Both Publishers Weekly and Christian Bookseller agree that 1978 will be “a bumper year” for evangelical literature. Particularly popular is the first-person confession of a washed-up or caught-up-with celebrity who has found God. Rinsed in the Blood of the Lamb, the redeemed celebrity is presented with what looks to be a real book, bearing a personalized dust jacket—that is, he will be credited with having written a memoir composed by someone else. Sinwise, plagiarism is less than deadly; it is also big business. Celebrity-sinner books are sold by the millions through hundreds of bookstores and dozens of book clubs that cater for fundamentalist Christians. Last year over $600 million worth of “Christian books” were sold in the United States.
If the redeemed and revived celebrity can so much as tote a tune (Pat Boone, Anita Bryant), there are countless stops not only along but above and below the Bible Belt where large audiences will pay to observe a reborn celebrity. For those who cannot sing songs, a patter of penitence will do. Ci-devant revolutionary, rapist, and couturier Eldridge Cleaver’s repentance number is a heart-warming crowd-pleaser wherever chiggers burrow and Jesus saves.
Watergate criminals are also in demand. When the inspiring Charles Colson (author of Born Again) and the inspired Jeb S. Magruder (author of An American Life) confess to all sorts of small sins and crimes not unlike those that Shakespeare’s Cardinal Wolsey sang of in his final aria, the audience is able to enjoy if not pity and awe a certain amount of catharsis.
Christian Bookseller reports on some new good books: “Master’s Press announced a first print run of 300,000 copies of its spring release, Looking Good, the biography of Freddie Prinze by Mary Pruetzel, the late comedian’s mother…. Mrs. Pruetzel’s purpose in writing Freddie’s biography is to spare other young hopefuls the tragic fate which befell her son.” Celebrity, sex, drugs, suicide—as told by a Mother! Not only will Master’s Press be in the chips this year but any young and hopeful Puerto Rican Magyar who wants to be a comic will know what to look out for en route to President Carter’s next Inaugural Eve Gala.
Also scheduled for 1978 is Christ and the Media by Malcolm Muggeridge. According to Christian Bookseller this “English radio and television personality who became a Christian late in life, is pessimistic about the present and future influence of television on human morality. He observes that television station owners, producers, writers and performers—like the films—operate under no established code of moral values. They are free to create their own morality as they go along.” Plainly, this is a bad thing. Plainly, an established code would be a good thing and Harold M. Voth, MD, might be just the man to come up with one.
Dr. Voth’s latest book is The Castrated Family, a “critical assessment of the women’s movement, gay liberation, unisex, open marriage and role blurring…phenomena [that] are destroying the American family.” Ann Landers thinks that “Dr. Voth has said a mouthful,” while from far-off Monte Carlo HSH Princess Grace hopes that the book “will be read as widely as possible.”
Thank God I Have Cancer! by Clifford Oden has bestseller written all over it. Arlington House tells us that “When Rev. Oden learned he had cancer eight years ago he turned to God in prayer. He asked God to show him how to cope. Now he is living proof that cancer can be controlled by natural means—without surgery, without radiation or chemotherapy.” Meanwhile, Alba Books gives us Sexuality Summary by W.F. Allen. “A clear treatment of four problem areas: homosexuality, abortion, contraception and pre-marital sex.” Since a great many of the new books deal with these four problem areas, it is obvious that Evangelical Christians want those areas cleaned up, and quick.
According to the National Catholic Register Harold J. Brown’s The Reconstruction of the Republic shows us how this can be done. “Prof. Brown makes a telling criticism of government without Christianity, and does not spare even the Constitution, which omits the name of God. In the process he exposes the fallacies of welfarism and the Equal Rights Amendment. A meaty volume that requires study and action.” The word “action” reminds us of those of our Roman Catholics who dislike the American Constitution and its beautiful appendage the Bill of Rights. Yet if the Inventors had been so unkind and superstitious as to work their God into the fabric of the Constitution, the United States would have been a stern and illiberal Protestant republic from which Roman Catholics might very well have been excluded. Fortunately, the Inventors tended to deism, and so were able to eliminate deity from our secular republic.
