Terry Cole-Whittaker

updated 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is rather like worshiping at a Dinah Shore TV special. Rev. Terry Cole-Whittaker, 44 and Doris Day wholesome, belts out I've Gotta Be Me. Her wrist-bent, head-back, molar-showing Sinatra style would give a fundamentalist preacher moral jaundice. Two thousand people at San Diego's sweltering El Cortez Convention Center belt along, swaying, holding hands, sweating all over their Gucci footwear. Then Cole-Whittaker, in her Carol Burnett mode this time, mugs it up. "I like to perspire. It makes you feel real. It must be a divine experience. Hey, have you ever paid to go to a sauna?" You won't find better timing under any Porsche hood. "People want to know what my stand on abortion is." Pause. Slow take. "I feel the Pope should have the choice of whether he wants to have an abortion or not." Damp, appreciative roar. "I want that man to have everything he wants, bless him."

Some people pray here for the same reason that they eat at Sardi's—to celebrity-gawk. Cole-Whittaker invites her disciple Gavin MacLeod, fresh from the helm of The Love Boat, up for a guest appearance. MacLeod and Cole-Whittaker josh like two Oscar presenters. Then shut your eyes, breathe deep, the meditation will start. "Pray to be released from all guilt having to do with your sexuality...with power and money," urges the Reverend Terry. "God loves you. He never judged or condemned you." Bang, the statute of limitations has run out on all sin. Cole-Whit-taker's young, good-looking, middle-and better-than-middle-class 11 a.m. crowd exhales, "clearing" remorse and insecurity and fear.

Bumper stickers outside read, PROSPERITY, YOUR DIVINE RIGHT. In a nation where men and women often apologize for wealth—where being poor can confer instant moral advantage, if not much else—this Gospel of Success is seductive indeed. Cole-Whittaker has even called poverty "irresponsible." And, along that line, she will provide a whole bag of consciousness enrichers "for your spiritual transformation, transfiguration, trans-substantiation, depending on how far you want to go. I do a little yoga. And I do a little of this and a little of that—because I'm eclectic. I won't ever fit any kind of structure." A typical Cole-Whittaker talk might touch on rebirthing, quantum physics, est, Shiatsu, left-right brain work, nutrition, Krishna, Buddha, Obi-Wan Kenobi and, yes, Jesus, all together.

This variety-pack religious message has had national influence of late. Up in La Jolla, Reverend Terry's 40-member paid staff, augmented by more than 200 volunteers, is designing 11,000 square feet of sumptuous new office space. The president of Terry Cole-Whittaker Ministries, Rev. Bob Northrup (who has a mirror on his desk, so he can be sure to smile when telephoning) guesses the organization receives more than 10,000 pieces of mail every month. Cole-Whittaker's book How to Have More in a Have-Not World ($13.95) has sold more than 100,000 copies, and her new GHQ will have state-of-the-religion computer equipment, 20-line telephone switching, a "money room"-where contribution envelopes are opened—and a "corner office" (a/k/a chapel) for Jesus.

Most of this is due to TV exposure. The 30-minute Terry Cole-Whittaker show (part positive thinking, part evangelism, part studio-audience therapy) appears in 15 markets, including New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The congregation, by Wall Street Journal estimate, runs up a $10 million annual budget. Cole-Whittaker herself was paid $180,000 in salary last year, exclusive of book profits. Not in the Billy Graham financial pew yet, but spectacular enough for a seven-year-old organization.

"I tell people what they want to hear," says Cole-Whittaker. "Who wouldn't want to know how beautiful they are?" Norman Vincent Peale has sold positive thinking since the Depression—but never with such glitz and intimacy and sex appeal. Around Cole-Whittaker you come across the word "love" more often in one hour than in all of a Wimbledon fortnight. "I love you" is her TV sign-off. Few people have been loved by anybody so beautiful and able and near-famous. It has to be a turn-on.

