been oppressed by organized Christianity in general. Man, Schuller says with absolute certainty, is not born filled with original sin in the traditional sense—i.e., self-centered rather than God-centered.
To the contrary, says Schuller, people are born lacking self-esteem and the capacity to trust in either themselves or others.
“If you do not love yourselves, then how can you love and serve others in God’s way?” asks Schuller.
What God really wants for his children, says Schuller, is that they learn self-love, set goals, large or small, and have faith that they will succeed. Whether your goal is to plant a blossoming flower garden, kick the cigarette habit, or make a billion dollars, Schuller says, it’s OK with God. God likes positive thinkers, and he doesn’t demand self-sacrifice and suffering in this world as the price of eternal bliss in the next.
Don’t Call It a Sermon
To Schuller, the idea of delivering what he calls a “classical sermon” filled mainly with readings and interpretations of the Bible is anathema. In fact, he prefers that his Sunday talks be called “inspirational messages,” not “sermons.”
He doesn’t even like being called a televangelist. Instead, he likes to “think of myself not just as a minister but also as a therapist, a mass psychologist.” (He also prefers being addressed as “Dr. Schuller,” although he has no Ph.D., other than a handful of honorary doctorates bestowed upon him by schools ranging in stature from the University of Seoul in Korea, to his own alma mater.)
Nor, says Schuller emphatically, does he regard “Hour of Power” as “a religious broadcast.” Instead, “I like to think of it as an enormous therapeutic injection of spiritual vitamins.”
As a consequence of his thinking, although Robert Schuller may now be rated as America’s leading televangelist, he doesn’t even belong to the 950-member National Religious Broadcasters organization.
“There are certainly some fine people in that group, and it’s not the dues—what is it, $200 a year? And I don’t want to seem snobbish or stand-offish. It’s just that . . ..”
Shrugging, unsmiling, Schuller didn’t even bother to hunt for the most diplomatic of words. “It’s just that—who needs them?”
Indeed. Nowadays, if Robert Schuller won’t go to them, other clergymen flock to him by the hundreds—at $175 per person—when he stages his three-day institutes for successful church leadership at the Crystal Cathedral.
Having once called his own mushrooming empire a “22-acre shopping center for God,” Schuller openly describes himself as a “religious retailer” and urges other clerics to be equally aggressive in marketing their product.
“Medical centers retail health care; a good shopping center ought to offer everything from groceries to shoes—and you should service your congregation’s needs in the same way . . . (offering) everything from Bible studies to family counseling . . ..”
Schuller provides ample practical advice.
“Conduct a marketing survey and appeal to the people in your own backyard,” he tells other clergymen. The supply of potential worshipers is unending, says Schuller. “Why, I calculate right, right here, within a 15-minute radius of the Crystal Cathedral, there are probably still around 500,000 unchurched people we haven’t reached. There are still a heck of a lot of people out there overdosing, blowing their brains out and getting herpes.”
Plenty of Parking
He also stresses the importance “of providing plenty of parking space.” One morning years ago, he recalls, he saw a lone driver pull into the packed church lot, search in vain for a parking place, and then drive away. “And that man may never have been to a church before—or since,” says Schuller, wistful still.
Schuller even provides a brief lecture on showmanship. “You’ve got to have the confidence that you can do the job! It’s like a theater. You’re nervous? You don’t know what the say next?” he asks, quaking comically. “So, you just play the dramatic pause.” He struts across the stage, head bowed, hand on hip, looking solemn and intent. “Pace back and forth awhile, relax—or look them in the eye and smile (as if you’re thinking hard). Take a little longer with the gestures . . ..”
He peers at the laughing crowd, half-moon grin in place, hand perched theatrically on his hip. “In time, it’ll come to you, God will let you know what you need to say next. Inch by inch, anything’s a cinch.”
Perhaps best summarizing Schuller’s religious retailing philosophy is one of his oldest, closest friends, Mike Nason, 40. Nason and his wife, Donna, in their fascinating biography of Schuller, “The Inside Story: Robert Schuller” (World Books, $10.95), write:
“Believing that people love pageantry, Bob has always done everything with a great deal of drama and ceremony. He seems to know instinctively what advertising executives go to school to learn—you’ve got to keep your product before the public. You must have visibility. It’s not that Bob equates the gospel of Jesus Christ . . . with everyday household products such as toothpaste or toilet tissue. It’s just that people are people, and they are very predictable most of the time. The same principles that work to sell toothpaste also work to reach the unchurched for Christ.”
