In high school I was in league with Satan. Or so my mother believed.
I grew up in the Evangelical mecca of Wheaton, Illinois. Wheaton College (“The Evangelical Harvard”) and the Billy Graham Center for the Study of Evangelicalism were a mile from my home, the offices of Christianity Today within walking distance of my high school. Yet still Satan haunted me.
Although my Evangelical mother yearned primarily for my eternal salvation, she also yearned for me to be socially integrated and to get into a good college. Hence, she required that I join an extra-curricular activity at Wheaton North High School. I picked Math Club. But on finding Math Club boring and socially suicidal, I instead wandered the streets of Wheaton afternoons, pretending to be at Math Club. When my mother learned of my deception, she took away my music—my brown faux-leather case of cassette tapes—not so much as punishment but because she thought that Satan, through the secular music, must have been the one making me lie.
Satan had entered my music subtly. In junior high school, prompted by church leaders, I listened only to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM): Farrell & Farrell, Steve Taylor, Petra, Rez Band. But then came the gateway artists, bands who had at least some members who identified as Christian but recorded on secular labels: Bob Dylan (then just coming out of his born-again phase), U2, Kansas, The Alarm, Bruce Cockburn. From there it was a slippery slope. I started listening to secular music stations. I started attending secular concerts and buying cassettes from groups who never made any kind of claim on Jesus: The Monkees, R.E.M., Steely Dan, The Beatles. Finally I reached my musical backsliding bottom and bought Led Zeppelin IV. I can see that perhaps this album, with its occult-looking symbols and screeching sexuality, might have had a corrupting influence. But that Satan, via The Monkees, had led me to lie about Math Club?
Mike Warnke’s cassettes were not in that brown faux-leather cassette case, but they might as well have been. He would have been as natural a complement to the music of my CCM phase as Eddie Murphy was to the secular music of the time. I never went to any Warnke concerts, but friends of mine did, and I certainly heard Warnke on the local CCM radio station, WCRM. I didn’t realize at the time that this charming Christian comedian had also been one of the voices that had convinced my mother that it was Satan and his minions that led me to lie about Math Club. For it was while I was in high school that Warnke appeared on 20/20, Oprah, and The Donahue Show warning of the dangers of Satan.
Once his ministry was exposed back in 1992, no one has paid much attention to Mike Warnke. But ever since my CCM salad days, he has stayed with me, just outside my perception, on the edge of my awareness. Whenever I find myself reflecting about what is to be done and what is not to be done, what can be forgiven and what cannot be forgiven, what is good and what is evil, I feel the presence of Mike Warnke.
This story starts out well before mine. In 1972, Warnke’s book The Satan Seller recounted how, before his conversion to Christianity, he had been a Satanic high priest of with a cult of 1,500 under his control. But in the next two decades, Jesus gave Warnke greater power than he ever had with Satan.
On the night of November 14, 1975 two stars of the emerging contemporary Christian music scene, Honeytree and Phil Keaggy, were to record a live album at the Adam’s Apple coffeehouse in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Christian coffeehouses had become gathering places for Jesus People—a hippie Christian movement that started in Southern California—and “Jesus music” (later relabeled CCM) was their rock-n-roll. Mike Warnke—in jeans, long wavy hair, and a droopy mustache—came on in between sets to give a talk. While he was up, the engineer “just almost accidentally” left the tape running and recorded Warnke’s performance:
Most of you have heard my testimony before and some of you’ve read the Satan Seller and you know that I was involved in the occult for so many years… oh, about seven… and you know that I was a big-time drug-pusher and big-time drug user. I don’t have to go into all those gory details. I don’t have to roll up my sleeves and show you my scars… I really don’t like to talk about the gory details, I like to talk about the Lord, you know. I don’t go places and tell everybody how cool the devil is, I go there to tell them how neat the Lord is, you know. I ain’t got time to talk about chopping people’s fingers off and yuk-yuk-yuk. I want to talk about Jesus. That’s because the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my life was not being a Satanist priest. The heaviest experience I ever had was nothing that happened with the devil. It’s something I did nine years ago… when I got down on my knees and said, “Lord, be my personal savior.” That’s the heaviest one thing that ever happened to me in 29 years. And I dig it. I get a kick out of being a Christian. I think being saved is a gas.
The Honeytree/Keaggy album never came into being, but Warnke’s performance was produced by Jesus-music label Myrrh Records as the spoken-word album Mike Warnke Alive! The leading Jesus music publication of the time, Harmony, wrote: “With the release of Mike Warnke Alive! Christian comedy comes into its own with Mike Warnke as its most notable practitioner.”