One of the busiest of the religiopublishers is Christian Herald Books, located at 40 Overlook Drive, Chappaqua, NY 10514. Christian Herald publishes books about missionaries in the Amazon jungle (“larger than life true adventures”) as well as “triumphant encounters with the Divine” and of course retold Old Testament stories about the likes of Hagar (“a powerful novel of love, conflict and faith”). Christian Herald also owns at least four book-clubs if, as I suspect, “Christian Book Club for Today’s Woman,” “Family Bookshelf,” “Farm Journal Family Bookshelf,” and “Grit Family Book-shelf” are all tentacles to the Christian Herald octopus. A deduction gleaned from a close analysis of the club advertisements: each operates out of 40 Overlook Drive. Further analysis reveals that the president of one of the clubs is Fenwick Loomer; his editor is Evelyn Bence. Mr. Loomer is also president of a second club but in this enterprise Ms. Bence’s job is filled by Gary Sledge (remember that name). A third club is managed by Douglas Andrews; a fourth by Frank Cummings. Assuming that each of these names represents a different person, we have some idea of the shadowy conclave up there on Overlook Drive.
To date, Christian Herald has not hit the really big time. That is, none of its books has sold more than one million copies. But they are definitely fighting the good fight, and doing the Lord’s work. If they have yet to sell more than two million copies of a book like I’ve Got To Talk To Somebody, God, by the dread Marjorie Holmes (whose Two For Galilee was noticed in these pages), they have at least been able to put into fiery orbit a celebrity-sinner book called This Too Shall Pass written by Mrs. Bert (LaBelle) Lance, “with Gary Sledge” (editor of Family Bookshelf).
Properly speaking, LaBelle is neither a celebrity nor a sinner even though she was much photographed and written about during the early years of the Carter administration or, to be precise, months. Since devotees of the celebrity-sinners are interested not in her but in Bert, LaBelle’s dark glory is entirely of the reflected kind. She has committed no lurid crimes; as for her sins, I am sure that they add up to nothing more than a twinge or two of pride at being married to a guy as swell as Bert Lance. Certainly, the magazine Christian Life (“The Wonderful Way of Living”) thinks the world of both Bert and LaBelle; so much so, that the cover story of the April issue is devoted to “The Lance Ordeal: Let God Have the Burden.” The author of this sympathetic account is Wesley J. Pippert, who reveals to us “The secret of the Lance’s [sic] strength during public scrutiny.”
The Pippert account of the agony of the Lances makes almost as good reading as the adjacent article, “Exercising Your Authority Over Satan.” Apparently, Satan can be defeated not only by Faith but by the repetition of sacred texts guaranteed to undo the wicked incantations of those who walk up and down and all about this great republic, peddling abortion, contraception, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Ultimately, the writer tells us, “the battle will be won or lost according to which side uses its mouths right.” Among the badmouthers are the residents of the Moslem world where “the powers of darkness have expressed themselves…through those Islamic chants. And let me say in all love, without being controversial, for in some ways Islam is a good religion, it just has one problem: its god is the devil.”
Apropos Islam, it should be noted that earlier this year Bert tried to obtain control of Financial General Bankshares Inc., a $2.2 billion holding company that owns banks in four states. Bert’s associates in this caper (currently halted by order of the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia) are—aside from LaBelle—such devil-worshipers as Sheikh Kamal Adham, Faisal Saud Al-Fulaij, Sheikh Sultan Bin Azid Al-Nahyan, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zaid Al-Nahyan, Abdullah Darwaish, and the Pakistani financial wizard Agha Hassen Abedi, who recently paid off Bert’s $3.4 million bank loan, simply because he liked the cut of Bert’s Twice Born jib.
