There are few people in American public life as openly hostile to Christianity as media mogul Ted Turner.
“Christianity is a religion for losers,” he once said. On another occasion, Turner joked that the pope should step on a landmine. Seeing CNN employees wearing ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, he remarked, “What are you, a bunch of Jesus freaks? You ought to be working for Fox.” He is so viscerally uncomfortable with the Christian faith that he blamed his divorce from his third wife, Jane Fonda, partly on her decision to become a practicing Christian.
You might say it was brave of Turner, then, to sit down this past weekend in Washington at a table filled with Christian journalists. He was there to discuss Gods & Generals, the epic Civil War film opening February 21. The movie, which was bankrolled by Turner (who makes a cameo appearance), is startling in its recognition of the central role personal faith played in the lives and decisions of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and other important military figures of that war.
As director Ron Maxwell explains, this has nothing to do with proselytizing; it’s simply a matter of the film being faithful to the historical record. Still, it may raise some eyebrows that such a robustly impious man as Ted Turner is paying for a movie so overtly Christian in its content. When asked, Turner rejected the notion that there is anything odd about it.
“That’s the rap on me, that I’m impious,” Turner said. He denied it, saying that he’s read the Bible from cover to cover more than once, and that he “was born again seven times, so one of them is bound to take.”
Turner really was a deeply religious boy, despite his father’s emotional abuse. He intended at one point to become a missionary. Then, when he was a teenager, his younger sister Mary Jane contracted a form of lupus, and suffered terribly before dying a relatively short while later. All his prayers for her recovery — an hour a day, he said — were for naught.
“She used to run around in pain, begging God to let her die,” he recalled. “My family broke apart. I thought, ‘How could God let my sister suffer so much?’”
These events happened nearly half a century ago, but he speaks of them as if they had occurred last week. Though none of the journalists pressed him on the point, Turner, who has described himself publicly at times as either an atheist or an agnostic, began talking as if he were justifying himself at a tribunal.
“Look at my philanthropy!” he said. “The Bible says it’s better to give than receive. I sponsored that religious conference at the United Nations. It cost me $600,000.”
Well, yes, he did sponsor a world religion conference in 2000, but that’s not likely to win him plaudits among the Christian faithful. Addressing the ecumenical gatherees, Turner denounced the Christian faith of his childhood as false and intolerant. One conservative Christian observer described the speech as “the most blasphemous thing I have ever heard in my life.”
Turner may have turned his back on his faith, but he still has a missionary’s zeal to change the world. In addition to his pledge to give a billion dollars to the U.N. (a pledge he’s had to revise given the dramatic stock-market reversals he’s undergone), Turner donates lavishly to causes that promote his globalist and environmentalist views. He is currently finishing production work on an eight-hour documentary about weapons of mass destruction. For Turner, the world still needs saving as much as it did when he was a would-be missionary; it’s just that the gospel he preaches is a militantly secular one.
He counts Gods & Generals to his moral credit, in part because it is not a trashy film. He walked into the room at the junket and said, “Wasn’t that a great movie? There’s no ‘motherf***er this’ and ‘motherf***ker that.’ I get so sick of that.” It took some nerve to talk like that to a roomful of Christians on a Sunday morning, and it was patronizing to think this crowd would call the movie “great” because there was no cussin’ in it. Still, there was something almost touching about his eagerness to please, and to be approved of by his audience.
“So I’m living like a Christian,” he said later, after recounting highlights of his charitable giving. “I guarantee you I’ll see you [in Heaven]. I’ll be like the guy who has the last two tickets in the stadium. I’ve lived a really good life. I’m going to say, ‘Hey, St. Peter, remember Gods & Generals? This movie is a final bit of insurance that I get in.”
Leave aside the basic misunderstanding Turner has about what Christianity teaches about salvation. What’s interesting is that a man like Turner is clearly haunted by the idea that Heaven exists, and he might not make it there.
“For some reason, he has a guilty conscience,” Jane Fonda told writer Ken Auletta for a lengthy profile a couple of years ago. “He went much further than his father thought he would. So what’s left? To be a good guy. He knows he will go down in history. He won’t go down as a greedy corporate mogul. Although he claims to be an atheist, at the end of every speech he says, ‘God bless you.’ He wants to get into heaven.”
I found that quote after returning from the junket in Washington. Turner had indeed left the interview saying, “God bless you,” which I’d taken to be a smirky remark. Perhaps not. Perhaps he meant it.
I’d thought about Turner on the train ride back to New York. Why does God permit evil, including allowing the innocent to suffer? This is the hardest question for theists to answer, and an entire branch of theology, called theodicy, is given over to its study. Turner had seen his beloved sister linger in extreme pain before she died young, his prayers for her unavailing. I got the impression from being around him this weekend that it’s not so much that Turner doesn’t believe in God as he doesn’t want to give God, who allowed his sister to be crushed by disease, the satisfaction of recognition.
How do any religious believers who have never been tested as severely know that we would fare any better than Ted Turner has? The actor Stephen Lang, who plays Stonewall Jackson in Gods & Generals, said that Jackson would greet any news from the battlefield with a terse “very good,” because to a man of Jackson’s deep Calvinist piety, even bad news was evidence that God’s divine plan was being worked out. Young Ted Turner didn’t have that kind of faith. How many of us do? This is why Christians, in their most well-known prayer, petition God not to put them to the test.
Ted Turner will no doubt say something gratuitously obnoxious about Christianity again. And he’ll apologize again. Then he’ll do it yet again. And yet, after this weekend, it won’t bother me like it used to. Regarding this tortured man, I am reminded of a saying attributed to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”