God may be too busy Sunday mornings to listen to "The God Show" on KTAR (620 AM), but host Pat McMahon has an open invitation for God to make an appearance on the show that bears his divine name.
Short of that, the seats in the studio are taken up by Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, shamans, Mormon bishops, Hindu holy men, Catholic priests, Methodists, Christian Scientists, Buddhists and religious authors.
They are some of a weekly rotation of spiritual authorities who face the veteran radio personality’s incisive questions about the current place of religion in society and the world.
His show’s name, "The God Show," grabs attention and draws curious listeners, some looking for a George Burns character in a radio version of the 1977 film "Oh, God."
McMahon, who knows something about omnipresence, with four decades in countless Valley radio and TV roles, breathed life into "The God Show" almost three years ago on the premise that faith and religious belief are major influences in the world, and local faith leaders should be given a venue to thoughtfully explain why spirituality matters.
For most of 20 years, McMahon had a regular weekday talk show on KTAR, and it continues with his Friday morning "McMahon Group" roundtable.
"Every Holy Week, every Christmas season, the McMahon Group would be made up of a priest, a rabbi and a minister or an imam, some combination of clergy, and we would talk about various spiritual facets of humankind," McMahon said. "And every time, I was inspired."
He would routinely leave the studio and exclaim to his producer, Rosemary Scarfough, "Wow! What a show! Man, do I love talking to those guys about stuff."
"All year long, afterwards, I was so knocked out about what we talked about, what we got accomplished," he said.
To the previous management of the radio station, he repeatedly pitched the idea of a religion show with an interview format.
"I would go in and say, ‘You know these are some of the best shows that I do.’ I would go to the program director and say, ‘Don’t you think there should be a show — not necessarily me doing it —but shouldn’t there be a show that does this on a regular basis?’ And each time, I was rebuffed politely with, ‘Religion really doesn’t sell. It is just the quickest way to lose an audience.’ "
Another response, Scarfough recalled, was "leave it to the Christian stations."
McMahon finally found a receptive ear in Tisa Vrable, KTAR’s program director. She took the show to her bosses and came back, "Well, it was against the boss’ wishes, but he said, ‘Let’s try it under that title, ‘The God Show,’ for a while."
The title was chosen for its contemporary catchiness, said McMahon, who, in one of his previous media lives, played such characters as the superbrat Gerald, Captain Super, Aunt Maude and Marshall Good during the 35-year run of "The Wallace and Ladmo Show."
Vrable told McMahon the show could be aired at midday Sunday.
San Francisco may be the only other U.S. city with a similar radio religion show with such a format, but McMahon said he could easily be replicated by other stations interested in exploring the soul and social impact of religion.
"I don’t think it is a sweet Christian show," said Scarfough, a former nun. "I think what people like about it is that it is not a Bible-thumping show. When Pat asks questions, he is so fair, no matter what it is, whether he agrees with them or disagrees."
Without calls from listeners, McMahon is free to explore one-on-one with his guests, typically pressing them to explain how their teachings fit into the context of a complex society and what answers their faith affords.
"I have gained a deepseated appreciation for the diversity of thought, philosophy and spirituality — that is inspiring to me," McMahon said. "When I have people who represent a respect for that diversity, that is what inspires me."
"I was raised a Catholic and went to nothing but parochial schools, and that’s also true of my producer Rosemary, but I think that my first belief in my ‘McMahon Synod of Catholicism’ is that God is not terribly judgmental about what kind of a card-carrying something we are. But it’s the messages that we carry that he is going to be more interested in."
From the late atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to "Conversations With God" author Neale Donald Walsch to representatives of the controversial Jesus Seminar project, McMahon has sought to cover the spiritual waterfront.
"It is a wonderful opportunity to talk to this massive variety of people who believe, and some who don’t believe," he said.
In one show, Valley editorial cartoonist Steve Benson, oldest grandson of the late Mormon Church president/prophet Ezra Taft Benson, explained why he left the church and became an outspoken atheist.
On several shows, producer Scarfough has outlined her nine years as a habit-wearing nun in the Ursulan Catholic order in Ohio, what caused her to leave and how her faith has evolved.
Scarfough, who books the guests, says some are wary of going on the show.
"Some people are afraid that they will be attacked, and they are used to being attacked," she said. "I have many times had to talk them into it. I tell them Pat is going to be fair. No one has ever walked out of there and said, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ "
One Valley pastor who encouraged McMahon from the beginning is the Rev. Paul Eppinger, an American Baptist pastor, former head of the Arizona Ecumenical Council and now executive director of the Arizona Interfaith Movement. Eppinger, who previously had been on McMahon’s regular talk shows, recalls saying, " ‘Pat, you ought to have a show just focused on spiritual and religious aspects of things, ‘ and one day, I kind of joked to him, and he called back within 30 minutes." Mc-Mahon informed him that "The God Show" had been approved.
"I see the great value of the show as focusing on the importance of spirituality in all of life today, and I think Pat does a marvelous job," Eppinger said. "He is so brilliant himself, and he does his homework. . . . He can speak intelligently and ask the right kinds of very pertinent questions to guests, and he always does that in such a gracious way."
The show’s ultimate value, Eppinger said, is that "it is always relevant, always pertinent to contemporary questions and issues, not just in the religious world, but the broader world — and it explains how faith and spirituality impact and enter into those issues."