When Robert Schuller first came to Southern California in 1955 with orders from his denomination (the Reformed Church in America) to build a congregation from scratch, he had a young wife, two small babies and only $500.
Unable to afford a proper church, Schuller promptly introduced Garden Grove to its first drive-in church. For $10 weekly, he rented the top of a concession stand at a local drive-in theater, where, to the amusement of many, to the shock of others, he paraded each Sunday, Bible in hand, atop the tacky, peeling hot-dog stand, which, on one memorable occasion, was plastered with posters advertising the late Audie Murphy’s film, “To Hell and Back.”
His first collection plate, he remembers, contained $86.
Schuller even advertised his novel service with leaflets and a couple of freeway billboards reading: “Come as you are, pray in the family car.”
He also began walking door-to-door in search of the “unchurched,” an experience that would alter his thinking forever—because, he recalls, what he saw on more coffee tables than the Bible was Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s best-seller, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Schuller bought a copy of Peale’s book, read it and, the Nasons say, immediately wrote the famous New York City theologian, inviting him to speak at Schuller’s “open-air church” where “each member of the congregation had a comfortable chair by an open window.”
He didn’t tell Peale that the church was a drive-in concession stand until after Peale accepted.
“That’s Bob Schuller,” the Nasons say in their book. “He purposely paints a picture that is every word true but that doesn’t necessarily give the whole impression. He doesn’t see this as being deceitful; it’s just that he’s so great with adjectives and, in the positive way he views things, he’s really describing them as he feels they are.”
As soon as Peale agreed to appear, the Nasons say, Schuller spent every spare cent he had for advertising. And, on June 30, 1957, as a somewhat amused Peale climbed atop the drive-in hot-dog stand, in 90-degree weather, Robert Harold Schuller got his first glimpse of a full house. Late comers had to walk into the packed drive-in, their parked cars lining the streets outside.
Until he encountered Peale, Schuller had been preaching a fairly rigid, orthodox sermon, grounded in Calvinism, strong on self-sacrifice, weak on self-worth and earthly success. But Peale, a member of Schuller’s own denomination, gave him some advice he never forgot.
He told Schuller that he couldn’t spend 40 minutes scaring the daylights out of people, promising them eternal damnation if they didn’t repent, then expect them to believe during the last 10 minutes of his sermon that Jesus Christ was a forgiving, loving Savior.
“I oversold,” Schuller remembered, grinning. “I was pouring so much salt in their wounds that there was no way they could believe me!”
Credits God and Peale
Today, Schuller sometimes credits Peale for his “Possibility Thinkers” theology; other times, smiling, he says, “Frankly, I think it came from God.” In any event, although Peale returned to California 10 years later for the dedication of Schuller’s new drive-in, walk-in church, he hasn’t been back since, despite several invitations.
Looking saddened, Schuller suggests that Peale may be jealous of his success. “It’s unfortunate,” Schuller said, “but, well, I think maybe he has had some trouble dealing with it7mdash;but it would be presumptuous of me, of course, to speak for him.”
Schuller has suffered career setbacks, of course—at least during his early days in Garden Grove when some traditionalists in his growing congregation turned against him. They were upset, Schuller recalls, by his failure to preach more Bible from the pulpit and shocked by his ambitious plan to build a new drive-in, walk-in church. Mainly openly called for Schuller’s removal.
Today, Schuller seems almost blase about that early power struggle, but the Nasons describe his reaction in more dramatic terms:
Schuller, they write, was so “haunted” by “the fear of failure” that he became paranoid, temperamental and even feared that he was losing his mind, that he might “go berserk” and kills his wife and children. They describe Schuller awakening in tears after nightmares and praying: “Oh, God, please take me. Just a fatal heart attack would solve all my problems. Give me a way out gracefully . . ..”
In 1958, the Nasons continue, “Robert Schuller was a broken man . . . his hair turned prematurely gray practically overnight.”
