Say the name Kirk Cameron and to millions of people of a certain age, the image of a clean-cut kid with a bad ‘80s-style pompadour will pop into their heads.
That’s because from 1985 to 1992, Cameron starred as Mike Seaver, the devilish but loveable son on the family sitcom “Growing Pains.”
The poofy hair days are over now, however, except possibly for occasional bad mousse flashbacks.
It’s a different, post-9/11 world - Mike Seaver is now the answer to trivia questions or an image on syndicated TV.
And Cameron has gone from “Growing Pains” to “Jesus Saves.”
He has a new mission. He wants to save your soul...and your marriage, if possible.
The former teen pinup is now an evangelical Christian, as well as a husband and father of six kids. He spends his time spreading the Gospel through speaking engagements, feature films and documentaries -- and deflecting snarky potshots from entertainment writers, bloggers and some of his former colleagues.
He’s also become something of an evangelist for marriage, touring the country with a multi-media program called “Love Worth Fighting For -- The Marriage Event.” The show, which includes music, film clips, humor and one-on-one time for couples to discuss relationships, hits the Grand Strand on Sunday afternoon at Christ United Methodist Church in Myrtle Beach. (The venue itself, interestingly enough, mirrors Cameron’s journey from secular show business to God’s business. It was originally built in the ‘90s as the Gatlin Brothers Theatre and was later known as Crook & Chase Theater.)
Rev. Jeff Dunn, pastor at Christ United Methodist, said he was contacted by Cameron and North Carolina-born musician Warren Barfield, who lead the program together.
“We have a lot of young couples and also a very diverse congregation of people with very different life circumstances, including couples who are not married yet, and we believe it can be a real blessing to all of them,” Dunn said. “Marriage has been facing challenges for many years, and one of the biggest changes is the level of commitment people have to fight for their marriages. We’ve got a cultural context where it’s much easier for people to just give up and stop fighting for their marriages and families, and we hope maybe this will help them strengthen their commitments to each other.”
Mike Seaver, meet Jesus
Cameron famously became an evangelical Christian in the early ’90s while still a member of the “Growing Pains” cast. Shortly after the show ended, he turned his back on most of the traditional trappings of his childhood fame and started looking for work that he felt more accurately reflected his new found beliefs.
He starred in a series of direct-to-video movies based on the epically popular “Left Behind” book series, which gained him a strong foothold in the world of Christian entertainment.
In 2008, he starred in “Fireproof,” a film about a fireman who deals not only with the challenges of the job but the problems and small triumphs of maintaining a strong marriage. Although most critics panned it, “Fireproof” became a surprise hit and the highest-grossing indie film of the year, raking in more than $33 million.
The film proved then that evangelicals are willing to shell out the bucks and turn out in droves to see entertainment that reflects their values. The phenomenon has repeated itself this fall, when the first two live-feed showings of “Unstoppable,” a Cameron-hosted documentary, earned $3.2 million in only two engagements at selected theaters nationwide on Sept. 27 and Oct. 3. The trailers for “Unstoppable” created a firestorm this summer when they were blocked by Facebook and YouTube, with Cameron hitting social media with a plea for them to be reinstated, and both sites relented, with Facebook explaining that the block was a mistake by its automated software that detects and shuts down potential spam.
Sticks and stones
While Cameron’s work as God’s messenger has drawn raves from some faithful fans and the evangelical community in general, others have not been so friendly.
He drew criticism and became the butt of jokes in 2009 when he played a part in distributing altered copies of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” on college campuses around the country. The so-called “new” versions of the scientific classic included chapters that questioned evolution, promoted creationism and discussed supposed links to creationism and Nazi philosophies.
More recently, his opinions on marriage and the gay community in general have attracted the ire of commentators, political activists and people in the entertainment industry. In an early 2012 interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, he called homosexuality “unnatural, detrimental and ultimately destructive to the foundation of civilization.” He also has been outspoken about opposing same-sex marriage.
When questioned about these issues in other venues, Cameron has maintained he is simply repeating the teachings that are at the foundation of his conservative, evangelical beliefs.
It’s all about the spouse
So what exactly makes a former teen star-turned-evangelist tick? We tried to find out.
On a recent Tuesday, your Surge reporter did a phone interview with Cameron. He was on a tight schedule so we didn’t get to speak more than about 15 minutes, but in that short amount of time it was easy to see not only how deep Cameron’s personal faith is, but how much he believes in what he sees as a mission to share it with others. This deep commitment is exactly what Cameron’s long-time fans and fellow evangelicals admire about him, and it’s also what leads to vehement criticism from people who don’t agree.
The actor/evangelist gets some limited props from perhaps one of the most unlikely sources in South Carolina. Ryan C. Wilson is the executive director of South Carolina Equality, a Columbia-based organization that advocates for marriage equality (aka same-sex marriage) in the Palmetto State. He said he has the utmost regard for Cameron’s deep faith and willingness to stand up for his beliefs. The problem, he said, is that Cameron and others like him want what goes on behind the doors and walls of their chosen church to be the same as what happens in, to borrow a loose term, the public square.
