By R.V. Scheide
(Editor’s note: The original version of this story erroneously stated that the Civic Auditorium is a for-profit entity. The information has been corrected.)
Contrary to many of its local detractors, Bethel, the controversial megachurch in our midst, is not a cult. True, it has all the markings of a cult, but for the purposes of this story, Bethel is best thought of as an octopus with seven arms—a septopus if you will.
These seven arms correspond to Bethel’s 7 Mountain Mandate, dominionist Christian theology that calls upon the church’s 11,000 local members and its millions of internet followers to seize the cultural domains of religion, family, education, government, business, media and arts and entertainment.
The idea is to create heaven on earth, a “kingdom culture,” as conceived by the minds of Bethel’s leadership, pastors Bill Johnson and Kris Vallotton, who co-founded in Redding the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry in 1998.
There’s no question the creature Johnson and Vallotton created has become a tremendously successful financial organism, stuffing tax-free, nonprofit Benjamins into its sharp beak at the rate of tens of millions of dollars annually.
As explained by USC sociologists Brad Christerson and Richard Flory in The Rise Of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing The Religious Landscape, Johnson and Vallotton belong to a new breed of non-denominational charismatic preachers who’ve leveraged the internet to increase their flock’s fortunes.
In vast horizontal computer networks stretching across the United States, and indeed the world, these preachers attest to one another’s status as a genuine “anointed” apostles, promote each other’s many books (often ghost-written by volunteers) and speak at each other’s many conferences.
The money gathered by the sale of conference tickets, books, DVDs and audio and video downloads flows from the bottom—from those who consume such media—straight to the brand names on the top.
According to the authors, Johnson and Vallotton were among the first to leverage the internet in this fashion when they created Global Legacy, a horizontal computer network that connects hundreds of like-minded “revival leaders” around the world.
Revival has paid off handsomely for Johnson, Vallotton and non-denominational charismatic churches in general, the only branch of Christianity that is growing, not shrinking, in the United States. With money comes power, and the Bethel beast has been muscling in on its self-proclaimed territory, the seven mountains, at home and abroad.
Nationally, Bethel Music has a firm grip on popular Christian music sales, scooping in almost $13 million in total revenue in 2017, according to the form 990 the nonprofit religious organization filed with the IRS. The form lists just five employees—and 200 volunteers.
Earlier this month, Bethel paid a bundle to debut its first feature-length film, Bright Ones, featuring the precocious, kingdom-minded kids from the church’s performing arts school, in 1000 theaters nationwide. As of yet, no critical review of the film, positive or negative, has materialized.
On the other hand, the recently released Christian-made anti-abortion propaganda film Unplanned, in which Vallotton makes a cameo appearance, has been righteously panned by serious film critics.
In Shasta County, Bethel’s encroachment is best symbolized by the Civic Auditorium, a publicly-owned building that rakes in $750,000 annually from renting out classroom space to the BSSM. The Civic is operated by Advance Redding, the non-profit entity that includes Bethel higher-ups on its board that was first contracted by the city of Redding in 2011. (Editor’s note: The original version of this story erroneously stated that the Civic Auditorium is a for-profit entity. The information has been corrected.)
Some 2000 students pay up to $5250 annually for the privilege of learning the supernatural trade—as espoused by Johnson, Vallotton and their acolytes—at the BSSM. In 2017, Vallotton implied that Bethel’s (the church’s) annual income was $8 million, after the megachurch provided $500,000 to fund four cops for RPD’s neighborhood policing unit.
Christerson and Flory state that Bethel uses the 7 Mountain Mandate theology as an enticement for young adults—the BSSM’s target audience—who are still idealistic enough to believe they can literally transform the world.
Students and church members are encouraged to seek their biblical destiny in the seven mountains, which includes business. Thus the seeming explosion of new businesses locally, mostly high-end coffee shops and fad-food restaurants, listed on the Bethel Affiliated Businesses Facebook page.