Christian Life identifies Wesley J. Pippert as “a professional news correspondent with UPI”; he is also “an approved supply pastor with the United Methodist Church” whose special concern “as a Christian reporter is how the mass media can better handle the moral aspects of public issues.” Although Rev. Pippert is in no doubt about the moral correctness of Bert Lance, he tends to hurry through the events that caused Bert to resign as budget director last fall. A year ago last January, Bert “reported [to the Senate Finance Committee] assets of $7.9 million and debts of $5.3 million. He also agreed to sell 190,000 shares of stock in the National Bank of Georgia, Atlanta, in which he held controlling interest.” Four months later, “there were news reports that a surge in the prime rate and the pay-cut Lance had taken were hindering his ability to keep up the interest payments on his debts.”
As a Christian reporter and supply pastor, Rev. Pippert finds nothing wrong in any of this. In fact, if the increase in the prime rate was in any way attributable to Bert’s policies then that would be a definite plus for Bert Lance, Fiscal Conservative. Another plus is that pay cut. Yet the money that Bert saved the American taxpayer would not have made much of a dent in interest payments he was obliged to make on $5.3 million worth of loans.
“Lance had been accused of permitting $450,000 in overdrafts by himself and his family at the family-owned bank in Calhoun,” etc. There were new hearings. Although Bert handled himself well, The Mass Media would not let up. Finally, “His eyes welling, President Carter went on nationwide television to announce his friend’s resignation….Then [the?] Lances flew home to Georgia…. Despite his sense of peace, Lance had serious questions about what had happened. ‘It’s important we not lose the freedom of the presumption of innocence,’ he told this reporter.” Bert turned a cold eye on The Mass Media. “‘God has a laser beam that’s a whole lot stronger than that other laser beam,’ he said in a reference to the beam of the television camera.”
When Rev. Pippert asked LaBelle to confirm whether or not the Lances’ lavish $2 million fifty-room-plus Atlanta home was for sale, she said that it was not. After all, “‘We were not on the verge of bankruptcy, but if we were, who cares?’ This was typical of lovely, long-haired Mrs. Lance. A talk with her does not dwell on the material world for long. Inevitably conversation with her turns to the spiritual, for that’s where her heart is.”
Bert’s heart is very much in the same place. “Lance led the White House Bible study,” Rev. Pippert tells us, “but prefers not to talk about it.”
“That’s something that’s very personal to everyone over there. I sort of took a pledge with that group that we really wouldn’t talk about it. We got together on a very personal basis.”
Lance did say that Carter, who had a conflict at that hour, expressed a desire to come.
Lance also did considerable lay speaking to religious groups.
Now Rev. Wesley J. Pippert gives way to Mr. Gary Sledge of 40 Overlook Drive. LaBelle has a tale to unfold and unfold it she does (“with Gary Sledge”) in the pages of This Too Shall Pass. Between the two of them they manage to illuminate the Bert Lance Continuing Scandal not at all. Nevertheless, many good things are said—indeed, good news is everywhere spread, for the book is dedicated to the Lance’s old family friend “the Glory of God through his Son Jesus Christ.”
The prologue is datelined “Calhoun, Ga.” First sentence: “This too shall pass.” When (and if) “this” passes, “hopefully we grow wiser, more patient, more loving.” LaBelle tells us that not only has she been going through a pretty awful time lately but “Let me just list the human afflictions that have touched my life: alcoholism, drugs, broken homes, suicide, death, violence, serious illness, car accidents, jailings, homosexuality, murder, adultery, runaway children.” Sly Mr. Sledge knows that television series are usually shot in series of thirteen. Each of LaBelle’s thirteen human afflictions would make for at least one powerful episode in a highrated series.
But after this scorching teaser, LaBelle neglects to Tell All. No doubt on the ground that we are all so used to suicide, murder, and runaway children in our daily lives (i.e., television). Instead, LaBelle zeroes in on something truly hated and feared out there on the circuit, The Mass Media. As a Christian, LaBelle tries to forgive the press. If she fails,…well, it is the effort that counts and if Jesus does not want LaBelle for a sunbeam at the end of life’s journey, it will not have been for want of her (and Mr. Sledge’s) trying.
