The radical Black Panther-turned—Christian never found a home in the evangelical world.

In June of 1965, inside Folsom Prison, Eldridge Cleaver wrote an essay that became the first chapter of his best-selling book, Soul on Ice (McGraw). In it, Cleaver described himself as “extremist by nature.” He was intense, aggressive, outspoken, combative, uncompromising.

Two decades later, the adjectives still apply. But the focus of his fury has changed radically.

In the 1960s, the American system had no greater enemy than Cleaver. As a leader of the militant Black Panther party, he worked for a Marxist overthrow of the democratic form of government. In 1968, he fled the country to avoid a prison term for a shoot-out with Oakland, California, police. For the next few years he toured Communist and Third World countries only to become disillusioned by the hypocrisy he found in communism.

Cleaver surrendered to U.S. authorities in 1975, and today the American system could not find a more loyal friend.

Cleaver is running for the U.S. House of Representatives as an ultraconservative independent in the radical Berkeley, California, area. He portrays his opponent, veteran black Democrat Ron Dellums, as a Soviet puppet.

“There is a war going on,” Cleaver warns. “The goal of communism is to take control of the world. President Reagan’s assessment [of this war] is not exaggerated. If anything, it is understated. We will never have peace and rest until the job is completed of bringing democracy to the whole world.”

Not a trace remains of the black activism Cleaver once so passionately embraced. He is an outspoken critic of presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.

“I don’t think the black community has received any kind of balanced view of what Ronald Reagan has done,” Cleaver says. “There is an economic crunch, and blacks have suffered because of the overall impact of budget cuts. But if you ask blacks if they’re better off now than they were in 1980, you’ll find them saying ‘yes’ because President Reagan has challenged black people to start thinking again for themselves and not just lay around depending on handouts from [House Speaker] Tip O’Neill and the Democrats in Congress.”

If Cleaver’s search for political truth ended unambiguously, his spiritual quest is marked by endless twists and turns. He was baptized a Roman Catholic. As a young man he embraced atheism. As a prison inmate he became a Black Muslim.

When he returned to the United States in 1975, he told a sensational story about an encounter with God. He wrote a book, Soul on Fire (Word), in which he tells how in 1976, while in jail, he accepted Christ. Cleaver became an instant Christian celebrity. He started his own evangelism ministry. He spoke at Campus Crusade for Christ functions and at a National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention. He even shared a pulpit with Jerry Falwell.

But the honeymoon didn’t last. Even in Soul on Fire there were hints that not all was well with Eldridge.

The late Arthur DeMoss financed Cleaver’s release from jail, a gesture described in Soul on Fire as a gamble. In the book’s epilogue, DeMoss wrote that “ever since [Cleaver’s] release from prison, he has been inundated with every conceivable kind of request, business proposition, financial lure, and temptation.… Eldridge needs our prayers because, like the rest of us, he is not perfect—just forgiven.”

Cleaver regularly proved to evangelicals that he was not perfect. He was scratched from the NRB’s 1978 convention because of his plans to market jeans highlighting the male genital organ. He fell into further disfavor by spending time at a Unification Church ranch and speaking at Moonie gatherings. Reports spread that Cleaver advocated wife beating. For a time, he attempted to combine Christianity and Islam.

Through all the controversial ventures, Christians close to Cleaver tried to dissuade him. But he regularly offered what he believed was a sound explanation for everything. Eventually his friends grew weary and gave up. “It just became apparent that Eldridge would always be doing something weird,” said one friend.

Cleaver maintains that he has been severely misunderstood. He says the mass media—including Christian media—have circulated misleading information without seeking his perspective. He is not a Moonie and never was, he says, though he still works with Moonies on college campuses to combat communism.

He says his venture into jeans manufacturing was unfairly portrayed as frivolous and risqué. Actually, Cleaver says, “it was a statement against the unisexual ideology that has been structured into our clothing and is being pushed by organized homosexuals. I felt it was necessary to establish a line of demarcation between male and female.”

He traces the wife-beating allegations to a magazine article he describes as an “absolute hatchet job done by a former left-wing associate who set me up and betrayed me.”

Cleaver says in his early days as a Christian he was “buffeted about. Some people said, ‘Don’t go talkin’ with the charismatics.’ Some said, ‘Don’t go talkin’ with the Presbyterians; don’t hang out with the Baptists; don’t go with the Methodists; don’t go with the Unitarians; don’t go with the Moonies; don’t go with the Mormons.’ It seems that whenever you meet a new group of people, you lose some of your old friends.”

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Those close to Cleaver say he probably was exploited, but that he has done some exploiting of his own. They maintain high respect for his intelligence and believe his Christian conversion was genuine. But they say he never matured spiritually because he rejected opportunities to become grounded in the faith.

Four months ago, in the latest step in his spiritual journey, Cleaver joined the Mormon church. Will the former radical ever be the kind of person evangelicals hoped he would be?

“Evangelicals are gonna be dead,” he says in response to that question. “Evangelicals are gonna be nuked like everyone else. This is not a time to be issuing each other report cards. Communists are pouring millions of dollars into an effort to destroy this country.…

“When we have meetings to combat the influence of communism, the Moonies and the Mormons come. Evangelicals only come out for Thursday-night Bible study.”

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