There’s even been talk of a “Bethel effect,” of Redding riding to financial success on Bethel’s revivalist coattails, as if Jesus had abolished the business cycle. I’ve seen no hard data that confirms or refutes this claim.
But before we go much further with this idea of heaven on earth, the reader should know there’s no room for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender individuals in Bethel’s imaginary kingdom. If you’re a woman, forget about getting an abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, should this paradise come to pass. All sex outside of procreation will be forbidden.
If you think the separation of church and state, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and envisioned as a wall by Thomas Jefferson, is going to protect you, your family and our public schools (family and education are, after all, two of the seven mountains) from this intrusive creature and its spawn, think again.
Nowadays, the wall between church and state is more like a picket fence, and even a septopus the size of Bethel can slither through a hole the size of a quarter.
Ground Zero At The Moral Revolution
One evening earlier this year, I met a friend at Club 501, downtown Redding’s solitary gay bar which has a new next-door neighbor—Theory Collaborative, a Bethel-affiliated fru fru coffee shop that purposely set up shop next to the 501 to … what?
That’s what I was wondering. The 501’s bartender was still pissed that one of the first things members of Theory did when they moved in was report 501 to the police for the music being too loud, which, the bartender insisted, was the first noise complaint they’ve ever received in decades of operation.
After a few beers, we walked next door to Theory Collaborative. Like most of these new Bethel-affiliated coffee joints that have popped up around town, the setting was austere, minimal. Popular Christian music was playing. Maybe 20 BSSM students, mostly well-dressed hipster dudes and a few similarly attired females, were nursing expensive beverages.
I ordered a coffee featuring the essence of honeydew consumed by an obscure Madagascan lemur, or something like that. Then I asked a group of young BSSM students sitting at a table if this was “ground zero at the moral revolution”.
“You mean the book written by Kris Vallotton?” a particularly bright-eyed young man offered.
The full name of the book is Moral Revolution: The Naked Truth About Sexual Purity, supposedly authored by Kris and his son Jason in 2012, and yes, that’s exactly what I’d meant. I wanted to see if they were familiar with Vallotton’s work.
They were, but not to the degree that they understood just how obsessed Kris Vallotton is with sex. This is a man who has used his son Jason, one of his five children and now securely in Bethel’s upper tier, as a prop for his various ill-informed theories on human sexuality.
Cases in point? Jason was apparently encouraged to wear a white T-shirt to high school every day to signify his sexual purity—according to The Supernatural Power Of Forgiveness, the book KV and JV wrote about Jason’s disastrous first marriage straight out of high school and his subsequent divorce.
On his blog and social media posts, Kris Vallotton has claimed Jason engaged in quasi-homosexual behavior as a child, then used the incident to bolster his contention that society, thanks to the sexual revolution in the 1960s and the Gay Agenda, has confused the desire for fraternal and sororal love with the sex act, resulting in rampant homosexuality.
In a blog post earlier this year, he also blamed the alleged increase in homosexuality on single mothers, who are supposedly feminizing their fatherless young boys.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Biological and social scientists have yet to determine what combination of nature and nurture causes some individuals to fall outside the “normal” male-female binary. They just know that some people do, and that’s normal, too.
But there’s no evidence that polite society’s acceptance of this fact has led to an increase in homosexuality. Vallotton and his brethren mistake the increasing visibility of the LGBTQ community, won after decades of hard-fought battles, with their actual percentage in the population, which depending on the survey has remained stable and ranges from 2 percent to 11 percent.
Even Vallotton pretends to acknowledge this fact. In a 2013 Facebook post, he offered his “take on homosexuality, for what it’s worth,” which included the following gem:
“I do believe that there are people that have same gender sexual attractions. I think it’s real and not imagined. But being attracted to something that is wrong does not define you.
“For example, I’m a married man and therefore I am a one woman man by choice. Biologically I have the capacity to be sexually attracted to many other women but I have chosen through covenant to manage my appetite towards one woman.