Notes one observer of the Christian evangelical scene, "The Crucifixion doesn't come up in her ministry. And she doesn't deal with morality or guilt at all." Possibly because she has dealt with both again and again in her life. "I'm monogamous," Cole-Whittaker says. But serially monogamous. And often. In fact, she has been wed and divorced four times. You have to figure that her no-fault gospel began, in part at least, as a self-exonerating mechanism. It made some allowance for the poor shelf life of her marriages. "I had a tendency to heal men," she explains, "to help them be powerful, at my own expense. I used to be compelled to get married. I needed that validation. I don't know if it's conditioning. When you're a kid they say, 'Listen, if you don't shape up, nobody will have you as a wife.' As if that was the ultimate."

Conditioning—or maybe heredity. Cole-Whittaker's great-grandmother, the family matriarch, was married six times. That same great-grandmother, an adherent of Religious Science, must have had other profound influence as well. Born in Los Angeles, Terry Reith and her three sisters were given almost no Christian role model to emulate. "Mom and Dad [a machinist] never suggested we attend church. Never." And yet, implausible as it may seem, all four children went into the ministry. Different ministries. Joan Cavanaugh, Bonnie Kichler and Connie Bush each turned to Christian fundamentalism, unlike their metaphysical sibling. "For some time I was the devil as far as they could see. But we share very openly and accept each other now," says Terry.

She attended Newport Harbor High School, where it wasn't then proper for young ladies to display intelligence and drive. "I had a little-dumb-blonde act. But it helped to develop my sense of humor. You have to be sharp to play dumb." She participated in sports and theater and was a perennial volunteer. In her freshman year at Orange Coast College Terry made homecoming queen and class president. She didn't graduate, however. The marriage conditioning got her. At 18 she wed junior executive John Cole. And from then on Terry, not yet Cole-Whittaker, followed neither an ascetic nor a mystical path, but "the Path of the Householders."

She soon had two daughters. (Rebecca, 21, a clothing designer, is married and pregnant. Suzanne, 25, has been studying finance.) Their mother cooked and sewed and volunteered and became, by official sanction, the third best housewife in America. "I won Mrs. California back in 1968 before they made it a beauty contest," she says. After that she was runner-up to the runner-up for Mrs. America. Through a 10-day competition Cole won the talent division (she sang) and did well in such battered-wife events as menu choice and flower arrangement. Her only weak performance in this domestic decathlon was car parking. "I knocked over the guideposts," she recalls.

And she has been knocking them over ever since. After 11 years her marriage to Cole turned as rancid as old yak butter. Still, when you're Mrs. California, divorce can be a bit embarrassing. "It was terrible. I thought, 'Well, hey, if this is a sin, then I guess I'll have to go to hell. But I've got to find my life.' " A small inheritance from Great-grandmother got her through sudden singlehood. By this time, also, she had become seriously involved with the Church of Religious Science. Cole set out to discover spiritual truth and another male who might need healing.

Jesus said, "I will make you fishers of men." Some time later she met radio executive John Whittaker on, sure enough, a fishing trip. They married two and a half years after her first divorce, and were divorced themselves after five years. She had, meanwhile, begun studying at the Ernest Holmes School of Ministry. In 1975 she became a Religious Science pastor, and between marriage No. 2 and No. 3 ("Some people use their operations as milestones in their life") she was called to the La Jolla Church of Religious Science. "They took a chance on a woman," she says. "They had an attendance of about 50 and were real close to closing the doors."

Soon people began breaking those same doors down. Cole-Whittaker was becoming a religious go-go stock. When attendance hit 1,000, new doors had to be opened, in the local high school auditorium. Then she took her show on the road, moving to a large San Diego theater. "I was much more conservative then," she says. "I wore a long dress to make sure I covered my legs." She met diamond broker Michael Peterson, an ex-Canadian Football League player, in church. There followed a whirlwind courtship and marriage, and another divorce 18 months later. During that time Cole-Whittaker, with little cash behind her, went to the videotape. "Of course I was scared. I didn't know how to do TV, I just did it. A lot of people were upset. They thought they'd lose me." And they did. She divorced the La Jolla Religious Science church, too—amicably, she insists—in 1982. "I couldn't be limited by an organization. I had to be part of something that could change instantly."

