Farewell to Arms

Ousted from the airwaves, a homophobic minister launches a holy war against Channel 20

o how do you feel when you preach?
Phil Arms leaned back in his leather chair and thought a minute.
"Have you ever seen Chariots of Fire?" he said at last. "There's a line in there that says, 'When I run, I feel this pleasure.' Something like that, I think."

It's a glorious thing how God can change a man, said Phil Arms. His makeup was thick, his hair shellacked. Above him were the framed words of Psalm 1, "the Way of the Righteous and the End of the Ungodly.''

Sitting there smiling and sure, he looked like an actor in another movie, like Tommy Lee Jones in JFK. But there was work to do, and he couldn't linger. He rose and shook hands and said he had to run.

Down in the great hollow of Houston Church, the congregants were singing Jesus Jesus Jesus, there's just something about that name, but no one said what it was until the music died and Phil Arms appeared. As he began to speak, he began to change, and soon he was not Tommy Lee Jones in JFK but Tommy Lee Jones in Batman. Shouting and sneering and mocking, he was Two-Face, and it became clear that his church was not a place of peace, really, but a place for the pissed-off.

"Might as well wake up to the fact, Christian, that this society is challenging your belief system," thundered Phil Arms.

To the amens of the congregation, he set about denouncing nearly every group except the congregation: actors, educators, pornographers, psychologists, the New Age movement, Republicans, Democrats, the media. He damned them all with equal passion until he came to that group he called the "homosekshulls" -- "the most miserable group of people on Earth," and to that lonely little television station, KTXH, which has "basically raped every freedom-loving American across this country."

Very quickly, homosexuals and Channel 20 became the focus of Phil Arms' Sunday tirade, just as they've became obsessions in his life and in the lives of his 1,500 parishioners. Five months have passed now since he told Houston what he thought of homosexuals and KTXH yanked his paid program off the air. The Reverend Arms is just getting warmed up. His flock has embarked on a second crusade: if they cannot spread the "good news" about the Gospel on Channel 20, they can certainly spread some news to Channel 20's advertisers. Arms urges them onward: write those letters, make those calls. This isn't about one single television station, he says, but about those other groups, too, and their Satanic conspiracy to take over the Christian world. This is it, soldier, the final conflict. Not just the battle but the whole damn war.

"If you are a Christian, you better understand God is separating the wheat from the chaff," Phil Arms shouted. "We have a CAUSE! I will not lie down and be run over by a bunch of people who have the brains, morally speaking, of a gnat!"

In an evil world, there are necessary evils, and so Houston Church employs a media director, an earnest young man named Bob Francis. The church would be much larger than it is, he explains, "if it weren't for Phil's uncompromising stand. There are very few preachers left in the country who have the guts to stand up and tell it like it is."

Outside the church, Phil Arms has been called narrow-minded. Once, when this was said to his face, he reached for a Bible, as he so often does, pointed to its thickness and said, yessir, that's the span of his mind, and he's proud of it.

But he was not always this way.
As he confessed in his self-published book, The Winner in You, "I was the typical longhaired hippie type." He was raised in a devout home in a small West Texas town, and though he had made his profession of faith, he came of age without possession of it. In the late 1960s, he dropped out of school and began traveling in rock and roll bands. The name of the first was the Skeptics; the second was called In the Beginning. It was a devilish kind of life, full of drugs and females, but slowly he came back to the straight and narrow. One night in 1970, Phil Arms arrived at last at a stoplight in Houston and was "attempting to light a joint of marijuana" when he heard the words of God. "It's all over," God said. "Come on."

God led Phil Arms to a pastor, and the pastor took him for a walk. They hadn't gone far before Phil Arms, longhaired hippie, fell to his knees and became Phil Arms, born-again sinner. "Peace melted as warm butter over, around, through and in me," he wrote, and somehow he also felt clean for the first time and bursting with a sense of purpose. He and the pastor walked back arm-in-arm then, singing like drunks. Amazing Grace. When Phil Arms spotted "an innocent bystander" taking groceries into the house, he stopped singing and started talking.

"That was the first time I ever told anybody about Jesus," he testified. "I am certain that their ice cream melted."

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