“Therefore I am not defined by the temptations that I resist. Instead I am defined by the virtues that I embrace. These virtues have become the boundaries for my appetite and they dictate what I allow myself to desire.”
Got that LGBTQ community? You’re attracted to something that’s wrong, just like Vallotton is apparently attracted to women who are not his wife. The difference is, he gets to have sex, at least with his wife, and you don’t.
There is zero evidence that Vallotton’s views have changed since then. In fact, he and Bethel have stepped up their anti-LGBTQ crusade.
Bethel’s anti-LGBTQ crusade first attracted my attention a year ago, when, in an Easter Sunday morning sermon, Vallotton launched a verbal assault on the gay community and called for his congregation to contact the state Legislature and urge it to withdraw a bill that banned profiting on providing “conversion therapy” services to adults.
Conversion therapy to change sexual orientation has been thoroughly debunked as ineffective and potentially harmful by every major medical association in the United States. It is illegal to practice it on minors in California and a dozen other states.
Thanks to the efforts of Bethel and other right-wing evangelical churches in California, the adult conversion therapy bill was withdrawn, and Bethel was able to continue charging adults for the services provided through Equipped To Love, the megachurch’s conversion therapy “clinic.” For $90 a session, clients seeking to pray the gay away can consult with “once gay” Bethel ministers Ken Williams or Elizabeth Woning.
Bethel and Equipped To Love celebrated this Easter season by launching “Changed: Once Gay Stories,” which consists of a book you can buy and a website you can peruse for free that documents the stories of individuals who claim they were once gay but, through the grace of God, no longer suffer from same-sex attraction, gender dysphoria and a variety of other associated conditions.
Bethel claims “Once Gay—Changed” is also a “movement,” but judging from the testimonies on the website, this hardly seems likely. Most of the accounts fall solidly within the spectrum of expected sexual behavior, which for individuals can change over time, no divine intervention necessary.
To pad the count, Bethel chased ambulances. Two of the stories involve “once gay” men who survived the 2016 Pulse gay night club mass shooting in Orlando, Florida that killed 49 people. Both men promised God during the shooting that they’d give up their gay ways if they somehow survived. Apparently, it took.
Bethel is making a concerted effort to spread its anti-gay gospel throughout Shasta County. Earlier this month, The Stirring, the growing church/coffee house on Churn Creek Road that claims 1500 members, hosted a conference, “Sex. Church. Culture.” Williams and Woning from Equipped To Love were featured speakers, and explained the purpose of the conference on their website.
“The purpose of Sex. Church. Culture. is to unpack the balance of biblical truth and while still walking in grace. We will tackle topics such as LGBTQ, sex education, church staff dynamics, porn, moral failures, building families and more in this one-day intensive on sexuality and leadership.”
Other featured speakers included Vallotton, weighing in for his Moral Revolution nonprofit religious organization, and Josh Chumley from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing religious legal advocacy organization that has been labeled an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
According the SPLC, the ADF has “supported the recriminalization of homosexuality in the U.S. and criminalization abroad; has defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad; has linked homosexuality to pedophilia and claims that a ‘homosexual agenda’ will destroy Christianity and society.”
They’re all on the same page. Even worse, both Bethel and The Stirring may be spreading this message to public schools via supposedly non-faith-based mentoring programs like Bethel’s Justice Collective and The Stirring’s Catalyst Initiative, which plans to have 1000 mentors to serve the area’s at-risk youth by the end of this year.
According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, mentoring programs are a primary means by which religious organizations attempt to breach the picket fence separating church and state in public primary and secondary schools.
I am currently investigating two such breaches in Shasta County public schools, and I can tell you this much at the present time: People—students, teachers and parents—are frightened of this monster. They may be outraged, but most of them don’t want to talk about it, at least not on the record, due to fear of potential reprisals.
But that’s what it’s going to take to stop this septopus. People are going to have to stand up and say, enough is enough.
What’s the point of having heaven on earth if it’s hell for other people?