It Was Thirty Years Ago

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"It was 30 years ago today..." No, not the lyrics from the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, but August 11, 1988, the day 25,000 people took to the streets in North Hollywood, California. What were these people doing on that Thursday afternoon?  Taking a stand for the historical Jesus and protesting a soon-to-be-released motion picture called The Last Temptation of Christ that defamed and mischaracterized Jesus. I was privileged to be the “tip of the spear” in organizing and leading the protest preceded by a news conference. I invited some of my friends to participate, such as football great Rosey Grier, Jewish broadcaster Dennis Prager and former sportscaster Jane Chastain. I also invited some well-known Christian leaders to participate, such as Don Wildmon from the America Family Association and Bill Bright from Campus Crusade. But first, a little background.

Rumors had spread that MCA-Universal was bankrolling a movie based on pagan writer Nikos Katzanzakis' novel The Last Temptation of Christ. MCA-Universal brought in award-winning director Martin Scorcese to direct the film. Given the controversial nature of Katzanzakis' book, MCA tried to keep the movie script under wraps. However, copies were leaked, and Christian broadcasters began to decry what many considered a highly offensive if not blasphemous portrayal of Jesus. The "Jesus" of MCA's film was a lustful and confused person, bearing little resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels whom two billion Christians worship as Lord and God.

Despite the pleas from multitudes of people to not release the film, MCA turned a deaf ear and wrapped itself in the First Amendment, claiming it had every right to produce the movie. No one questioned whether MCA had such a right—the issue was whether MCA should go forward with a film based on a script that was offensive to millions of people. By late July 1988, it was clear that MCA had no intention of shelving the film despite the outcry. At the time I was the afternoon talk show host on KKLA-Los Angeles, the flagship station for Salem Broadcasting. KKLA’s North Hollywood studios were two miles from the entrance to Universal Studios and MCA-Universal’s headquarters and I had been actively covering the controversy behind The Last Temptation of Christ for months. Thus, I was in the right place to give a voice to the thousands of people who were troubled by the film. I figured the best way to for people to express themselves was to organize a public rally and march. The event was set for noon on August 11, 1988, at the entrance to Universal Studios in North Hollywood, preceded by a news conference at 11 a.m.

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By 11 a.m. on August 11, 1988 several thousand people had gathered at entrance of Universal Studios awaiting the news conference. As I looked out at a dozen or more television cameras and many more print journalists, I began addressing the media by reading an open letter to MCA that expressed the sentiments of literally millions of people. A helicopter buzzed overhead filming the spectacle and I was told that a local Los Angeles News station reported a "13-mile backup on the 101 Freeway" due to a "massive protest" in North Hollywood.

After my presentation I introduced a relatively-unknown young singer named Steve Gooden. Steve had a recording contract with MCA, but in light of MCA’s funding of The Last Temptation of Christ he decided he could not use his talents for MCA. After referencing Charles Sheldon's book In His Steps, Steve put truth above consequences and tore up his recording contract as the cameras rolled. It was an emotional moment, as Steve, with tears in his eyes, collapsed into the arms of Rosey Grier.

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After Steve Gooden came Don Wildmon who was on the front lines condemning the film. Following him was Atlanta Pastor Richard Lee who brought petitions with over 100,000 signatures urging MCA to not release the film. Other speakers included Bill Bright, Dennis Prager, film director Ken Wales, Rosie Grier, radio personality Rich Buhler, Rabbi Chaim Asa, and Jane Chastain. When the news conference was over, it was time for the noon march. By this time, according to the North Hollywood Police’s estimate, there were 25,000 people present, causing the Police Chief to comment that “It looked like a Dodger game was let out on Lankershim Boulevard.”

As we began to march to a nearby park I saw literally thousands of placards, many hand-made, condemning the film with statements such as “The Greatest Story Ever Distorted” and “Don’t Crucify Christ Again.” There were chants of “boycott MCA” and people singing “Amazing Grace.” After about a 15-minute march the throng began to arrive at the park where under sunny skies we sang songs, prayed, and closed with “God Bless America.” 

Up to that point in America the majority of people involved in public protests and demonstrations seemed to be on the radical fringe. On August 11, 1988 it was different. Women pushing baby strollers, senior citizens, children, off-duty police--all came together to take a stand for the Jesus of the Bible. Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews and Muslims stood in unity despite theological differences. It was the most unifying event I had experienced in my lifetime, only surpassed by the national unity that followed the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks.

I agreed with the sentiments expressed by Don Wildmon, who said during the news conference, “This is a movement.” For the vast majority of the 25,000 protest participants it was the first time they publicly stood up and spoke up for Jesus. It was a day that showed good triumphs over evil, and it was a reminder that unless Christians speak up and stand up, the secular Hollywood industry will continue to push the envelope with scripts that attack the faith of the majority of Americans. The unified voice of Christians was heard, and many of the largest movie theater chains refused to show the movie. It was a lesson that speaking up and taking a stand can make a difference. Will the next generation of Christians have the same passion and resolve to stand against evil and offensive portrayals of Jesus? I hope so. It was 30 years ago today that 25,000 people showed how it can be done.