“Our family is not so different from any other. But I’d like you to walk with me down the Lance road of life, if only to illustrate how wonderful is the Lord on whom we rely.” Actually, the Lances are quite a bit different from most people. For one thing, they have managed to acquire a whole lot of money real fast. For another, Bert was for many years a chief adviser and lender of money to what may prove to be our most mysterious president. Nevertheless, the fact that Carter and Lance in tandem were for a time allowed to preside over the republic’s affairs does indeed illustrate the loony sense of humor as well as true mystery of our Lord and His ways.
LaBelle begins at a high moment: the morning of the day that Bert is going to talk to the president about resigning as director of the Office of Management and Budget. For months the scandal has been breaking all around them. LaBelle is aroused from a…what else, Mr. Sledge? “fitful sleep” by “laughter and many loud voices and the sound of shuffling feet.” Whose laughter? Whose feet? The Mass Media are outside in the street. “We were under seige [sic], as we had been throughout September.”
Bert brings her breakfast in bed. Things look bad. Bert leaves for the White House. LaBelle dares not look at the Washington Post because “recently there had been a story on the front page…about my brother Banks’ death two years before. The writer implied that our family’s financial situation was rocky, that Bert was somehow responsible, and that this was the reason my brother had taken his own life. All that was untrue.”
According to LaBelle, Beverly Banks David committed suicide “when his high expectations for himself were not realized, he felt unreasonable guilt or failure.” This is dignified reticence. We are given no revelations of the sort promised in the prologue. Yet there is evidence that, wittingly or unwittingly as Mr. Sledge might say, LaBelle’s brother had been very much involved in Bert’s shenanigans at the National Bank of Georgia. In fact, according to the SEC, thirteen months after the death of Beverly Banks David, his bank account was $73,401 overdrawn, presumably by the Holy Ghost.
Later that afternoon, Bert comes home, having “played tennis with President Carter… He looked exhausted…. I could see the suppressed anger in his face, the tiredness and the letting go…. Then at supper in the garden, we asked God to give us wisdom and strength and to show us his [LaBelle knows God too well to capitalize the pronoun] will…. God was not far off. He was near. We talked to him intimately and often.” Actually, it was Jimmy Carter who was far off by now, sweating ice over the socalled Lance Affair.
Like the stern Nixon women of an earlier epoch, LaBelle was against resignation. But Bert had had it. He was going to resign even though “I had a dream about what could be accomplished in this job.” The first Kuwaiti Mutual Fund? The first International Bank of Georgia and Abu Dhabi? Dreams, dreams….
The next day LaBelle hightailed it over to the White House to put the arm on Jimmy. “The President was very cordial, very gracious…. He always is a friend to everyone in our family on a person-to-person basis, despite the formalities of his office. I think the President believes strongly that Christ’s love and concern can only be shown in this way.” But Jimmy was concerned about that old devil The Mass Media. “He spoke honestly about his public relations problem caused by Bert’s name being in the news so long.” Although LaBelle knew that she was filled to the brim with Christ when she told Jimmy that Bert should remain in office, Jimmy was every bit as filled with Christ when he came to the conclusion that Bert should get his ass out of town.
Like St. Jerome battling with the pagan shade of Cicero, LaBelle and Mr. Sledge wrestle with this exquisite theological problem. “I knew that the President had presented his views in the light of faith. He, just as Bert and I, had prayed about this situation and each of us reached different conclusions—but each of us had come to realize the profound love in Christ we shared.” Thus LaBelle papers over the inexplicable divisibility of Truth.
Since Jimmy and LaBelle can’t both be right, she surrenders if not to the Holy Ghost to the Gallup Poll: “I have often learned [that] God’s purpose and my intentions are not always the same. Yet everything comes in his own time!” A striking image, worthy of Ecclesiastes. Back at the house (“I was suddenly tired”), LaBelle dealt compassionately with The Mass Media at the door. Then, “I went back to the TV but only the afternoon game shows were on, so I turned off the set and read a daily devotional book.”