As with so much of his friend’s book, Schuller doesn’t remember telling Nason the story quite that way. “Well, I would say that I was, well, very stress-surrounded,” Schuller said, grudgingly. “Just put it this way,” he added tersely, “I suppose there was a time when the will to die was stronger than the will to live.”
As for his hair turning prematurely gray, Schuller only turned coy. “Did it? I wouldn’t know. When is a perons’s hair supposed to turn gray?”
Not that it matters. Robert Schuller survived the stress and strain of those early years to build a $35-million empire. The centerpiece is “Hour of Power,” launched in 1970 and now aired (at a cost of about $8 million last year, according to church officials) on some 190 TV stations in the United States, Canada and Australia, as well as the U.S. Armed Forces Network.
Schuller may also be America’s most popular televangelist, depending on which surveys you read. According to the Arbitron rating service, Schuller is, by one measure, viewed in at least 200,000 more homes weekly than his nearest competitor, perennial favorite, fundamentalists Jimmy Swaggert of Baton Rouge, La. But looking at a different Arbitron rating formula, Swaggert has nearly 3 million viewers, compared to Schuller’s 2.7 million. Either way, both Schuller and Swaggert are comfortably ahead of faith healer Oral Roberts, fundamentalist Rex Humbard and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, all three consistently trailing, in that order.
The producer of “Hour of Power” is Schuller’s own wife. A one-time Iowa country girl who aspired to become a professional church organist (and met Schuller in church), Arvella Schuller, 52, is not only charming, with a personal grace and warmth Schuller himself lacks, she is also bright, tough-minded and fully as ambitious as Schuller himself.
If “Hour of Power” has become the slickest, most professional religious program on the Sunday airwaves, even Schuller’s closest friends give full credit to his wife’s critical, creative and artistic eye. Of course, they quickly add, she is molding God’s own inspired clay as she sits each Sunday in the cathedral’s plushly carpeted air-conditioned basement studio critically watching the activity upstairs on four TV monitors. With the aid of Nason (now Schuller’s public relations agent) and a $2-million-a-year team of free-lance professionals, she tolerates not even the most minor sloppiness if she can avoid it.
Editing for Perfection
She scans the audience for the occasional sour face, which will be edited out of the TV show when it airs three weeks later. Should a soloist flub a line, that segment will be re-filmed. Should Schuller himself garble a sentence, he will be refilmed.
Whatever else, Arvella Schuller never has to worry about a half-empty house. Such is the 3,000-seat cathedral’s growing fame that it now takes two consecutive morning services to accommodate the throngs. Not all, of course, are regular worshipers. Many are tourists who reason, in increasing numbers, that, if they came all the way to Orange County from Topeka or New York City or whatever to visit Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm, then they should probably see the celebrated Crystal Cathedral too.
For those who have crying babies, are too lazy to get out of their house robes or, for any other reason, don’t want to come inside the church, Schuller, remembering his early days, has provided a huge backyard parking lot where, in good weather, he can be clearly seen in his pulpit through two 90-foot high, electronically powered sliding glass doors while his words are heard on a special car radio station.
The first show begins at 9:30 sharp when Schuller sweeps from a hidden stairwell into the pulpit. The camera crews, strategically located through the church, in the balconies and on the floor directly in front of him, swing into brisk action.
“This,” Schuller rapturously cries, arms raised high, peering directly into the nearest camera, familiar grin in winsome place, “is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
Meantime, his congregation, tourists especially, are craning their necks, trying to see if the day’s special guest, seated behind the pulpit, is going to be somebody famous.
Often as not, it will be.
Although he does sometimes invite obscure citizens with stories of personal courage to share his pulpit, Schuller knows that much of his popularity is due to his star-studded Sunday service where some of the most famous and influential people in America have appeared, telling him in brief interviews how they or their loved ones overcame fear of failure, personal handicaps or just plain “negative thinking.”
Former President Gerald R. Ford has been his guest, mainly discussing his wife Betty’s battle with drugs and alcohol. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley told Schuller how “positive thinking” helped him overcome racism.
