Christian comedian Mike Warnke paced the stage of an independent interdenominational church near Chicago in the fall of 1991. He stood at the height of his influence without realizing it. Warnke was worth millions of dollars and jetted from one performance to the next aboard a private plane. His label, Word Records, proclaimed him the number one Christian comedian, and the title was legitimate. It turned out that his title was the only legitimate thing about Mike Warnke. The nets were closing in on the self-proclaimed former satanic high priest. Warnke had spent two decades spreading the tale of his immersion in the occult and escape through conversion to Christianity. He popularized that story in The Satan Seller (1972), using the book as a means to build his platform as a Christian comedian and supposed expert on Satanic ritual abuse. His “expertise” connected with the emerging Satanic Panic in the 1980s, giving him opportunities to consult with law enforcement and appear on mainstream television shows such as 20/20 in 1985 and Geraldo Rivera’s now infamous “Devil Worship: Exploring Satan’s Underground” in 1988.
Warnke knew the jig was up. He spotted two journalists in the crowd that night, Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott. Trott and Hertenstein worked for Cornerstone, the flagship publication of the Chicago-based Christian communal group Jesus People USA. Warnke’s associates at his ministry headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, had reported that Hertenstein and Trott were seen investigating Warnke Ministries’ financial records at a local courthouse. That night, Warnke announced to his stunned audience, “There’s a bunch of people right now launching a campaign to drive me out of the ministry. And, you know what? There’s only one way I’m leaving this ministry. Jesus will tell me that he’s finished with me and then I will sit down. Or, you will have to pry my Bible out of my cold, dead hand. And that is the only way.”
The anticipated storm broke in the summer of 1992 when Trott and Hertenstein’s article “Selling Satan” appeared in the June/July issue of Cornerstone. Their expose told the story of a pathological liar, serial adulterer, and extortionist who had built a reputation as “America’s Number One Christian Comedian” on a foundation of fraud. Extensive interviews with Warnke’s college classmates at San Bernardino Valley College revealed there was no possibility that Warnke could have been involved in the occult during his one-year stint at the college. Pictures of Warnke at the time he claimed to be a drug addicted long-haired satanic high priest showed him as a somewhat “square” college student with short hair and understated dress. Warnke inserted his first wife, Sue, into the narrative of The Satan Seller in place of his actual fiancé at the time, Lois. Maybe Warnke wanted to eliminate her from the narrative because Lois was prone to say things like, “If he says he was a Satanist between September of 1965 to June of 1966, he’s lying. How could I not know my boyfriend was into Satanism? I don’t remember there ever being a time when we didn’t see or talk to each other every day.” Cornerstone shredded Warnke’s testimony with detailed accounts contradicting Warnke’s assertions at every turn.
Equally shocking revelations about Warnke’s conduct after his ministry began filled the latter half of the article. Warnke was married four times and accused of cheating on some of those wives with other women. He cheated on his first wife with a classmate, Carolyn Alberty, while he was attending Bible college in Colorado. Alberty married Warnke, but they divorced in 1979 amid allegations of physical abuse and death threats. His third wife, Rose Hall, married Warnke in 1979 and became a critical component of his ministries’ administration. Rose was taking in almost as much salary as Warnke in the mid-1980s. She released The Great Pretender in 1985 in which she wrote, “Satan provided a woman to fill the gap in Michael’s life.” He eventually left Rose for Susan Patton, wife number four and fellow alumnus of Rim of the World High School.
Warnke admitted to financial abuses and placed himself under the accountability of an elders group following the release of the article. Subsequent investigations by both Christian and mainstream reporters supported and extended the original findings of Trott and Hertenstein. Although he admitted to the financial improprieties, Warnke insisted that his involvement with satanism was true. Even after ten yeas had elapsed, Warnke repeated his claims in Friendly Fire: A Recovery Guide for Believers Battered by Religion, published in 2002. In a pattern now sadly familiar to students of contemporary American evangelicalism, Warnke cast himself as the victim and his detractors as pharisaical busybodies who cared more about exposing sin than proclaiming the gospel of grace. His defiant tone permeates the book and places his years of public deception on the same level as someone suffering from local church gossip. Warnke continues to minister on a smaller scale and sticks to his claims about satanism.
Why does this matter? After all, didn’t Warnke lead all kinds of people to Christ over the course of those years when he was lying about his past and raking in millions? Surely the myths that inspire us are more important than the disappointing realities that may lie behind them. Who was he really hurting?
There are a number of good responses to those questions. I’m in the midst of working on a book project in which I address many of these questions and more. It’s important to understand that Mike Warnke was far from alone in his deceptions. A number of Christian leaders created a whole culture of belief about satanic practices in America that equal the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin in their creation of fantasy worlds. What looks at first glance like a spontaneous eruption of unconnected observations about satanic ritual abuse is revealed to be an interconnected web of popular speakers and writers feeding off each other’s mythologies and adding their own embellishments to the mix.
