False Prophets, Real Profits

Religious Right Leaders' Wild Predictions of Y2K Disaster Didn't Come True, But They Made Money Anyway

The new year had dawned, January of 1999, and Dr. James C. Dobson, founder and president of Focus on the Family, was very worried about the "Y2K computer bug."

Dobson was so concerned he decided to pull his staff together in the chapel of FOF's Colorado Springs headquarters for a special meeting. He had invited Michael Hyatt, then a prominent Y2K doomsday author who frequently appeared on Christian radio, to address the issue.

When Hyatt finished his gloomy predictions of power outages and stock-market crashes, Dobson outlined his own fears. The impending computer glitch, he asserted, could cause American society to break down, spawning terrorist activity, "massive civil disobedience," widespread looting, food shortages, worldwide economic collapse and possible global conflict as unstable dictators seized the opportunity.

But there was more. Problems brought about by Y2K, Dobson asserted, could also lead "present political leaders" to "refuse to yield power," and he added that the computer bug could even spark "God's judgment -- and that one, obviously, overrides all the rest of them."

Dobson was only one among many Religious Right leaders who bought into widespread Y2K panic throughout 1999. Although later in the year Dobson seemed to step back from some of his more outlandish predictions, FOF continued to sell copies of Hyatt's panic-laden tome, The Millennium Bug, as well as a tape recording of his comments at the FOF staff meeting.

Now that Jan. 1, 2000, has come and gone with no significant Y2K-related problems, Religious Right figures who posed as "experts" on the subject and predicted the collapse of society, the loss of electricity and other public utilities, food shortages or other equally dire scenarios are struggling to save face.

Not all Y2K hysteria can be blamed on the Religious Right, of course. Plenty of secular-minded doomsday prophets also made fantastic predictions about the collapse of the economy and the social order. Not everyone who bought 60 pounds of freeze-dried beans and stockpiled water in the basement was a far-right Christian survivalist.

But some critics say Religious Right leaders who overreacted bear special blame. Regarded as trustworthy by their followers, they had an opportunity to educate their flocks and staunch the panic -- and they blew it by buying into the scare themselves.

Most major Religious Right figures were swept up by the Y2K hysteria, among them Dobson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, TV preacher D. James Kennedy, leaders of the Promise Keepers, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and popular evangelical author Tim LaHaye.

It's hard to tell how many Religious Right leaders took the dire forecasts of Y2K chaos seriously or if they simply saw it as another opportunity to make money. Some, like Falwell, did aggressively seek to turn their flocks' fears into gold, hawking Y2K survival books, emergency food supplies and videos.

Falwell devoted three national television broadcasts to Y2K last year. In one of them, he warned that Y2K "has the potential to be a very big problem, worldwide in scope and without historical precedent." Falwell said trouble was inevitable because the United States did not have enough computer programmers to solve the problem.

The Lynchburg, Va., evangelist also released a Y2K video, "A Christian's Guide to the Millennium Bug," which he sold for $28 through his "Old-Time Gospel Hour" program. In the video he recommended stockpiling food, medical supplies, sanitary equipment and matches, as well as guns and ammunition. He also advised his followers to "secure an alternative form of currency," since cash and credit cards would be worthless. It would be a good idea, he said, to develop "alternative sources of heat and energy." For a while, Falwell even hawked a line of expensive canned goods called SafeTrek Foods through his National Liberty Journal tabloid newspaper.

Near the end of the year, however, Falwell abruptly changed his tune and told The Washington Post he was confident that the computer glitch had largely been fixed. "I don't anticipate any major problems," he told the newspaper in late December. "I would fly in an airplane that day." He also stopped selling the video.

Falwell's public relations firm did not respond to Church & State's request for an interview and would not tell the magazine how many copies of his Y2K video Falwell sold or how much money he made.

Robertson had offered similar dire predictions on his "700 Club" show and during a Y2K conference at his Founders Inn in Virginia Beach in 1998. At that event, Robertson, who is prone to make gloom-and-doom predictions, said of Y2K, "What we are looking at is a man-made global crisis of such magnitude that nobody really can assess it."

On March 23, 1998, Robertson interviewed Y2K doomsday writer Ed Yourdon, a software consultant whose hysteria-laden tome Time Bomb 2000 sold a quarter of million copies. Yourdon told Robertson that he expected Y2K to spark a serious recession and "some degree of chaos."

CBN also launched an online "Y2K Resource Center," which was still running as of last month. The Center advises visitors to stockpile food and other supplies and tells people to be prepared to be without power for some period of time. When Jan. 1 came and went without incident, the Center posted an essay by CBN staffer Drew Parkhill asserting that many problems will not surface until later this year and insisting that many of the difficulties spawned by the glitch may not have been reported.

Falwell and Robertson, it seems, have much to answer for. But Ft. Lauderdale-based TV preacher D. James Kennedy may have the largest amount of egg on his face. Throughout 1999, Kennedy went into full-blown panic over Y2K.