Others, on a long list of special guests, have included Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, Burl Ives, Milton Berle, Art Linkletter, Tony Orlando, Academy Award-winning composer Al Kasha, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Ford Motor Co. Vice President Fred Sagan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and, on separate occasions, one of America’s most politically powerful couples, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and Elizabeth Dole, now President Reagan’s secretary of transportation.
Not incidentally, Schuller assiduously avoids using his pulpit as a political platform. If his guest once week is a prominent Democrat, he will almost certainly try to feature an equally prominent Republican the next week.
During his pulpit interviews, he approaches social and economic issues with the caution of man treading through a mine field. Chatting with Sagan, Schuller obliquely urged his congregation to buy American-made cars by saying he himself was now driving a Ford, that its quality had improved but “I’ll put my name to a Ford anytime.” Interviewing Bradley, Schuller indirectly chastised any racists in his congregation by casually asking Bradley if he thought racism had lost November’s gubernatorial election for him. That is as close as Robert Schuller comes to his pulpit to revealing his personal opinions.
President Reagan has not yet appeared in Robert Schuller’s pulpit, but he did invite the televangelist to the Oval Office for a casual chat last year, and such is Schuller’s growing fame that he has even had a private audience with Pope John Paul II.
Meeting the Pope, Schuller allowed, had made him “nervous . . . because with a man like that, no matter who you are, you don’t do the talking, he does. You don’t ask the questions, you answer them!”
Otherwise, Schuller says flatly, he has rubbed shoulders “with so many celebrity heavyweights” that he is no longer in awe of anyone. “After awhile, they all get to be, well, just another one, you know?” Even the President of the United States.
“Well, I’d been around him (Reagan) so many times before he was elected that . . . .” Schuller shrugged, deliberately noncommittal.
Frowning, he strained to think of someone he would genuinely like to meet, someone special from all the rest.
“Svetlana Stalin!” he suddenly exclaimed, thumping his desk top, looking pleased with himself. “Now there’s a person, the one person I haven’t met yet that I’d love to meet and interview!” Schuller, who not only distrusts the Soviets but abhors the godless communists in general, is “tremendously impressed” that the daughter of Joseph Stalin “managed to escape her background . . . that she had the courage to become a Christian, and by golly, I am absolutely convinced she’s sincere—that she’s a true believer in the Bible, in Jesus Christ and in God the Father!”
Maybe, Schuller mused aloud, he would invite her to be on his TV show.
Whatever else he may be, Robert Schuller is a man of multiple, confusing contradictions which he himself sometimes does not even seem to notice. At best, he is perhaps trying to protect his privacy and adhere to the generally noncommittal formula which has led to his success. At worst, he either has no defined opinion on many subjects, he changes his mind with extraordinary frequency, or he purposely says whatever seems most expedient and self-enhancing at the time.
Either way, Schuller regularly contradicts his best friends, his children and even his wife.
For example, Arvella Schuller observed one afternoon that, for all his success and fame, her husband still suffers from a lack of self-esteem. “I can feel his insecurity many times, especially when we’re in a roomful of strangers,” she said.
Schuller disputed her assessment. “Even if my wife said that, I would not agree that I am insecure,” he said, looking a little irritated. “I would say, instead, that I am merely cautious. Yes, cautious. I don’t want to be hurt and I don’t want to hurt others. So, I need (before relaxing) to first figure out where a person is coming from, you know?”
On another occasion, Schuller blithely disputed a direct quotation printed in an interview with one of his own daughters in the church magazine, “Possibilities.” In the interview, Schuller told his daughter that he had no new major goals, that building the Crystal Cathedral had drained him of “the drive.” In one of Schuyller’s recent books, on the other hand, he says that people who do not set new, ever-larger goals for themselves are as good as dead, useless to themselves, to others and to God.
Sitting in his office, Schuller strained to reconcile the two statements. Clearly, he either couldn’t remember what he had told his daughter or what he had written in his book.
Sitting next to him, watching with anxious eyes, was Mike Nason, his long-time aide. A charming, disarming man who has known Schuller intimately for 10 years, he tried to fill the air with light banter while Schuller formulated a response.
“Well,” Schuller finally announced, “my biggest goal, my constant goal, of course, is to reach an even larger (TV) audience than I do . . . to help even more hurting people.”