To give only one example from many, Laura Rose Wilson, a young woman whose family later reported struggled with mental illness, adopted the name Laura Stratford and published Satan’s Underground in 1988. It’s not coincidence that Geraldo Rivera’s special released later that year carried the subtitle “Exposing Satan’s Underground.” Stratford was promoted by Johanna Michaelsen, a staunch Warnke ally, and by Warnke himself. Stratford gained the endorsement of popular prophecy writer Hal Lindsey through Michaelsen, his sister-in-law at the time. Lindsey himself published Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth in 1972, the same year Warnke published The Satan Seller. One of the great ironies about the Satanic Panic is that those who imagined conspiracies everywhere were themselves linked in collaborations that mimicked their wildest fantasies. Stratford claimed to have been a baby breeder for a satanist group and participated in the sacrifice of her own child as part of a satanic ritual. She said she also gave birth to two other children who were killed in snuff films produced by the Satanists. A Cornerstone investigation gathered testimony from friends and family saying that they had never witnessed any satanic influence in Stratford’s life nor was she ever pregnant. Following the reveal by Cornerstone in the early nineties, Stratford disappeared for a while only to reemerge under the name Laura Grabowski. She claimed in this guise to be a holocaust survivor. Like Warnke, Stratford influenced the legal system. Stratford inserted herself into the infamous McMartin Preschool trial, insisting that she had witnessed satanic ritual abuse at the preschool and that she had a lesbian relationship with preschool owner Virginia McMartin. The allegations collapsed in the early nineties as no evidence of satanic ritual abuse was found.
Mike Warnke and Laura Stratford could not maintain their fiction alone for as long as they did. So many people had to look the other way. Publishers, record companies, churches, pastors, and a host of other people within the evangelical subcultures of the seventies and eighties ignored suspicious activity before Cornerstone gathered the evidence that had been sitting in plain sight for years. Cornerstone enjoyed an advantage in the sense that Jesus People USA was already a group that stood apart from the mainstream of popular Christian publishing and media. The evangelical cultural gatekeepers supported and promoted these people for far too long until it became absolutely impossible for them to do so any longer. Even as I write this, a podcast series produced by Christianity Today is wrestling with the destructive influence of Mark Driscoll. My friend Scot Lloyd has written an insightful piece worth checking out on the subject of Driscoll’s influence on his ministry. Kristin Kobes DuMez’s book Jesus and John Wayne has laid bare the destructive influence of masochistic cultures supported and defended by popular evangelical gatekeepers. It seems we’ve learned little since the days of Mike Warnke and Laura Stratford. That makes revisiting their stories of paramount importance.
There is also the religious liberty issue. And not the fantasies of radical “New Agers” seeking to control the levers of education and government in the name of Satan promoted by the likes of Frank Peretti. The Christian Satanic Panic mythologies cast people practicing alternative religions in the worst light possible. One feels little sympathy for Anton Levay and his Church of Satan in part because Levay was being intentionally provocative when he created the satirical church. Little did Levay know that the Manson murders in 1969 and the cultural shifts of the early seventies would convince people that the atheistic group really was worshipping Satan and sacrificing children. The sympathy here goes to practitioners of Wicca, Druidry, and a host of other Neo-Pagan religions that had nothing to do with satanism real or imagined. These people suffered the stigma of association with child abuse and blood sacrifice until pop culture came to the rescue in the late nineties with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed that began to cultivate a friendlier image of paganism. Far too many Christian apologists attacked cruel strawman depictions of these religious groups rather than engage with the real differences between Christianity and these religious movements.
A host of Generation Xers like myself grew up hearing diatribes against Dungeons and Dragons, the Smurfs, He-Man, and a host of other pop culture icons. Heavy metal music would melt the brain, which I suppose would be the satanic imitation of what happens when a poorly written contemporary praise song is played in church, and drive one to suicide, possibly a satanic mimicking of the effect produced by a David Barton presentation on actual historians. The net result was a generation raised to believe the world was scary and binary, poised between absolute good and evil with no room for grey. The notion that good and evil runs through the soul of every human, that we all can be both sinners and saints, gets lost in that constant warfare perspective.
Horrifying consequences flowed from these kingdoms of lies. Imagine the defendants whose fate rested in occult “expert” Mike Warnke’s hands as he fed information to the police on satanic ritual practices that were sheer fabrications culled from a variety of equally untrustworthy sources. Stories have jumped into my inbox from people across the world raised in Christian circles whose early lives were framed by the restrictions of paranoid parents believing real satanic groups like Warnke’s “Illuminate” were waiting to devour them. Alongside their narratives appear stories from Neo-Pagans, Wiccans, and other practitioners of nature religions who found themselves lumped together with imaginary “Satanists” and faced persecution as a result. I’m working to collect and tell these stories over the next year in both print and other formats. You can actually help me in that task. I have posted a survey at the link below.
I would appreciate your sharing your own experiences whether they be in the context of how the larger Satanic Panic influenced your life or what you observed as part of Christian, Jewish or Muslim cultures in relations to beliefs and practices about the occult, Satanism, pop culture or exorcism from the late sixties to the present. Thanks for your help and interest.
Mike Hertenstein and John Trott, Selling Satan. The Evangelical Media and the Mike Warnke Scandal. Chicago, IL: Cornerstone Press, 1993.
Mike Warnke, The Satan Seller. Logos Associates, 1972.
Laura Stratford, Satan’s Underground. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988.
Hal Lindsey and C. C. Carlson, Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervon, 1972.
20/20, “The Devil Worshippers.”
Geraldo Rivera, “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qocBf3_mmic&t=173s