Although Warnke’s ministry had started several years earlier, the album was Warnke’s big break. It launched Warnke’s 15-year career as America’s Number One Christian Comedian, packing out churches, civic centers, and concert halls, selling hundreds of thousands of albums and collecting even more money through “love offerings” for children victims of Satanic abuse at his shows. June 29, 1988 was declared “Mike Warnke Day” by the governor of Tennessee.
The appeal of a longhaired, frumpy, wise-cracking, earring-wearing ex-Satanist in Christian circles might not be immediately evident. But Warnke’s sordid background and unprofessional appearance actually fit right into his act. “When the Lord decided to save me he didn’t need your permission,” he quipped on his video Do You Hear Me? Mike Warnke had been, almost by definition, the world’s worst sinner, and Jesus still loved him. His testimony of 180-degree transformation justified his jokes of judgmental Christians and his message of unconditional acceptance. Warnke had tried the other side and it nearly killed him. This gave clean Christians confidence that they were not missing out on anything great—while still getting a bit of vicarious thrill, all in the name of Jesus.
As I wandered the streets of Wheaton, escaping from Math Club and from confrontations with my mother, I worried less about the snares of Satan than about my high school classmates. I was horrified that I would run across my peers and that I would have to explain that I was not avoiding them because I was sneaking cigarettes or trying to score pot or booze. No, I was on the lam from competition with Mathletes. As I wandered, a vision began to form in my head:
Ten years in the future and I wake up one morning and find myself bleary-eyed and dry-mouthed in a motel room on top of a sour-smelling, gaudy-flowered bedspread. Gaudy-flowered wallpaper peels off the wall to reveal mold behind it. There are cigarette burns on the carpet and broken Jack Daniels bottles on the nightstand. My head, chest, and genitals throb with equally unbearable pain. I contemplate killing myself just to rid the world of my disgusting, cancerous presence. For I had become the leader of a brutal motorcycle gang. I had spent the last ten years of my life doing unspeakable things with motorcycle chains to pleasant people while using foul language. I was worthless human scum, deserving of death.
But then, in the depths of my despair a beautiful Latina maid enters the room. Her name “Angelina” is threaded in cursive on her tightly pressed blue dress. She looks at me with her tender eyes and in her lovely light Spanish accent she tells me that Jesus loves me. He loves me no matter what I have done so I don’t need to drink or drug or fight anymore. She pulls me from the sweat-soaked bedsheets and leads me to the shower. While I scour the years of filth away from my body, she carefully cleans the room, making up the bed, sweeping up the cigarettes and the broken whiskey bottles. When I emerge freshly washed from the bathroom, she is kneeling beside the bed. “Killer,” she says—her sweet mouth rolling the l’s in my motorcycle name in a way she never could have done with “Erik”—“Killer, come down here next to me. It’s time you came clean to Jesus. Repeat this prayer after me: Lord God Almighty… Creator of the Universe… Allower of Rain Upon the Just and the Unjust… Have mercy on me… For I have done unspeakable things with motorcycle chains to pleasant people while using foul language… I have consumed alcoholic beverages that have confused my sense of right and wrong… I have taken advantage of fallen women who never had strong male role models in their homes… I am a worthless sinner deserving of eternal damnation… But today I confess my sin to you, O Lord… And I ask you into my heart… With you in my heart I will sin no more… I will start attending a Bible-believing church with a God-fearing woman… Together we will sing hymns together and go to Bible studies… In time, we will marry and produce five God-fearing offspring… We will become missionaries to dark places and bring more souls into Your Glorious Presence… O thank You Lord for Your Miraculous Grace… Most Blessed Redeemer… Thank you for keeping us forever safe… from the power of Satan… Amen…”
How bad-ass is that, Math Club?
The host of the national TV newsmagazine 20/20, Hugh Downs, opened up the May 16, 1985 episode of the show “The Devil Worshippers” with this: “There is no question that there is something going on out there and that’s sufficient reason for 20/20 to look into it.” Downs continued, “Perverse, hideous acts that defy belief. Suicides, murders, and ritualistic slaughter of children and animals.” The segment, reported by Tom Jerriel, included clips from the 1968 Roman Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby, details of several crimes attributed to Satanists, testimonies of young children who had supposedly taken part in Satanic rituals, and interviews with various police officers, social workers, and psychiatrists who were “Satanism experts.” It concluded by warning viewers how to look for signs of Satanism. Mike Warnke appeared twice in the thirty-minute report showing the paraphernalia demon worshippers supposedly used in Satanic rites. When asked why he had gotten involved in Satanism, Warnke replied that it was because he wanted to be “someone special.”
This 1985 broadcast, according to Satanism scholar Bill Ellis, “gave national attention to claims of thousands of Satanic cults across the United States … such claims had circulated previously within isolated communities … but from this point on, Satanism became a major national crisis.”
