Prayer, faith were key when Gretchen Carlson took on Fox News in epic lawsuit

Gretchen Carlson, who credits her Lutheran upbringing in launching her David-versus-Goliath challenge of Fox News, offers insight for anyone facing turmoil and trouble on their own.

“I guess when you have faith, you never really feel alone,” Ms. Carlson said in a recent interview.

It’s a hard-won insight, founded in her childhood in Anoka, Minnesota, where her grandfather, the Rev. William J. Hyllengren, preached at Zion Lutheran Church — and where she will return Thursday to share that insight.

“There is a very interesting, meaningful story about my faith that actually was the final reason I jumped off the cliff,” said Ms. Carlson, 57.

Wide use of the #MeToo hashtag was a year in the future when Ms. Carlson accused Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment in 2016, making her challenge one of the first high-profile cases in the fledgling movement.

Though the former “Fox and Friends” co-host initially stood by herself in making allegations against one of the news media’s most powerful figures, she was not totally alone.

A confidential session with her pastor before launching the landmark lawsuit reminded her that her faith — and that of her preacher-grandfather — were with her.

“I think we went through a whole box of tissues” during that session, Ms. Carlson said of her meeting with the Rev. Erin Keys, then-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich, Connecticut.

“She was shocked, as most people were when they heard. The thing that she said to me, though, at the end, is that she knew my grandfather was a minister and he had since passed many years before. But she said, ‘Your grandfather is looking down on you. And he’s telling you that you are about to do the right thing and that he fully supports you and he loves you and he’s with you.’”

Ms. Carlson said “that was for me the final determination that all would be well, even though it would be rough. … It was a huge part of making me feel comfortable to go ahead with” the legal action.

She soon had company in taking on the media behemoth’s CEO: a dozen female cable news employees who came forward with harassment allegations. Ailes resigned 15 days later. He died May 17, 2017, due to injuries from a fall aggravated by lifelong hemophilia.

No longer a daily fixture on cable news, Ms. Carlson this week returns to her hometown of Anoka to speak at Zion Lutheran’s 150th anniversary. The parish her grandfather led for 34 years grew from 700 congregants to 8,500 before he retired in 1988. (The actual sesquicentennial was in 2020, but pandemic shutdowns delayed the celebration until now, she said.)

“He turned it into a megachurch before we had megachurches,” Ms. Carlson said. “He did it through tremendous hard work, a huge lesson I learned from him.”

Offering what he called “insurance for eternal life,” Hyllengren “estimated that he had visited 90% of his member’s homes in person,” she recalled.

“He had a tremendous amount of perseverance, and he obviously was a great speaker, and I always say it made going to church a heck of a lot more fun when you saw your grandfather in the pulpit,” Ms. Carlson said.

That work ethic — along with the culture of “Minnesota nice” — was instilled in Ms. Carlson at the Zion church, a mainstay in Anoka, a small town 20 miles northwest of Minneapolis and the model for the fictional Lake Woebegon of author and radio host Garrison Keillor, who also grew up there.

She said studying the violin as a child led to her playing for Christmas concerts at the church’s many services that day, teaming up with her sister, who played the cello.

“We earned our gifts for Christmas and we just had great memories,” said Ms. Carlson, who studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.

“I think about my Midwestern sensibilities every single day,” she added. “I hope I’m passing them on to my children, my son and my daughter, because I feel so fortunate to have grown up in a small town in Minnesota.”

That determination and work ethic spurred her to many achievements, such as winning the Miss America pageant in 1989. She earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Stanford University the following year.

Ms. Carlson has written a book on combating workplace abuse: “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.” She co-founded a nonprofit, Lift Our Voices, and helped secure the 2022 passage of federal legislation to rid the workplace of “silencing mechanisms” such as non-disclosure agreements and forced arbitration.

Her latest campaign supports a federal bill to protect workers from age discrimination and secret arbitration. She said Sens. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, are the measure’s co-sponsors.

“Our strategy has been to take a bite out of the apple and get a victory and then keep going back for more,” she said. “I have much more work to do.”

Returning to Zion Lutheran Church for its celebration, however, has given her a case of butterflies that she said won’t leave until her anniversary speech is done. Not only will many childhood friends be in the audience, but also her 82-year-old mother, Karen, and 89-year-old father, Lee.

“The people you become most nervous about giving a speech in front of or interviewing are the people you’re closest to,” she said.

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