January 09, 1978 12:00 PM

‘I had an interest in pornography, but after all these years,’ he says, ‘I’ve been desensitized.’

He still has the limousine, but the whiskey decanters inside it are empty. He no longer punctuates his conversation with obscenities or refers to women as “pieces of meat.” But the old flamboyance has not entirely deserted publisher Larry Flynt, 35, the smut king of Columbus, Ohio. It’s simply been redirected now that he has enlisted in the cause of God and the Bible as a “Christian patriot.”

Skeptics are likely to dismiss this most publicized conversion since Saint Augustine as a Flynt flam. Not so, he insists. If money is any measure of sincerity, Flynt is dispersing his cash at a rate that suggests he means what he says.

He began last month with a reshuffling of the company that publishes his two sleazy magazines, Hustler and Chic. Other plans call for an illustrated Bible (with color photos) and a TV documentary tracing the roots of violence all the way back to Cain.

His turnabout, Flynt admits, was startling. “You’ve got to understand that I was an atheist,” he says. “Then I became a Christian. Then I became a born-again Christian, and now I have become a Christian patriot. And all that happened in a two-week period.” (“A Christian patriot,” Flynt explains, “is willing to die for the Lord Jesus Christ.”)

His metamorphosis began last fall after Flynt met evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, the President’s sister. After their families visited each other at home, Flynt declared his commitment to God on November 17. He claims he received the baptism of the Holy Spirit four days later on a private jet winging toward Los Angeles, a trip he spent on his knees, speaking in tongues at 40,000 feet.

Understandably, even those closest to Flynt have not quite caught up with his religious progress, although he has busily explained himself on every TV news and talk show available. His fourth wife, former go-go girl (now publishing company president) Althea Leasure, 24, says she is “past the shock of it, but it’s still hard to understand since I’m not born again.” (Flynt has been praised by Johnny Cash and Chuck Colson, who were.)

An air of watchful waiting prevails at the company the sharecropper’s son from Kentucky built from scratch. Flynt jokes that his 400 employees are “taking up a collection to have me deprogrammed.” Acting typically on impulse, he announced over the holidays that any of his employees earning less than $15,000 a year would have their pay raised to that amount immediately. For some the gesture doubled their salaries. Just as unexpectedly, he named onetime Yippie leader Paul Krassner as Hustler’s new publisher. “I know it’s bizarre,” marveled Krassner, “but if God told him to hire me, I ain’t going to argue about it, even if I’m a born-again agnostic.”

Beyond his own empire Flynt took the extraordinary step of paying out $200,000 last month for newspaper ads praising Sen. Hubert Humphrey. On January 31 Flynt will help honor the cancer-stricken senator at a National Urban League meeting. The two men have never met.

“That’s the way I am, you see, I love everybody,” Flynt explains. On further reflection, he allows that “there are a few people I don’t like, but the people I don’t like I love the most.” That even applies to Simon Leis Jr., the Cincinnati prosecutor who persuaded a jury to convict Flynt last spring on charges of “pandering obscenity and engaging in organized crime.” Flynt’s critics have theorized that the seven-to-25-year sentence he is appealing may have some connection with his new enthusiasm for good works. Flynt angrily denies it, adding that he’s sure his conviction will be overturned on appeal anyway. Whatever, he intends to go on hustling for the Lord. He expects to start a new magazine, Christian Woman, with Mrs. Stapleton later this year. “But it must have commercial appeal,” Flynt cautions. “I think I give projects like this pizzazz.”

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