Prevo and I are both 75, born within weeks of each other in the winter of 1944-1945, the last months of World War II. We grew up in the same country, but far apart, geographically and culturally. Jerry was raised in the segregated Bible belt — Tennessee — while I came of age in Fairbanks, a raucous frontier mining and military town where soldiers’ payday was the most important day of the month. The sin condemned in Jerry’s Bible school was open and obvious to a 12-year-old Fairbanks boy. In newspaper advertisements, the Squadron Club promoted its “Beautiful show girls, including the incredible Chesty Lane.”
Jerry Prevo grew up surrounded by tradition. When he came to Alaska as a young pastor in the early 1970s, he sought to impose his Christian tradition on the unruly state I was born into. The self-proclaimed Last Frontier suited him fine. If you are going to save sinners, you need sin. Anchorage did not let him down. The devil was working overtime along Ship Creek while the young pastor promised salvation. Anchorage strip joints in the ’70s, knowing their customers, offered girls who were “Sinsational.”
The Prevo story is a classic American success story: Boy from nowhere shows confidence and drive, works relentlessly in his chosen field and makes it big. Becomes not only pastor of his own church, but ruler of a megachurch drawing hundreds on Sundays. Religious zeal and business acumen make him one of the most recognizable Alaskans for more than 30 years. Broadcasting his services over television further extends his reach.
Nevertheless, except for his forays into Republican politics, he lives in a Christian cocoon. His answer to every question is “It’s in the Book.” The Bible. He is openly hostile to secular culture unless he can harness it for Christian ends — television is the clear example.
He grew up culturally sheltered and brought that shelter with him to Anchorage. I would be surprised if he ever read a page of a major secular writer like Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald or James Baldwin, writers I was expected to read in the back-East college I attended. You can bet he has never read John Stuart Mill on tolerance or philosopher Isaiah Berlin on values in conflict. Berlin specifically emphasizes that human choices are not always between good and evil. On the other hand, he probably knows a great deal about 19th-century American evangelical pioneers like Alexander Campbell, the doctrinal feuds over full immersion baptism versus sprinkling, and the debate over whether man is saved by works or God’s grace.
Prevo's critics and enemies have consistently underestimated him. They dismiss him as a dull-witted, Bible-besotted preacher, the hypocritical star of an Elmer Gantry re-run. He is not stupid. He could not have risen to the top of the Alaska religion game if he was. And he is probably no more hypocritical than the rest of us, including me.
It does seem strange that he became a player in GOP politics — and local nonpartisan politics. After all, nothing is more worldly than politics. But in the Republican Party, he found a secular organization that could protect his interests and advance his cultural beliefs, especially ending abortion and protecting a Christian nation. Plus rubbing shoulders with GOP polls brought him additional respect — and deference. Eventually, Republican candidates sought his electoral blessing.
Whether in political backrooms or in the pulpit, Jerry Prevo was and is a relentless culture warrior. As a culture warrior, he is unyielding, especially in his opposition to gay rights. Never give an inch to gays. Never give an inch to Democrats, secular humanists, and whoever passes as a “leftists” under the northern lights. He is a master at arguing the case for Christians as victims. It’s not gays who need government protection; it’s Christians.
I probably had a dozen conversations with him over the years. They were almost all him calling me at my Daily News office to put me in a “I’m up, you’re down” position in which his narrow argument or complaint was irrefutable — and I had to say “You’re right.”
I handled letters to the editor — by the end of my career, I had read 75,000 of them. Letters came from all over the state, but there were some hardy Anchorage writers with Prevo as their perennial theme. Democratic activists, atheists, those “leftists” were always looking for an angle to trash Prevo. One angle was he used off-duty Anchorage police officers to handle traffic at the Baptist Temple on Sunday. The letter writers were incensed that Prevo had, they claimed, “publicly paid officers” managing his traffic.
The officers were not publicly paid. The Baptist Temple paid them. But that wouldn’t stop letter-writing Prevo detractors from claiming they were.
Every once in a while, one of these letters would escape my eye and get into the paper. The next morning, Prevo would be on the phone excoriating me for printing lies about him. Of course, he was right that the letter should not have run. So he was up and I was down as I listened to a Christian on fire. He assumed I ran the letter on purpose. My suggestion, that a newspaper is a complex organization where people occasionally make mistakes, was a failure. I started to have secular thoughts like “Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep,” courtesy of Buffalo Springfield. I became so exasperated that I wanted to say “Listen pal, if I was out to get you, I certainly would use a more substantial weapon than the letters page of the ADN.” I never did.
At one point, Prevo called about a letter criticizing him which he claimed was in code — a hidden message from the letter-writer instructing Prevo’s enemies to burn down the Baptist Temple. I went through the Rolodex of my secular mind, thinking, “Let’s see, who do I need here — Sigmund Freud?” But I said, in a restrained voice, “You’re not making any sense.” This inflamed him to further denunciation of me, liberals, the media.
I had arguments and differences of opinions with governors, senators, Congressman Don Young (who threatened to throw up on my desk), state legislators and businessmen. Several promised to sue me — and never did. I made peace with politicians and business leaders, eventually, because they knew it was better to have something like peaceful coexistence with the editorial page editor of the News than an ongoing conflict.
Jerry Prevo was not open to repair. Or maybe he thought it was more in his interest to abuse me over the telephone — never give an inch to the press.
After former Sen. Ted Stevens was killed in a plane crash in 2010, the Anchorage Baptist Temple was the site of a large memorial service. Many luminaries from Washington came, including Joe and Jill Biden. There were eulogists of several faiths. Prevo and his staff had experience handling large crowds — and large crowds of mourners — and the event was perfectly executed. Afterward, I saw Jerry Prevo standing by himself across the parish hall in which people were exchanging greetings, reminiscing about Stevens, drinking coffee.
I walked up to Jerry and told him he had done a great job of organizing the service. I noted the amount of work and time that went into making things flawless must have been extensive. When I finished, he looked at me in disbelief, as if the devil had just materialized to say “Nice work, bro.” I buckled up and said, “I mean it, Reverend.” He paused a moment, smiled, and said “Thank you.” He meant it.
I have not spoken to him since that moment.
Michael Carey is an occasional columnist and the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.
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