Schuller also flatly contradicts several passages in the (authorized) Schuller biography that Nason and his wife, Donna, have just released.
Boy Among the Cows
According to the Nasons, for example, Schuyller decided to become a minister at age 5—and began preaching to his father’s cows. “Their (the cows’) images blurred and finally changed entirely until, to the boy’s heart, they became people,” the Nasons write. “He saw seas of people who were hurting and needed to know the healing power of Jesus . . .. He spent hours practicing his preaching, gesturing wildly and raising and lowering his voice dramatically.”
Schuller, surprisingly, seemed embarrassed by the Nasons’ account.
“Oh, I don’t recall ever preaching to cows,” he said stiffly, without humor. “That’s bull.” Frowning, shrugging blandly, he added that he didn’t know how his friend Nason had reached such a conclusion.
Later, Mike Nason only smiled gently and said, “Well, Bob’s such a busy man, he has so much on his mind all the time, he probably just forgot about it.”
Schuller does agree, however, that, even at 5, he knew he would one day become a minister. He also agrees with the Nasons’ dramatic, mystic account of his birth. The story goes like this:
The year was 1926 and Anthony Schuller, a poverty-ridden Dutch-American farmer, perennially plagued by drought, depression and tornadoes, paused one day amid his ravaged fields to pray to the God he had so devoutly worshiped all his life. “Lord, could you give me just one more son?” Schuller is said to have prayed. “Send me a son who will grow up to be a minister . . ..”
And, sure enough, so the story goes, the Lord did. Jennie Schuller, the farmer’s menopausal wife who had already borne four children, the last eight years earlier, and who was utterly innocent of her husband’s pastoral prayers, suddenly, against all odds, found herself pregnant again. And, on Sept. 16, 1926, amid the throes of considerable middle-aged agony, the bewildered woman gave birth to her fifth child. Anthony Schuller, according to the Nasons, wasn’t at all surprised that it was a boy. He only raised his eyes heavenward in silent thanks to the Lord. And the baby was called Robert Harold.
“Well, ah, yes, I do believe that’s a true story,” said Schuller uneasily, clearly hating to enter the treacherous theological thickets of predestination.
” . . . Taken out of context it can sound so, well, so unintelligent,” he said hesitantly, groping for words. “But, yes, I do believe in predestination. If there’s a God in heaven, which of course I believe there is, then he can’t abandon control (of human beings) to chance . . .. I’m sure God determines persons and shapes their lives to achieve his purposes.” In shore, Robert Schuller believes that God placed him on this Earth to preach possibility thinking.
Why some people are predestined to become murders, petty criminals or cripples, on the other hand, “is a very, very complicated subject, of course,” said Schuller, ending the conversation with an impatient wave of his hand.
Cautious on Issues
With absolute confidence, Robert Schuller can and routinely will define in casual conversation such cosmic abstracts as sin, hell, salvation and the meaning of life. On the other hand, he is generally vague, evasive or, as he sometimes claims, simply “uninformed” on the most commonplace of secular issues, ranging from reinstatement of the draft and the equal rights amendment to Reagan’s budget priorities.
And, if it sometimes appears that he tries to take both sides of an issue whenever he can, he has a ready explanation:
“If a therapist was known to be politically active, then, unless you (the patient) share his political viewpoints, you would probably be intimidated about exposing yourself deeply before him . . ..” Besides, he adds, “I don’t like to spout off on subjects I haven’t carefully researched myself because my biggest fear is that I might use my influence to mislead people.”
Needless to say, Schuller was appalled to discover that cathedral press packets identified his as a registered Republican. “What?” he exclaimed, nearly shouting, voice filled with disbelief. “That’s not possible!” As he spoke, he reached for his telephone to summon the secretary to blame.
He Crosses Over
“I may be a registered Republican,” Schuller declared, openly belligerent, “but as you know, you’ve got to register one way or the other in California! It doesn’t mean I’m a Republican! Don’t call me a Republican! I cross over all the time! I voted for Tom Bradley, for instance!”