The rest of This Too Shall Pass is a somewhat mechanical ghost-story of LaBelle’s family and early life, marriage and motherhood, riches and heartbreak, and (above all) a steadfast Faith. Inevitably, she falls from a horse; inevitably, she is told that she “must remount with dignity.” Daddy owned the Calhoun bank while Bert’s father had been president of Young Harris, a small Methodist College in northeast Georgia. As a child, Bert had experienced “an exciting mix of intellectual conversation and theological discussion.” Then he moved to Calhoun where he went to school with LaBelle, who “had a dream. I wanted to be an actress on Broadway or in the movies. See Hollywood and the Pacific Ocean.” But, luckily, she chose to “think and work for Christ. The Christian road is a hard one, but it is the most rewarding road.” And so it proved to be for Bert and LaBelle.
LaBelle did not go with Bert to an outdoor political barbeque, attended by “a young state senator named Carter…. Bert was attracted initially by Jimmy’s forthright approach and community conscience.” Apparently, they were as alike as two black-eyed peas in a pot. Each had so much in common with the other: “Concern for progress in Georgia…raised in a small town…strong commitment to public service…boyhood dreams of going to sea…both were involved in agribusiness, Jimmy as a farmer and warehouser of peanuts, Bert as the financial underwriter…born-again Christians.” Civil rights? LaBelle passes on that one. Martin Luther King is not a name to conjure with amongst those who read this sort of inspirational Christian literature.
In due course, Jimmy becomes governor; he appoints Bert head of the Bureau of Transportation. Bert donates his salary to charity. When “Jimmy had hopes of higher office…[Bert] presented Jimmy with a set of small medals of all the states, saying he now had dominion over one—someday he hoped he would have dominion over all.” As soon as Jimmy’s term of office ended, he proceeded to seek dominion over all the states while Bert stayed home and tried to dominate Georgia. “We announced Bert’s candidacy [for governor] at a party held out at Lancelot, at which Bert spoke from the bed of an old wagon….” Bert lost. Jimmy won.
Bert was offered the big job at Management and Budget. Should he take it? He agonizes with LaBelle: ” ‘It would mean a dramatic cut in salary,’ Bert said. ‘But it’s a matter of duty. A citizen owes something to his country. I can’t turn my back on a nation that’s given us so much. In a free society we all must pay the “rent.” ‘ ” The dream…always the dream!
The Lances join the Carters in Washington. LaBelle was soon “encircled by new friends and prayer partners. Shortly after we got settled in Georgetown, I invited Cabinet wives to join me in a prayer group which met at our house.” LaBelle also “taught a Bible class for senior citizens at the Dumbarton Avenue Methodist Church….”
Then, on May 23, Time magazine struck. Something about irregular bank loans. LaBelle was impervious at first: “I knew Bert would never do anything illegal.” But The Mass Media had tasted blood. They did not let up until they had sent Bert and LaBelle back to Calhoun, their finances tangled but their faith in God more resolute than ever. The Lances were also bucked up by the president who promptly sent them abroad as “co-chairmen of the Friendship Force—America’s people-to-people outreach to other nations. Rosalynn Carter is the very active honorary chairman.”
That’s all LaBelle has to say about this organization. Christian Life is a bit more explicit. Apparently, this “non-profit, non-government organization designed to promote world peace through friendships” was invented by Rev. Wayne Smith of Decatur, Georgia. “The exchanges last about ten days…. Once there, the ambassadors stay in guest homes, live, work and share with their hosts” for eight days. Each “ambassador” shells out $250 for an “embassy” of ten days but can that possibly cover the costs of the trip? If it doesn’t, who pays? But then whatever the Lances get mixed up in tends to be mysterious—like the Lord Himself.
Has it come to this? Franz Joseph would mutter, as he gazed down at the mob of shouting dress extras below his window at Schönbrunn palace in Burbank, California. Cut to the hunting lodge at old-world Mayerling. Sulky Crown Prince Rudolf wonders, what does it all mean? as he draws a bead on LaBelle…I mean Maria Vetsera. Slow dissolve to the funeral cortege, to the grieving Franz Joseph, to Hitler riding through the streets of Vienna.
