Today in Gay History: Often Wrong Herbert Armstrong

7.31.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

Homophobic holy roller set Evangelical stage, sadly.

The name Herbert W. Armstrong no doubt still sends shivers up some gay spines. Born on this date in 1892, Armstrong was the prototypical American holy roller: he used emerging Western technologies — radio and, later, television — to spread fundamentalist beliefs and false prophecies, including a 1936 prediction that the world was going to end. The world went on, of course, but the nationally-covered forecast made Armstrong a star and gave a huge boost to his burgeoning church, the Worldwide Church of God.

An Evangelical-esque organization founded in 1934 and that boasted about 145,000 members at its peak, the Worldwide Church of God created a template for later Bible thumpers like Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker. More immediately, though, it provided Armstrong a built-in audience for his crusade against the supposed sins of modern life. His arguments are by now familiar: abortion kills babies, an angry God punishes with natural disasters, declining families lead to drug addiction, and, yes, homosexuality is a surefire way to hell.

"Some may believe homosexuality is transmitted by birth. It is not!" he wrote in a 1975 issue of his church's magazine, The Plain Truth. "But once one gives his mind accept it, his mental perspective regarding proper use of sex soon becomes perverted — changed — unnatural." Armstrong's piece, a reaction to early calls for marriage equality, described homosexuality as part and parcel of the "new immorality" of post-World War II America. This theme was becoming increasingly common in his church's discriminatory doctrine.

In 1973, another Plain Truth article asked, "Can Someone be Homosexual and Christian Too?" The answer to this question was of course "no." That same issue also wondered, "Can homosexuality be prevented?" Of course it could be! One of the ways, Armstrong's editorial cronies instructed, was by keeping women in the kitchen. "When both parents work and share household duties, blurring sexual distinctions, children increasingly are more likely to become homosexual." Later, in 1977, Armstrong's equally famous son, Garner Ted, declared, "Homosexuality is a grave distortion and perversion."

It's easy to assume Armstrong and company's mid-70s campaign against queers was a reaction to Stonewall and the gay rights movement. And that may be partially true. But mostly it seems that Armstrong was simply trying to find a way to distract from the fact that his church was disintegrating. First of all, the Worldwide Church of God itself had found itself mired in scandal as infighting between Armstrong and rising star son Ted Garner went gone public: Time magazine reported in 1972 that Armstrong said Garner was "in the bonds of Satan." It was only downhill from there as the men publicly jockeyed for leadership over a dwindling flock. Government examination of their assets didn't help either. And to make matters worse: the world kept spinning!

Following that failed 1936 prophecy, Armstrong erroneously claimed the world would end again in 1943, then again in 1972 and, finally, in 1975. (He also claimed in May 1965 that the Pope was going to "resurrect" the secretly alive Adolf Hitler, the anti-Christ, and take over Europe.) So, you know, Armstrong's church didn't have the best record and gays were low-hanging fruit, if you will. The homosexual could distract from Armstrong's bad reputation.

But going after the gays wasn't enough to save anti-gay Armstrong and his church: Garner Ted eventually broke off to create his own brand, Worldwide Church membership dwindled, and though he remained a presence on the right wing scene for a few more years, Armstrong had peaked. He died in 1986, his church aligned itself more firmly with the Evangelical movement and changed names (it's now the Grace Communion International and has about 42,000 adherents), and LGBT Americans are closer to full equality than ever before — yet another thing Armstrong failed to predict.

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