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Giving God a Hand

With the money that poured into PTL, Bakker built Heritage USA, his spectacular Jim-and-Tammy-Land south of Charlotte. We all know what happened to it, and to the weepy little minister with the Howdy Doody grin. Most PTL partners seem to be willing to forgive him for his fling with Jessica Hahn, but not for buying her silence with $265,000 stolen from their donations to the Lord, or for a style of life that made Oral and Richard look almost as poor as Jesus.

Unlike the Baker, when confronted by a Boojum in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark, the Bakkers are not likely to “softly and suddenly” disappear. They have hired the famous attorney Melvin Belli to help them regain PTL (“like asking the fox back into the hen house,” said Jerry Falwell), and a group of loyal PTL’ers have formed a BBB Club (Bring Back the Bakkers). The plan is for Bakker fans to put contributions in escrow, to be released only when Falwell turns the ministry back to Jim and Tammy. “Farewell Falwell,” the loyalists like to chant. Meanwhile, the Bakkers have announced, from their home in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, that they hope soon to start another television ministry. We can all look forward to this new vaudeville act, and to court battles that may be even more bizarre than the Iran hearings. Ollie North, by the way, is a charismatic, and, according to The New York Times, is claimed as a “friend of some years” by Pat Robertson, whom he asked to pray for him just before his secret trip to Iran.6 Although raised a Roman Catholic, he attends the Church of the Apostles, a charismatic Episcopalian church in Fairfax, Virginia.

Oral Roberts’s reaction to Brother Jim’s downfall was another blunder. The Lord told him, he said, that the Devil was attacking a “young prophet of God” through an “unholy trio of forces.” One of the trio was Jimmy Lee Swaggart, an Assemblies of God minister who for months had been trying to convince his denomination’s elders that the Bakkers were a “cancer that needed to be excised from the body of Christ.”

Swaggart, it has been noted, is as aptly named as Oral. Not since Billy Sunday has a soul saver done more swaggering about the podium, waving the Good Book, flailing his arms, perspiring, shouting, and telling a tearful audience, with hurtin’ in his voice, that they will all go straight to perdition if they don’t get right with Jesus. Between exhortations he pummels a piano, bouncing his right leg to his band’s pounding Nashville beat, and belting out hymns that often make him cry. “King of Honky-Tonk Heaven,” Newsweek called him.

Jimmy grew up in Ferriday, Louisiana, with his first cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock singer who has been on such a sinful slide into booze, hard drugs, and seven miserable marriages. After Jimmy was baptized by the Holy Ghost at the age of nine, he reveals in his autobiography, To Cross a River, he spoke almost nothing for days except the Unknown Tongue. (As usual, he makes no attempt to describe what it sounds like.) He and cousin Jerry dropped out of high school to sing together professionally, but soon went their separate ways.

Jimmy’s autobiography, like those of Roberts, Bakker, and Robertson, is filled with miraculous healings, bouts with Satan, Bible consulting, weeping, glossolalia, and the power of the Blood. On one occasion, Jesus healed Jimmy’s “battered, blue Plymouth…held together with bailing wire,” and about to expire from sticky valves. “Prayer was my only weapon,” Jimmy writes. “If God could heal my sick body, surely He could repair my sick car.” Jimmy took some anointing oil from his pocket and poured it over the car’s silver ornament. When he started the car, it ran “like a new Singer sewing machine.” Jimmy shouted, “Thank you, Jesus!” The valves were perfect when he sold the car a few months later.

Jimmy began preaching in the late Fifties, when God told him he could also cut records of gospel songs. His success as both singer and televangelist has been extraordinary. With funds from donations and sales of recordings, he has built the imposing Jimmy Swaggart Ministries on 270 acres in Baton Rouge. The twelve buildings of this complex include a Bible college, printing plant, and television and recording studios. Jimmy’s income tops $140 million a year. Not even the IRS knows exactly where the money goes. He and his attractive wife, Frances, live in a $1.5 million house. Son Donnie is nearby in a $726,000 house. A desk for Frances (more than twenty of Jimmy’s relatives are on his payroll) cost $11,000.

As with all fundamentalists, Swaggart’s ignorance of science is monumental. Most fundamentalists believe the universe was created about ten thousand years ago, but Jimmy knows better. The universe is indeed as old as astronomers say, but there is an enormous time gap between the first and second verses of Genesis. Before Adam, the earth was the locale of a prior creation over which Lucifer and his angels reigned before they rebelled and became demons. God destroyed this creation and tried again. Adam, Eve, and all the beasts we know were made in six days just as Genesis says. Other fundamentalists think the dinosaurs, too big to go on Noah’s Ark, perished in the Flood. The old “gap theory” has them flourishing only in pre-Adamic times.

Pentecostal preachers have come a long way from the days of Reverend Gerald L.K. Smith, when they could thunder against blacks, Jews, and Catholics. Like almost all of today’s Pentecostal ministers, Swaggart professes nothing but great admiration for blacks, but Jews and Catholics are something else. In 1984 he displayed a picture of a Nazi death camp and implied that six million Jews would not have been exterminated had they accepted Jesus as Saviour. “Don’t ever bargain with Christ,” Jimmy once said. “He’s a Jew.” As for Catholicism, it’s a “false cult,” and Catholics are “poor, pitiful individuals who think they have enriched themselves spiritually by kissing the Pope’s ring.” Mother Theresa, he assures us, is on her way to hell. “None of the things [she] does will add one thing toward her salvation.”