The minute he said it, Schuller looked sorry, aggravated at his own loose mouth. “I voted for Bradley,” he sighed, apparently weary of cat-and-mouse games, “because I think he has tremendous character, he has integrity, he’s a good administrator—and he’s a very positive person. He’s a possibility thinker, absolutely.”
Collecting himself, Schuller flatly refused to say if he had voted for Ronald Reagan and, with a sly grin, said he couldn’t remember how he voted on California’s nuclear arms freeze initiative.
As ever, in conversation, Robert Schuller will have his way. It is less frustrating and more rewarding to simple let him lead the way. And there are certain topics he loves to discuss. The state of the nation is one:
“It’s worse that it’s ever been!” Schuller exclaimed, looking horrified. “Do you know we have over 20 million people who have herpes?” He indulged briefly in on of his “dramatic pauses.”
Then, “It’s America’s No. 1 social disease! It’s terrible! Incredible!” Thumping his desk repeatedly for emphasis, he seemed genuinely aghast.
“It’s the closest thing, I think, that our country has ever seen to a national disaster and we don’t even realize yet how serious it is!”
Schuller does allow that unemployment is also a serious national problem. He believes his church is doing what it can by encouraging people to maintain faith and, whenever possible, return to school in order to develop new skills.
Schuller recently went to Washington, D.C. where, amid all the press fanfare his agents could muster, he launched his own war against unemployment—a war which amounts primarily to a Crystal Cathedral investment in large bus posters reading, “Tough Times Don’t Last, Tough People Do.”
Mainly, however, Schuller feels his inspirational messages constitute the central thrust of his ministry’s war against economic need.
Rifling through a pile of mail on his desk, he triumphantly located a letter from a single mother, 34, who said she had returned to college after hearing a Schuller lecture in Houston.
Having graduated, she said, she now held a rewarding job. “Pretty good,” she wrote Schuller, “for someone who flunked out (of college) 15 years ago. Thank you, Dr. Schuller, God loves you and so do I.”
“So, you see,” declared Schuller, grinning as he poked at the letter, “this is what I think our ministry is all about. Helping people realize they can become more than they ever thought they could be! This woman, for example,” he said, waving the letter in the air, “she’s developing skills! No frills! No cheap thrills! Now she knows she can do it, and that’s what really turns me on!”
Schuller also likes to talk about why he is a Christian. “I’ve always been convinced that if something works, I’ll buy it,” he declared. “Of course, I was brought up to believe in Jesus Christ, but even as an adult, I know one thing—it makes me a better person! I mean, I’m not stealing, and I have never, never, you know, ah, committed fornication or adultery . . .. I mean, whatever else, my wife doesn’t have to worry about who I’m going to, eh, sleep with . . ..”
Suddenly, Schuller was almost blushing, oddly awkward, talking about sex.
“I mean,” he fumbled onward, “you know, she may have to worry about a lot of things—but never that!”
As it turns out, fornication and food are two of Schuller’s favorite subjects. One or the other comes up in his conversation time and again.
Bread and Butter Issue
Assessing the performance of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., for example, Schuller had only one angry comment: Brown had once disregarded his suggestion that restaurants be required to charge extra for bread and butter. “The biggest waste in America today is in restaurants,” Schuller seethed. “When you order food, they immediately put the bread and butter in front of you, whether you want it or not! This is billions, tons of brand and butter going down the tubes in a hungry world!”
He indirectly excuses Richard Nixon’s Watergate sins partly on grands that, compared to certain other Presidents, “I’ve never heard of Richard Nixon being accused of embezzlement of funds . . . or fornication or adultery.”
Flying home from his trip to the cosmetics convention in Dallas, Schuller best summarized his outlook on both fornication and food by recounting a personal experience of his own. Actually, he amended, it had been no mere human experience but a miracle. Schuller, who does not want to be identified with fundamentalists, faith healers, visionaries or religious extremists of any type, momentarily looked uncomfortable, admitting that he believed in miracles. But the experience had been so strong, it could not be denied.
Leaning forward in his seat, dark eyes burning, expression more somber than usual, he told the story slowly, in vivid detain, his voice lingering over each word:
“It happened years ago, at a time when I had been overweight for so long. And I’d tried everything! Everything! But I just couldn’t stick to it . . ..” Then he was called to Florida on business. “And, I was going to dinner that night, and once again, I vowed to myself that I would restrain myself . . ..”
