Offensive Warfare, Part Two
“The way we look at it, this preface gives us much greater opportunities in the upcoming depositions and trial. I believe this is the only way we can win.”— Gerald Flurry, Letter to legal team, June 11, 2002
Perhaps the most significant material we uncovered in preparing for Ralph Helge’s deposition was the role he played in defending the wcg against the state of California in 1979. As head of the church’s legal department, he fought right on the front lines against dissident ministers who wanted to wrest control of the church away from Mr. Armstrong. Speaking before church members inside Ambassador Auditorium on Jan. 13, 1979, Helge asked, “Now what’s really behind the scenes of this lawsuit? … I’ll tell you what it is. It’s a few dissidents that want to take power and change the doctrines of the Church of God. They don’t like the way it’s being run. And they don’t like the doctrines.” That comment could just as easily describe our lawsuit with the Worldwide Church of God 18 years later, except this time the ones who wanted to take over power and change the doctrines were on the inside. And the tragedy is, Ralph Helge had joined the dissidents who wanted to take over and change the doctrines Mr. Armstrong had established.
Helge continued in his 1979 message with another comment that probably tens of thousands today would make about Tkachism: “We’ve got certain rules and we’ve got doctrines. If you like them, tremendous. And if you don’t, or I don’t (I’ll point to myself), then I’ll go to the church that teaches doctrines I do like. But I don’t come in here and try to change the way Mr. Armstrong has set the doctrines” —which is exactly what the Tkaches did. They didn’t like the doctrines, changed them, and then forced everyone out who wouldn’t go along.
When we reminded Helge about these statements in his 2002 deposition, he said it was different in 1979 because the dissidents attacked “from the outside.” But even in that case, those dissidents were originally on the inside before Mr. Armstrong disfellowshiped them for attempting to liberalize church doctrine. In any event, a takeover attempt from the outside is not in any way worse than an inside job, spearheaded by a Judas-like betrayal.
Later in 1979, again while speaking at church services in Pasadena, Helge said, “You talk about contempt. You talk about utter contempt. Here a man [Herbert Armstrong] works all his life in the might and power of God to raise up churches, and here some pip-squeak dissident is going to control Mr. Armstrong and the church.” Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nineteen years later, Helge testified under oath that Mr. Armstrong was employed by the church, that the board had control over Mr. Armstrong’s work and the authority, if necessary, to fire him.
Helge’s Late Career Move
During the deposition, Helge said he had been told by the wcg he would soon retire and be replaced by Bernie Schnippert. It sounded like his final job assignment would be this lawsuit. Mark Helm asked him about the e-publishing project and how that got started. Helge said he got the idea sometime in 2001 while reading a magazine over lunch. “I just started to read it and it just clicked, hey, this is something to investigate.”
In looking at the timeline, however, the decision to e-publish appears to have been much more calculated than Helge indicated. On Feb. 13, 2001, Mark Helm informed wcg attorneys that we intended to amend our counterclaim to allege that it would be futile for us to seek the wcg’s permission to reprint Mr. Armstrong’s works. We wanted to add this to our brief because the Ninth Circuit, even in ruling against us, did leave the door open slightly for us to possibly rely on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And for rfra to be added to our counterclaim, we had to show how futile it would have been to obtain a license for the works.
On Feb. 16, 2001, Ralph Helge contacted Zondervan Publishing for its evaluation on “the licensing fee or sales price for copyrighted literature owned by the church.” This means that just three days after we told them about the futility amendment, they started contacting publishers about the procedures and fees for licensing their literature. It was yet another made-for-litigation ploy.
Later during the summer is when they stated in court filings that they would have considered all along to license the works to us. Around this time is when the e-publishing idea “clicked” with Ralph Helge. At the deposition, Mark asked if there was anyone else at the wcg involved in the e-publishing project. “Not to my knowledge,” Helge responded. Later, after we asked who was in charge of coordinating promotion for the sale of Mr. Armstrong’s books over the Internet, Helge answered, “I’m the man.”
So here was an elderly man on the verge of retirement, who had worked in the wcg’s legal department for most of his adult life, given charge of the church’s new e-publishing “department,” established solely in order to undermine our futility claim and to “prove” they had never intended to suppress Mr. Armstrong’s works at all.
It’s pathetic, I know. But at the same time, it’s fascinating history because it shows how much we had acquired in fighting for the truth—even after losing at the Ninth Circuit. As much as they hated the idea, they knew that to prevail on the merits in court, they had to convince a judge that they were still using Mr. Armstrong’s material. So they lied about an annotated project and won at the Ninth Circuit. And in order to defeat our counterclaim, their in-house attorney established a new branch in the church’s publishing department, even on the eve of his retirement.
These are supposedly religious men—and yet willing to do or say just about anything as long as it helped them win in court.