It's hard to keep current with her marital status. Even Cole-Whittaker doesn't know for sure if she has been divorced that fourth time yet. Her most recent nuptial entanglement—a year and a half with businessman Leonard Radomile—came unstuck so abruptly that until recently PR material still listed him as chairman of her board. Radomile is said to be responsible for TC-W's efficient, supertech organization. But when you separate from Reverend Terry, you separate from everyone. The Good News, her house organ, had a tender full-page kiss-off, "Thank You, Leonardo," with at least 50 staff member signatures.

Cole-Whittaker is leasing a spacious "traditional" home high above La Jolla Cove while she waits for her new and "more modern" house to be built nearer the ocean. There is a basement weight and exercise room where she can work out and practice yoga, while listening to Michael Jackson. Even the pets are into consciousness and spirituality. Angel, her dog, is—like Cole-Whittaker—a vegetarian ("no doggy odor"). Cat Sylvester, black and white, seems to be wearing clerical garb. And Ernie, her garrulous, positive-thinking parrot, will throw transformational jargon around at the drop of a cracker. "Awk, I love you. I love God. This is it. I got it." When he isn't yelling, "Money, money, money."

Don't believe Ernie. He tends to exaggerate. In fact, Cole-Whittaker and her organizational parrots use their materialist-money gambit as a shocker. It's the sort of thing that has gotten Cole-Whittaker on Phil Donahue. Real prosperity, you learn, has to do with inner, spiritual richness (though wealth is never disparaged—and Cole-Whittaker expects her congregation to give a full tithe of their gross, not net income). She is generous herself—now and again outrageously so. When slipping $20 to panhandlers, "I tell them, 'Don't buy food, buy booze.' Just love them. Don't judge."

Don't judge even a Richard Speck. Cole-Whittaker will tell you that his eight student-nurse victims "created" their own murders. Speck himself is sinless. Pressed, she reluctantly concedes that, given the immature state of civilization, rape and murder are unloving, wrong, and society has a right to protect you. But there is no blame. We are all responsible for crime, including crime committed against us. Admit your responsibility, clear it up, then forget it and move on. No guilt. The difference between blame and responsibility is significant. Blame implies some supreme, agreed-on moral system: Thou shalt not kill, whatever. Responsibility leaves just the all-powerful individual: as victim, criminal, self-therapist. There is no general right and wrong, except, of course, that ever-vague love. Cole-Whittaker, by those standards, can't countenance a death penalty. She'll turn the other cheek—and your cheek also while she's at it. (She wouldn't act with violence to save you from murder.) This is her "new Christianity." "Governments are going to topple. Religions are going to topple. Relationships and their forms are shifting and are even going to shift more. By 2020 A.D. I experience that we'll have heaven on earth. It'll be the end of starvation, crime, war."

Her phenomenal rise is based on smart misrepresentation. Cole-Whittaker hit the TV Bible Belt as a Christian minister. Under that comfortable and familiar disguise she has charmed thousands of unwary, hopeful Christian men and women. But Cole-Whittaker is, in fact, just a magpie idea collector. Moreover, her cafeteria-style religion simplifies and diminishes traditional New Testament faith. Jesus, in the Reverend Terry gospel, got out of crucifixion. He never judged, didn't ask anyone to pick up his cross and follow, never broke a sweat in Gethsemane. No pain, all gain. In the ideal Cole-Whittaker world you couldn't have Paradise Lost or King Lear or Oedipus Rex. None of the great, difficult paradoxes—life through death, suffering and purification, sin and repentance—that both test and ennoble our humanity.

Yet her motivational gospel should not be underestimated. It is infinitely plastic and adaptable. It can never become obsolete as, in time, the narrower teachings of Werner Erhard and L. Ron Hubbard will. Cole-Whittaker can absorb whatever scientific breakthrough or chic consciousness headtrip that might come along. Moreover, by associating these with her exuberant pseudo-Christian message, Cole-Whittaker can make people who become dependent on, for instance, body work or Shiatsu dependent on her as well. No doubt she is sincere and benign in intent. A veteran religious observer once said, "Anyone who gives us power over our lives is of God." That may be so. It is also true that insecure people are America's largest industry, and that inner peace, higher consciousness and your physical and spiritual well-being are all being marketed by a company called TC-W.

From Our Partners