Schuller frowned, looking like a man in pain at the very memory. He sighed. “But, instead, I ate everything! I ate butter. I ate the rich sauces. I ate the breads, and,” his voice a litany of near hypnotic sorrow, “to top it all off, I even ate the pie!” His hands clutched his knees, white-knuckled as he remembered.
“I was so stuffed that I work up only a few hours later. And I have never, never in my life been with a woman sexually other than my wife. I have never been with a prostitute. But, ah, I felt . . ..” Face twisted afresh with revulsion, he searched for the proper words to convey his sense of self-loathing. “I felt just as, as, ah, unclean, yes, as dirty as if I had committed adultery or fornication”
Schuller’s intensity was, to say the least, impressive. “I suddenly realized that I was incurably addicted to food like, like, an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol!” Momentarily drained, he fell back into his seat.
‘A Mental Picture’
“And so I prayed. I said, ‘Jesus Christ, I don’t know if you’re dead or alive, if you are real or only a myth—but can you help me? And, instantaneously,” Schuller said, his voice edged with excitement, “I had a mental picture. Of a river that was totally out of its banks. It was flooded and in the center of that raging current was a great tree that had been uprooted by the floodwaters, and the water were so high that they were coming up the sloping green banks, and where the water touched the banks it was very, very gentle.
“And immediately,” Schuller said, voice riveting in its passion “I knew that the tree floating there was by body! And I knew that the gentle water that looked so safe was bread! Butter! Ice cream! Cookies! I new it all!” And, it was at that exact moment, Schuller said, that he sensed a powerful, voiceless message. “And the message was:” 'I have snatched you from the destruction.’ . . . Now, I didn’t hear them (the words). I didn’t see an angel or anybody else. But, still, in a way I don’t understand, those words—at that exact minute—I knew they were permanent.”
Schuller smiled serenely. “I knew at that second that I was snatched. Snatched from the permanent destruction of breads, of butters, of pies, potatoes and ice creams and cakes. And so I see that as my personal experience with Jesus Christ.”
God’s intervention notwithstanding, Schuller still feels imperfect. At 6 feet 2, he weighs 203. “I’m still overweight,” he said, staring morosely at his midriff. “But you should have seen me before—I was up to 240.”
When all is said and done, Robert Harold Schuller is obviously his own best advertisement for “Possibility Thinking,” not only professionally but in his personal life as well.
He has an attractive wife who says, “We’re more in love today than when we were married (33 years ago),” and insists that no matter how busy Schuller may be, they spend one night each week alone.
He has five children, ages 14 to 28, including a son, Robert Jr., who is a minister in San Juan Capistrano and so wants to follow in his father’s footsteps that he recently tried (in vain) to win city approval for his own drive-in church.
The family, along with two dogs, lives in a large, comfortable but not luxurious home in Orange which resembles a fortress, surrounded by fences and locked gates. They also own two vacation homes, one on the beach, another in the mountains.
‘Not a Rich Man’
Although Mrs. Schuller earns $30,000 annually for producing “Hour of Power,” Schuller himself stopped accepting a church salary several years ago and now lives exclusively on royalties from his books and lecture fees. He will not say what his annual income is, “but I am not a rich man—neither am I a poor man.”
A travel-lover, Schuller has seen most of the world during the last few years. So far this year, he had made two trips to Hawaii, visited Rome, and taken a 10-day boat trip down the Nile. He is now planning a two-month summer tour of the Orient.
Physically, although he may have a slight paunch, Schuller also looks like a man who has borne his stresses well. Apart from the small scars around his nose, his face is as unlined as that of a younger man. An early riser who kicked the cigarette habit years ago and says he rarely sips a glass of wine, he begins his day around 5 a.m., jogging 2 to 3 miles, usually with his wife alongside. Jogging, Schuller says, helps ease he tensions and eliminate any negative feelings he may have.
It’s understandable if Schuller has been having more negative feelings lately than usual. Negativists have been hounding him for weeks. State tax collectors have been threatening to slap him with a $400,000 bill in back taxes for conducting such profit-making programs as concerts, aerobic dance classes and weight-control seminars on nonprofit, tax-exempt church property.