At the same time, look at what we forced them to do by simply confronting them. At the beginning of the case, remember, Tkach Jr. arrogantly asserted that the reason they filed this suit was to “block the republication of Mystery of the Ages.” Their duty as Christians was to keep this book out of print because they believed “Mr. Armstrong’s doctrinal errors are better left out of circulation.” Two years later, even though it was a lie, they talked about using Mr. Armstrong’s material again. Two years after that, they inquired about licensing and followed that up by making Mr. Armstrong’s literature available on demand through e-publishing. True, the literature had to be prefaced by Feazell’s attack, which we weren’t about to accept. But still, they were forced to do things they never would have dreamed of doing at the start, simply because we were willing to fight for Mr. Armstrong’s legacy.
My father’s faithful determination was beginning to wear them down.
As the wcg’s director of finance and planning, Bernie Schnippert made some interesting comments about the relationship between the church’s income and its distribution of literature. With Mr. Armstrong, Schnippert said, distributing free literature was designed to hook people into a well-orchestrated fundraising scheme. “If you’re going to move someone to your state of mind, you begin at a place you think will interest them and you take them where you want them to go. … The progression of topics is a type of psychology.” Later, he said, “Mr. Armstrong’s books, when given, tend to create donations. … [W]e discontinued Mystery of the Ages in spite of the fact that we knew it was, to be crass, a money-maker.”
Quite a difference from the party line in 1989—that they discontinued the book because of its expense.
Schnippert also elaborated on the wcg’s new approach under Tkachism—charging subscription fees for church literature instead of distributing it freely. He said, “[W]hen you give free literature and the person is told they must tithe, in the end you’ve taken more money out of them in some ways less honestly than if you just charged them in the first place.” Of course, as Schnippert well knows, no one ever forced people to voluntarily give donations to the wcg. But that’s certainly the way they love to portray Mr. Armstrong’s followers—mindless dupes brainwashed into giving money to—of all things—a church!
Tkachism’s approach, of course—even though it triggered a precipitous decline in church membership and donations—is much more honest, in Schnippert’s view. They charged people up front for new literature and retired the flawed material so as to “not use it disingenuously” to make money when they “didn’t believe it.” Yet now that they were in the midst of a legal struggle over the “flawed” stuff, they had no problem disingenuously making money off Mr. Armstrong’s literature, so long as the e-publishing scheme helped them win the case. Schnippert said they could now justify profiting from Mr. Armstrong’s works so long as the writings contained a “disclaimer that plainly tells everyone that we don’t agree with it.” So he not only revealed the rank hypocrisy behind their supposedly courageous move to retire money-makers in 1989, he admitted that they would not make Mr. Armstrong’s writings available without a derogatory preface attached. This was another huge admission for us.
Later, in discussing the preface, Schnippert said they worded it as carefully as possible in order “to be respectful of Mr. Armstrong and anyone who were to read it.” So Mark went through several statements from the preface, giving Schnippert an opportunity to explain what he meant by “respectful.” We asked him if he thought using phrases like “personal bias” and “advertising hook” were complimentary toward Mr. Armstrong. “Do you believe that Mr. Armstrong’s views were the result of a personal bias?” Mark asked.
wcg attorney Miles Feldman objected to the question and asked how Schnippert’s personal views were relevant to the case. But they were the ones trying to inject this preface into the litigation, we maintained.
A lengthy exchange then followed with Miles threatening to call the court magistrate to settle the dispute and Mark complaining that Miles was wasting time. “This is a serious matter,” Miles said, raising his voice. “And if you’re going to accuse me of bad faith, I’m suggesting right now let’s get the magistrate on the phone and we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
After Miles cooled off, Mark turned to Schnippert: “Suppose that the wcg literature had a preface which said that the doctrines of that church under Joseph Tkach Jr. were biblically unsound, he was an uneducated dictator with crackpot ideas, that his views were of interest only as a historical curiosity. … Do you think that would be an effective marketing tool for your literature?”
Miles went ballistic.
But this was all their doing. They were the ones who introduced the preface and then insisted it be attached to every publication they supposedly offered as a “benefit” to us. They were the ones who made the preface central to the case. So we took them to task on the preface and exposed the fact that they were guilty of the very things they accused Mr. Armstrong of. And when called upon to answer for their self-righteous hypocrisy, they ran for cover like cowards, hiding behind their lawyer’s objections: Inappropriate! Argumentative! Irrelevant! Invasion of privacy!
But we weren’t about to let them off the hook.
One might think both sides in this battle were being driven further apart in the summer of 2002—hardened by the grueling deposition warfare that took place over the course of two months. And from what we saw on the surface, wcg officials were getting angrier and more defiant by the day.
But on the inside, they were deeply conflicted. They had the copyrights to Mr. Armstrong’s literature and they burned with anger at the thought of our little church—their nemesis—obtaining rights to distribute these works, especially after we tried to “steal” them.
On the other hand, they did not want to be exposed.
The wcg’s preface turned out to be a tremendous opportunity for us. Our forceful response to it, my father said at the beginning of the summer, was the only way we could win.
And he was right.