Farewell to Arms
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.
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 3:00pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
"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."
Arms had found a way to feel good, and he was sure that what worked for him could work for everyone: one god for all and all for one god. He told his old friends about Jesus; they said they had never seen him so stoned. He preached on street corners to prostitutes, addicts and passersby. He journeyed into bars to tell beer drinkers the wages of sin. Arms traveled the country thumping his Bible.
He was out to get respect for Jesus, but when he founded his own Christian outreach program, he named it after himself: Phil Arms Ministries. He became a powerful speaker; he seemed to have "a God-given ability to preach the Bible," as Francis says. His theology was basic hell fire and brimstone, but somewhere along the way, he mixed it with right-wing conspiracy theory and became, to his followers, an expert on the Apocalypse. In his writings he speaks not just of the "flesh worshippers" and the declining morality that signal the end; he also warns of a global band of elitists, "manipulated by demonic powers, whose plan it is to usher in the New World Order."
Phil Arms has much to say about the character of the age, but he never mentions the ignorance and paranoia. His parishioners outgrew five buildings in six years before they arrived in the great white building on Eldridge. Two thousand people can sit in Houston Church, but like all businesses and most religions, Reverend Arms has always wanted more; hence the makeup, the bright lights and cameras. Each Sunday evening, Phil Arms' sermon travels by cable on the Inspiration Network to maybe 1,200 towns in North America. But more than all of them combined, perhaps, the pastor prized his 11:30 slot on Channel 20. That's a secular broadcast station, after all. A preacher needs the secular like a doctor needs his patients.
"This is about truth and light and righteousness," says Reverend Arms. "God didn't call for us to be timid little creatures cowering in foxholes. When the truth is challenged as it was by Channel 20, we are to stand up to it."
Channel 20 general manager Michael Dunlop did not return calls from the Press, but Arms says it all began when he started comparing Christianity to Islam and concluding his god was better than theirs. After that, Dunlop added a statement before and after the show that Arms' views were not those of Channel 20. He wanted to run the same disclaimer across the screen during the show, but Arms turned it down. Dunlop offered to come out to the church then and screen a sermon or two for broadcast acceptability, but Arms righteously declined that service, too.
When Arms began his series on moral purity last June, there was no problem with the first part -- the joys of married sex. But inevitably, he came again to homosexuals. All he said, according to his press releases, was that homosexuality was a sin. Channel 20 thought he said entirely too much. In place of his preaching, the station aired a movie the next week. When Arms wrote demanding an explanation, a letter arrived from a lawyer employed by Paramount Pictures, the station's owner.
"In the considered opinion of both KTXH and its parent company," Cynthia Teele wrote, "the relevant episodes violated the [Federal Communications] Commission 'public interest' standard by their inclusion of groundless and vituperative attacks against members of the greater Houston community .... KTXH need not, and will not, provide a broadcast forum for such attacks."
That's when the holy war against Channel 20 started. His Bible not in the public interest! Arms was outraged. He deemed it religious discrimination, a violation of his free speech, and he urged Christians across the land to boycott the station and its advertisers. The flock wrote letters, hundreds of them, and sent their pastor copies. Some letters promised hell to station management; some urged salvation. One young child just offered a guilt trip:
"Dear Mr. Dunlop, why do you hate me? The stuff you put on TV makes me sad and mad. And you won't let me watch the stuff that will make me a good boy. I love Phil Arms. He knows how to make me a good boy, and he tells me about Jesus. He is the best man in the world!''
So far, according to Arms, CiCi's Pizza is the one company to have withdrawn its account from Channel 20. If so, CiCi's vice president of marketing wasn't eager to talk about it, for he, too, didn't return phone calls.
The letters continue to come. Arms says he has even received them from homosexuals saying they hate what he says but hate what Channel 20 did more. He's received inquiries from people representing Oliver North and Pat Buchanan, he says, and he has a supportive press release from Steve Stockman. "This attack on religious beliefs cannot be tolerated," the Friendswood congressman wrote.
Stockman's release did not say whether he had ever watched Phil Arms' show. In that last episode, Arms had much more to say about homosexuality than that it was simply a sin. He was spitting as he said it.
"Do you think we ought to kill the homosexuals?" he asked, staring into the camera. "Let me tell you something: they're already dead. They're like festering maggots of society spreading their disease .... They're taking everyone down with them because we're too loving, while they put the knife in our throat and slice."
The reason Paramount gave for canceling the Phil Arms show is known as the standard of "clear and present danger." Quoting from a Supreme Court decision, the FCChas decreed that the public's interest "is best served by permitting the expression of any views that do not create 'a clear and present danger of serious substantive evil.' "
Where does that leave the Reverend Arms? A few days after his latest sermon, as a former Aldine High School football player stood trial downtown for the murder of a gay man, Arms was in his office again, tired, he said, from carrying on his two crusades. Would he display those letters, please, from homosexuals supporting him? No, he said. He had shown the others, but he couldn't betray the confidentiality of these correspondents.
"Festering maggots of society," he had called them. His words were slowly read back to him. He didn't condone killing homosexuals, he explained, but when he was asked if his words could spur someone else on, the Bible-pounding preacher just said, "People can interpret anything any way they want."
"It's a spiritual war out there," he said. "The responsibility of the church is to provide the answers, the light, the truth.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.