Rhetorical questions never get answered either in Golden Age movies or in modern-day United States. At most, grand juries, congressional committees, district courts sometimes manage to extract a few pale perjuries from the odd scapegoat. Presumably, this will happen in the case of Bert Lance when he goes before a grand jury in Atlanta to answer charges of criminal misapplication of bank funds. Three federal agencies are also on his tail for assorted crimes while his secret attempt to take over Financial General Bankshares Inc. has been temporarily stopped by a federal judge. Will Bert be found guilty? And if so, of what is he actually guilty?
With some pride, the Inventor-owners of the United States announced that their republic would be “a government of laws and not of men.” The world applauded. It never occurred to any Enlightenment figure in the eighteenth century that law was not preferable to man. The republic was then give to lawyers to govern. Predictably, lawyers make laws, giving work to other lawyers. As a result of two centuries of law-making every aspect of man’s life has either been prescribed for or proscribed by laws that even as they are promulgated split amoeba-like to create more laws. The end to this Malthusian nightmare of law metastasized is nowhere in sight.
Plaintively, Bert acknowledged this state of affairs in his last appearance before the Senate. He maintained that he had not really broken any law, while desperately signaling to the senators that if you were to obey every dumb law on the statute books you could do no business at all. The senator-lawyers would doubtless have been more understanding if their client-constituents had not been watching them on television.
One rationale for the necessity of new laws is the need to protect that vague entity known to lawyers as the public, to corporations as the consumer. Yet each virtuous law promptly creates counterlaws designed to serve those special interests that do not have at heart the public’s interest. As a result virtually any polluter of rivers, corrupter of politicians, hustler of snake-oil who can afford expensive legal counsel is able to sail with the greatest of ease through the legislative chambers and courtrooms of the republic. This is the way that we are now, and that is the way we have always been. Nevertheless, from time to time, the system of ownership requires a sacrificial victim to show that the system truly works and that no one is above the law—except those who are.
What sustains a system that is plainly unjust if not illegal? The Lance affair suggests an answer. One third of the American population claim to be twiceborn Christians. Although redemption is big on the evangelical Christian circuit, punishment of sinners is even bigger. To the fundamentalist Christian mind, evil is everywhere and every day is a lovely day, as John Latouche’s lyric goes, for an auto da fé. According to hard-core white fundamentalists, Jews are forever guilty of the murder of our Lord. As children of Ham, blacks are eternally inferior to whites. The Pauline injunction that slaves obey their masters still applies in the sense that those without money must serve those with money for money is the most tangible sign of God’s specific love. Sexual activity outside marriage must be punished by law in the here-and-now as well as by God in eternity. The unremitting rage of the fundamentalist Christian against so many varieties of sin is the source of innumerable laws that have bred, in turn, other laws of the sort that now enmesh Bert Lance, the Georgia Laocoön.
Bert is now being sacrificed by his own kind, and he still can’t believe it. When Bert and LaBelle inveigh against. The Mass Media, they are sending out distress signals in Twice-born Code. The Mass Media means Jews. Surely the Christers will rally to the defense of an innocent man traduced by those elders of Zion who have gained control of the nation’s television and press in order to destroy the moral fiber of God’s own country. But code phrases can no longer save Bert’s bacon. Like Nixon he got caught. And like Nixon he must be made to suffer: by those for whom the infliction of pain is not only a Christian duty but an abiding pleasure.
It says a good deal for Jimmy Carter’s essential decency or timidity or both that he has not yet put together a populist (and popular) Christian crusade to “save” those whose very birth and deeds are offensive to the God of the Twice-born. But should he ever be so minded, there are more than enough laws already on the books to help him in his holy task.
Fortunately, Jimmy’s friends Bert and LaBelle have the consolation of Holy Scripture in their dark hours. As the grand jury convenes in Atlanta, Bert is certain to turn to Luke 11:52: “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
Meanwhile, Quo vadis, Jimmy?
June 29, 1978