During his first broadcast about the computer glitch, which aired Jan. 17, 1999, Kennedy assured his audience he had spent "a great deal of time" studying the Y2K problem and took pains to present himself as an expert. Yet he did little more than engage in fear mongering, recycling anecdotes about Y2K failures that later turned out to be fictional.

In a booklet he published, Kennedy told an oft-repeated tale about a 104-year-old woman in Minnesota who supposedly received a notice from the local public school system reminding her to enroll in kindergarten. Evangelical writer Hank Hanegraaff, author of the 1999 book The Millennium Bug Debugged: The Facts Behind All the Y2K Sensationalism, tracked down the story and discovered that it was largely apocryphal. The story actually dated from 1993 and dealt with a Roman Catholic school that had sent out the erroneous notice. The mistake was due exclusively to human error and not at all related to Y2K. Hanegraaff found that various doomsday prophets had enbellished the account over the years, changing the state where it supposedly occurred, saying it took place in 1999 and asserting that the letter had come from a state department of education.

Hanegraaff notes in his book that he informed Y2K panic author Hyatt, the man who addressed Dobson's FOF chapel meeting, about the errors, but Hyatt continued to use the anecdote.

At the farthest extreme of the Religious Right sits a fringe group of survivalists who literally decided to head for the hills over Y2K. The most prominent spokesman for this faction is Gary North, a Christian Reconstructionist who believes that the U.S. government should be scrapped and replaced with a theocracy based on his interpretation of "biblical law." North essentially predicted the end of civilization as we know it.

According to his scenario, Y2K would spark the crash of world economies and governments. He opined that U.S. urban areas would become war zones, destroyed by looting and rioting in the wake of food shortages and power outages. Paper money would be useless, and public utilities would quickly fail. North actually hoped this grim scenario would come to pass because he believed it would lead to the creation of a new government more to his liking. North, who now lives in an isolated compound in rural Arkansas, spread his views through a website (www.garynorth.com), which linked to dozens of alarmist Y2K articles. (Church & State sent an e-mail message to North requesting an interview for this story, but he did not reply.)

In October of 1999, North replaced his original website message with a slightly less alarmist posting. But even in this message North continues to warn of dire problems that he says could surface later this year.

After Jan. 1 North did concede that his predictions had failed. "I am certainly willing to say that my assessment of the threat, as things have played out, was incorrect," he wrote in a statement he posted Jan. 5.

But not all doomsayers have been as willing as North to admit that they were wrong. In fact, some Religious Right groups are engaging in what can only be called revisionism. In 1999 FOF's Dobson hit the panic button and used his Citizen magazine to promote the idea of using a Y2K crisis as a way to win converts; one year later, another FOF publication downplayed fears of societal collapse and criticized the idea of using Y2K fears to win souls. In the Jan. 7, 2000, edition of The Pastor's Weekly Briefing, an FOF fax publication, H.B. London Jr. writes, "As I, like many of you, watched ABC chronicle the passing from one century to the next, I could not help but wonder what those who feared the worst were thinking."

Continued London, "[The Bible] reminds us that we cannot depend on scary events in the world to drive men and women into the church, or even to Christ. The only thing that will accomplish that is for mankind to realize they are lost without Jesus."

Steve Hewitt, editor of Christian Computing magazine in Raymore, Mo., spent much of 1999 traveling to evangelical churches around the country urging people not to panic over Y2K. Hewitt was convinced early on that the problems would be minimal. On New Year's Eve, he and his staff hosted an online party that lasted nearly five hours as they watched the "Y2K rollover" take place in each time zone without incident. (Hewitt says the only glitch he experienced that night were jammed phone lines because so many people tried to call in after midnight.)

"One thing is clear in all of this," Hewitt told Church & State, "all of the fear-mongering in America by both the secular and religious press didn't accomplish anything. Countries like France, Saudi Arabia and others didn't have the fear mongers we had, and they came out okay. The people who were alarmist, I will not let them take credit now for the fix. For those who were scaring people and engaging in fear mongering, I think there needs to be some accountability. Those who were so wrong need to apologize."

Eventually, some Religious Right and secular figures who warned of Y2K doomsday may indeed apologize. But others are keeping the faith and insist that the computer bug may merely be lying in wait to strike later this year. On Jan. 1, Hyatt, the man who got Dobson so worked up over Y2K last year, posted a message on his website, the tone of which seemed to imply that Hyatt was personally disappointed that society had not collapsed like a house of cards. "If you are like many who took the time and trouble to prepare for Y2K, you are probably feeling a little let down today," it read. "I can certainly understand your disappointment or perhaps your frustration. However, I want to emphasize that things are far from over."

TV preacher Robertson also tried to look on the bright side. Speaking to his "700 Club" audience a few days after Jan. 1, Robertson asserted that the year 2000 will see a greater than normal number of natural disasters, such as hurricanes.

All of those stockpiled goods, he suggested, may come in handy after all.