Even before beginning his television debut as a Satanism expert on 20/20, Mike Warnke had made two signal contributions to the panic of the period. First, he had provided the first coherent story of an American apostate Satanist. The Satan Seller is full of implausibilities—not least that a 19-year-old community college student would rise in a matter of months to be in charge of 1,500 adults in any organization. But Warnke’s folksy tone and the very lack of specific names and dates make his account not easily refutable. Second, Mike Warnke’s 1972 account linked Satanic activity to a large, secretive, powerful international organization, The Illuminati. This connected Evangelical fears of supernatural evil to more human secular fears of international conspiracies.
Warnke’s claims—although individually shaky—together contributed to an edifice. The Satan Seller was published by an Evangelical press with little editorial review, but that press was bought up later by a larger secular press. The book gave Warnke success as an evangelist and comic speaker. His speaking and albums gave credibility to softer news outlets like 20/20 and Geraldo. Other Satan-cult survivor stories emerged that backed up Warnke’s. He began to speak to police departments to let them know what to look for in Satanic crime. Warnke, together with Satan, was getting big.
Satanic crime also turned out to be good for Warnke’s ministry business. In Selling Satan: The Tragic History of Mike Warnke, journalists Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott reveal:
The mid-eighties period was the time during which the satanic panic was beginning to spread. It was no surprise that Warnke’s most effective fund-raising tool was something known around the office as the “Jeffy Story”
“Jeffy was this little boy who’d supposedly become a vegetable because of all the [Satanic ritual] abuse he’d had,” remembered Jan Ross [former Warnke Ministries staff person]. “The story was used to raise money to ‘help all the Jeffys of the world, so there wouldn’t be so many Jeffys’ Mike would say, ‘What if your child was sent to preschool and this happened? How would you like this to happen to your child?”
With the help of Warnke and 20/20, the “Satanic Panic” had crossed over. That is, what had been a concern only among Evangelicals became a concern to the wider secular world. Fear of Satan went as viral as things could go before the internet. Rumors of Satanic activity—ritual sexual abuse, animal sacrifice, killings—popped up across the country over the next five years. But no evidence of coordinated criminal activity in the name of Satan was ever found. There was no Satanic conspiracy. There were no Jeffys.
It turned out that I didn’t need Math Club on my high school resume after all. I ended up attending my denomination’s college, North Park College and Theological Seminary, where all they had to see on my application was that I had checked the box “member of an Evangelical Covenant Church.”
It turned out that North Park was just a short Foster Avenue bus ride down to Jesus People USA (or JPUSA, pronounced Jah-POOZ-ah). JPUSA was a Christian commune that grew out of the same movements that had spawned Christian coffee houses, Jesus music, and Mike Warnke. I knew JPUSA from my Contemporary Christian Music days as the home of the Resurrection or “Rez” Band, and the home of Cornerstone Magazine, the Rolling Stone of CCM at the time. Several times I attended the Sunday morning worship at JPUSA as an exciting, yet theologically safe, alternative to the staid worship of more mainstream churches. They read the Bible and prayed to Jesus, but they had tattoos and piercings and got down to some serious rock-n-roll during their services. I did not know that larger forces were at work and JPUSA became a part of my Covenant denomination in 1989.
During and after my student tenure North Park College, I worked as the volunteer coordinator for the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. And when Habitat volunteers grew tired of hammering nails and hanging drywall, I often brought them to work at the Jesus People USA soup kitchen. I didn’t know at the time that Cornerstone was in the process of investigating Mike Warnke’s claims of Satanic priesthood. Again, Mike Warnke was there, just below my conscious awareness.
The story broke at the Christian Booksellers Association, where all the leading Evangelical stars came out to promote their newest product. Mike Warnke was there to push his book, Recovering from Divorce, co-written with his third ex-wife Rose. Rumors had been flying around the Evangelical world about Cornerstone’s investigation of the comedian; the magazine had just uncovered pseudo-Satanist Lauren Stafford’s fabrications the year before. Warnke himself knew of their investigation because he had been contacted to comment on the article before its release.
Cornerstone journalists Mike Hertenstein and John Trott had been running around the convention hall, passing out issues with a pleasant picture of Mike Warnke picture on the cover. However, this cover photo was one of the most damning pieces of evidence they had against him. The photo shows a very square-looking Warnke on April 30, 1966, posing in glasses and a cardigan at a wedding with his fiancée. But in The Satan Seller, according to Hertenstein and Trott, Warnke had “claimed it was during this time that he had waist-length hair, six-inch long fingernails (painted black and sharpened for fighting), facial scabs from drug use, and was a Satanic high priest with fifteen hundred disciples.” In Warnke’s situation, the worst thing anyone could have done was to show he had been not been a trashed-out evil druggie Satanist in 1966.