“There’s a fine line you have to walk when you’re dealing with this issue,” Wilson said. “I believe in everybody’s freedom of religion, their rights to practice and believe what they want in their own churches in regard to religious marriage. We believe he has a right to that under the Constitution. What SC Equality and other organizations have been saying is that civil marriage, and the rights and legal details of it granted by the government, should be religiously neutral. The government cannot come in and tell Kirk Cameron what he can and can’t practice or believe in his church, and in turn his church shouldn’t have the right to come in and tell the government what they can do in civil matters like marriage.”
Programs like the one Cameron is bringing to Myrtle Beach on Sunday might have some good advice for anybody who wears a wedding ring, Wilson said. He believes there are a lot of stresses and cultural trends that make it difficult for married people to stay committed and happy in their relationships.
“I think it’s wonderful he’s working to help people try and straighten out their marriages,” Wilson said. “If gay and straight marriages received more attention and support to survive, the divorce rate probably wouldn’t be as high. It would be great if more people were committed to protecting the institution of marriage as opposed to working to keep certain people from getting married.”
Arguments over same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and evolution aren’t going to end anytime soon. And neither, for that matter, will Cameron’s apparent ardent commitment to helping folks have a better time with their husband or wife.
So, without further discussion, here is the former Mike Seaver and what he had to say about love, marriage and finding Jesus. We leave you to be the judge.
QUESTION | What can people expect if they attend “Love Worth Fighting For?” A concert? Skits? Preaching?
ANSWER | It’s a live marriage event held at the church. It’s a great opportunity for you to bring your spouse and get away for a few hours, away from the distractions of kids, TV, computers, phones. You can sit together, laugh together, and learn together about how to strengthen your most important relationship. There’s humor and music and teaching and a time for personal dedication and commitment to each other and to God.
Q. | How did this event come about in the first place?
A. | We have a friend who saw the movie “Fireproof” and was moved to get its message to people in his town of Knoxville, Tenn. We did an event there and had 9,000 people come in one weekend to the first “Love Worth Fighting For.” Since then we’ve been in more than 100 cities over the past several years. Many of the venues we go to are sold out. This is something that’s really struck a chord, because people are hungry for help when it comes to marriage and family.
Q. | Is this event for non-believers?
A. | Absolutely. It’s held in a church, and there’s going to be an opportunity to pray. If you’re not a member of this church or any church at all, come on in. We’re going to talk about marriage. I want to help you find a right relationship not only with your spouse but with the God that made you.
Q. | A lot of people were surprised when you became an evangelical Christian. What was your journey to faith like, in a nutshell?
A. | Today I like to tell people I’m a recovering atheist. First of all, I did not grow up in a home where we talked about God or heaven anything. When I was about 18, right in the middle of “Growing Pains,” a friend of mine brought me to church with them. After that I started asking questions, like how did we get here, what happens to someone after they pass away, is there anything else out there? It started really leading me down a path of being grateful and thankful. I learned that life is a gift, family is a treasure, and ultimately I wanted to live my life in a way that said “Thank you” to the one who made me.
Q. | Do you keep in touch with the cast members of “Growing Pains?”
A. | Just the other day I had dinner with Jeremy Miller (Ben Seaver), and recently the entire cast got together for a little picnic. We do stay in touch.
Q. | Is this event coming to Myrtle Beach only for married couples? Are single people welcome? What about members of the gay community or people who support same-sex marriage? Are they welcome as well?
A. | I would say that anybody is welcome at our events. I would love for anyone who is thinking about marriage and what it means to come. We can all have an idea of what we think marriage ought to look like, sometimes those pictures are right, sometimes they’re wrong. I would say if you want to understand traditional marriage and get it right, come to the event. Regardless of what your personal definition of marriage is, we’re going to talk about true marriage and how to make it blossom.
Q. | There have been some harsh things said about you in print, on the air and in blogs. Do you feel you’ve been demonized by mainstream media, or what some people refer to as the “liberal media?” How do you respond?
A. | These days I don’t pay much attention to people throwing stones. It’s much more interesting to me to get a hold of what’s true and right and good and shout it from the housetops. I’m not paying much attention to those who don’t like what we’re doing. My real focus is getting people hope and help from our discussions on marriage.
Q. | What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge married couples face?
A. | The biggest challenge people have is selfishness. Sometimes it can feel like the challenge is money or communication or the job or the kids. All those things are great and important, but when selfishness creeps in all those things get poisoned.
Q. | Do you talk about personal experience and lessons you’ve learned in your own marriage?
A. | I bring lots of personal stories and so does Warren, but we use them as illustration, not instruction. The instruction we bring to the event is not based on personal stories, but ultimately based on the proven eternal principles found in Scripture. When we tell you this is how a husband, for instance, ought to love and lay down his life for his wife, and honor and provide for and protect his wife and kids, this isn’t just because I think so. It’s because we got it from the best instruction manual ever, which is the Bible.
Q. | You’ve been married for more than 20 years. What’s an important lesson you’ve learned about marriage during that time?
A. | There’s only one person on the planet you can change, and that’s not your spouse. A lot of people spend a lot of energy trying to change their husband or their wife into something they’re not. Only God gets to do that. So many people get frustrated and say things like ‘I’d be a great wife if it wasn’t for my husband and the things he does’ or vice versa. The truth is I think God reserves the privilege of changing your spouse for himself. You need to change you. If you get your part right, all of sudden your spouse is married to a different person, a better person.