Schuller, who plans to appeal, calls the state investigation “persecution” and says, “Frankly, I’ve been doing a lot of crying over it lately—because my integrity has been impugned!” He defends his physical fitness programs on grounds that “you’ve got to have healthy people before you can have decent Christians . . . and the point is, we just can’t afford to hire trainers and teachers . . . without somebody paying some of the bills.” As for his concerts, Schuller believes they help attract the “unchurched” into a religious environment so appealing that many will decide to return the next Sunday.
Hordes of Reporters
Thanks to the tax flap, hordes of reporters have also descended on Schuller. Even East Coast news magazines were writing snidely about the cathedral’s on-site Ticketron service. Glancing at one such article, Schuller only sighed, resigned. Some reporters are so negative, he said, “that they find anything positive to be a judgment on their own emotions . . . and many can’t change without going through psychoanalysis.”
To top off Schuller’s month, a professor from his own alma mater, Dennis Voskuil, was preparing a book criticizing Schuller as a shallow theologian, a pop pulpit psychologist, a purveyor of “inspirational nonsense” and an advocate of material, not spiritual goals, promoting narcissism instead of humility.
Schuller fumed as he read Voskuil’s manuscript. “He didn’t even talk to me personally, he just read my books,” Schuller brooded. Worse, Voskuil obviously hadn’t even understood his writings, added Schuller, who sees himself as a more enlightened, modern-day Martin Luther and dismisses, among a host of others, the theories of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Vicktor Frankl as “missing the mark.”
“At no point in his entire book, for instance, has he (Voskuil) quoted one of the most important definitions in my theological vocabulary, and that is my definition of love,” Schuller declared. “Love,” he explained, pacing his words dramatically, “is my decision to make your problem my problem. And I’d say that is not shallow, that’s terribly, terribly profound!”
Schuller reached for his almonds, gazing through the office window at his glamorous Crystal Cathedral a few yards away. Frankly, he said, he is also tired of people who criticize his church as merely an opulent monument to Robert Schuller’s ego.
His mind wandered back to a trip he made to England last year. In London, he had been invited to address a group of 14 Anglican bishops, he said, “in one of the small, exclusive private anterooms at Westminster Abbey.” His face darkened with remembered indignation.
”. . . One of them said to me, ‘How in the name of God can you spend all that money on a cathedral in a world that’s poverty stricken?’
“And so I said, ‘Sir, how much do you think that (marble) mantle on this fireplace would sell for today? How in the name of God can you let it just sit there and use it for nothing more than to put your cocktails on, and your ashtrays? You can sell that, people would like to buy it.’ ”
Schuller wasn’t finished. Why didn’t the Russians sell the artworks in Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum and give the money to the poor, he demanded? Likewise, the Vatican, sitting on a fortune in antiquities? And all the elaborate Jewish synagogues “with their wonderful stained-glass windows?”
He pointed to St. John’s Cathedral in New York, too. He thought they were spending $20 million just to add two spires. “But I haven’t heard a furor over that.” And the Washington Cathedral, still under construction. “I think they’re spending something like $40 million—and I don’t hear a furor about that either, you know?”
The Schuller Logic
Schuller had abandoned all effort to conceal his anger, his sense of injustice. A final insult came to mind. He had been in New York City. “And again, I was asked how could I spend all that money? And I said, ‘Look, let’s put it another way. How can you justify leaving Central Park? You can sell Central Park for billions of dollars and invest it and the interest alone would feed people. And now what do you do? It’s costing you money to mow the lawns, to clean up after the messy ducks—160 acres of real estate.’ ” Schuller paused, suddenly wearing his half-moon grin, pleased with his logic.
“Other cities have their beautiful cathedrals, New York has Central Park. So I say, ‘Don’t tell us that just because we have come along late in history in Orange County that we don’t have a right to a beautiful place too.’ ”
He concluded triumphant. When he sees all the other elegant churches and synagogues of the world divesting themselves of their wealth, “Then, you bet, Robert Schuller will be the first to join them. I’ll dismantle the Crystal Cathedral myself—piece by piece—when that day comes.”
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