Hertenstein and Trott and Warnke had all been a part of the close-knit Jesus People movement so it was awkward for the journalists to confront Warnke. Again, from their book Selling Satan:
The comedian was standing in an entryway with a red-haired woman, talking with some fans. Trott and Hortenstein walked past without noticing him at first, then stopped back in their tracks and walked back. When they introduced themselves, Warnke smiled a tremendous smile and—to their great surprise and discomfort—gave each journalist a cuddly hug. He then introduced the men to his new wife, Susan. Yes, Mike said, as if too busy to discuss it, he’d already skimmed the article. But he wanted the authors to know he felt no hostility toward them.
“I’ve made many mistakes in my life,” Warnke confided, “but in these past few years I feel I’m right where I should be with the Lord for maybe the first time in my life,” Hertenstein swallowed. Warnke’s chipper small talk wasn’t exactly what this moment should be about he thought. “Mike,” said the reporter, slowly. “I think you should know we talked to Greg Gilbert and Lois Eckenrod” [a friend and fiancée of Warnke during his supposed Satanist phase who discounted Warnke’s Satanic stories].
Warnke didn’t flinch. “Oh, I did happen to see their names as I was skimming the article…” Hertenstein pulled a small tape recorder from his pocket and made it clear that the next question was important. “Why didn’t you mention Greg or Lois or any of your other college friends in The Satan Seller?” Warnke’s easy manner melted and his face turned quite red. “I didn’t think they were germane to the story,” he said, allowing Susan Warnke to pull him aside.
“Not germane?” Trott asked, finally overcoming the anesthetic effects of the hug. Warnke was disappearing into the crowded lobby. “Mike, maybe after you read the article a little more carefully, we could talk again. Would that be possible?” Warnke shot back, “Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t.”
After the article, Warnke’s ministry collapsed. Bookstores tried to return his books and albums; people stopped coming to his events; contributions to his ministry to help children damaged by Satanic ritual abuse dried up; secular organizations didn’t ask him to be an expert on Satanism anymore. But Warnke continued to dodge direct questions about his fabricated Satanism and to this day has never admitted that the stories on his albums and in The Satan Seller were false. Instead, he’s demonized those who question him. His most recent book, published in 2002, is Friendly Fire: A Recovery Guide for Believers Battered by Religion. He continues to travel and speak and have an—albeit smaller—following.
Come down here next to me, Mike Warnke. Come here and kneel down with me. I want you to pray with me. You need to come clean before your Creator. Come, kneel down, fold you hands, close your eyes and repeat these words after me, Mike Warnke. Repeat these words after me:
“Lord God Almighty… Creator of the Universe… Allower of Rain upon the Just and Unjust… Have mercy on me… not because I have sinned against Thee… but because I have been such a miserable failure in my attempts to sin against Thee… It’s not like You are threatened when I listen to raunchy music… It’s not like I put You God in danger when I put on red devil pajamas and prance about in the woods… or lie about such dancing and pajamas… I want to think sometimes that I’m all wicked and badass and that somehow I’m going to be a worthy adversary for you… and that it’s You I need forgiveness from… But really… it’s my friends, my family, my larger community that I need forgiveness from…
“Lord God Almighty… Creator of the Universe… Allower of Rain upon the Just and the Unjust… Have mercy on us Lord… forgive us O Lord… for we know not what we do…
“But Lord God Almighty… have mercy on me… for the people You created are an irascible and inconsistent bunch… for some think I can do no evil… as long as I am moving souls out of Satan’s column and into yours… some think I can do no evil because there really is no evil… only misfirings in the brain and injustices in the social order… some think I can do nothing but evil and am beyond forgiveness… because of the religious group I belong to… or the jokes I tell… or the way I wear my hair… Some think that seventy times seven is just a basic breakdown in accountability… O Lord, it is just so much easier to get The One-Size-Fits-All Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Pass from Thee…
“Lord God Almighty… have mercy on me… because I can feel that forgiveness is needed… healing from evil is needed… But I don’t know who or how to ask or demand forgiveness from… I know I am a lousy sinner… I know that I continually act either like a stupid beast or a manipulating devil… trampling on the feelings of those around me… but why am I acting this way, Lord?… Who is responsible?… Is it my fault Lord?…when I just don’t know any other way?… Is it Satan working through me?… a devil that I need to cast out?
“Lord God Almighty… Creator of the Universe… Allower of Rain upon the
Just and the Unjust… Have mercy on us Lord… forgive us O Lord… for we know
not what we do…
Erik Hanson, a contributing editor of KtB, was once the religion editor at AltaMira Press, but then he was laid off. He taught Math and English at a K-8 Quaker School but then he was laid off from there. He currently advises Anthropology majors at the University of Maryland, where he has not yet been laid off, although he is expecting furloughs.