We come now to Marion Gordon (Pat) Robertson, the best educated of all electronic Pentecostal preachers. He seems modest enough, and well-informed when he talks quietly about economics and politics, then suddenly, still smiling, he says something idiotic. Pat is the son of a US senator from Virginia, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington and Lee, a former Marine officer and Golden Gloves boxer, and a graduate of Yale Law School. His autobiography, Shout it From the Housetops, tells how he and his wife, Dede, had been sophisticated New York swingers before Pat was converted during a lunch with a Dutch minister.

In no time at all Pat was opening his Bible at random for divine guidance, listening to the voice of God, and telling Satan to vamoose. After attending several fundamentalist schools he was finally ordained a Southern Baptist, though essentially he’s a neo-Pentecostal. His baptism by the Holy Spirit occurred when his son had a fever. Pat prayed, the fever broke, and while Pat was praising Jesus his speech became garbled. Out poured the Unknown Tongue, sounding (he writes) like an African dialect. When Dede later received the baptism, her glossolalia sounded French.

There was a time when Pat, taking seriously Jesus’ advice to the rich young man, actually sold all his possessions and gave the money to the poor. It was not until after years of living in rat-infested apartments that this spectacular seed-sowing began to work. God first instructed him to buy a defunct radio station. Later he acquired a TV station and hired Jim Bakker. Now his Christian Broadcasting Network has its headquarters on 685 acres in Virginia Beach, in a complex of colonial-style buildings that include CBN University, and a Georgian mansion in which Pat and Dede live rent-free. They also have a country house in Hot Springs, Virginia. Selling all your goods seems to be a one-time thing.

Like Brother Bakker and Richard Roberts, Pat practices the shotgun technique of healing—much simpler than the laying on of hands. God gives him a “word of knowledge” about the afflictions of unnamed people. With millions of viewers he is sure to score many lucky hits. Those who are hit report their miracle cures and make generous donations. If an interviewer likes the way they talk, they may be invited to appear on the show to give stirring testimonies.

Dick Dabney, in a fascinating article about Robertson in Harper’s (August, 1980), quotes this chilling sample of Pat’s healing technique:

There is a woman in Kansas City who has sinus. The Lord is drying that up right now. Thank you, Jesus. There is a man with a financial need—I think a hundred thousand dollars. That need is being met right now, and within three days, the money will be supplied through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. Thank you, Jesus! There is a woman in Cincinnati with cancer of the lymph nodes. I don’t know whether it’s been diagnosed yet, but you haven’t been feeling well, and the Lord is dissolving that cancer right now! There is a lady in Saskatchewan in a wheelchair—curvature of the spine. The Lord is straightening that out right now, and you can stand up and walk! Just claim it and it’s yours. Stand up and walk. Thank you, Jesus! Amen, and amen!

Dabney reports an occasion on which Pat’s straight man, the tall, handsome, silver-haired black Ben Kinchlow, dashed up to Pat to tell him a lady had just phoned to say she had decided to “go all the way” and give the 700 Club all the money she was spending for cancer medicine—$120 a month. She had previously been giving half of her limited income to the club. “Three days later,” said Ben, “—get this!—from an entirely unexpected source she got a check for three thousand dollars!”

Praise God!” exclaimed Brother Robertson. “Let’s give God a hand!” While the studio audience applauded, Pat added, “And I won’t be surprised if God doesn’t do something about that cancer, too.”

Pat’s sin of pride, the pride of willful ignorance, has grown with CBN. His powers now rival Saint Peter’s. In China he once preached in English and his listeners, he says, all heard him in their native dialects, just like on the day of Pentecost. A woman in California listened to Pat say that someone had broken an ankle and God was healing it. Her ankle was instantly okay. The awkward fact is she had been watching a rerun—Pat actually spoke his lines before the woman broke her ankle. Healing future accidents, Pat writes, happens often in his ministry.

On at least three occasions the prayers of Pat and his associates have saved CBN headquarters from damage by a killer hurricane. In Beyond Reason he tells how they diverted hurricane Betsy from Virginia Beach. Two years later they did it again with another violent storm. “Since that time,” Pat wrote in 1984, “not one single hurricane has returned to the region.” Unfortunately, hurricane Gloria threatened the town in 1985, but it, too, politely moved away after Pat said, “In the name of Jesus I command you to stop.”

Some things Pat doesn’t write about are in Gerard Straub’s eye-opening book Salvation for Sale. Straub was producer of the 700 Club until he became disenchanted and was fired over his affair with an employee. His wildest revelation concerns a 1979 CBN plan known as GSP (God’s Secret Project). It was nothing less than to televise the Second Coming. Pat is convinced that recent events involving Israel prove that Jesus is about to return. Not only that, but CBN’s ministry is hastening that glorious event by carrying the gospel “into all the world” (Mark 16:15), something that couldn’t be done before the electronic age.

When Straub listened to a tape he had made of a conversation with his boss about televising the Parousia, he couldn’t believe he had once taken the plan seriously:

The greatest show on earth was in our hands. I wondered where we would put the cameras. Jerusalem was the obvious place. We even discussed how Jesus’ radiance might be too bright for the cameras and how we would have to make adjustments for that problem. Can you imagine telling Jesus, “Hey, Lord, please tone down your luminosity; we’re having a problem with contrast. You’re causing the picture to flare”…. The tape indicated that I had some doubts about the Second Coming and Rapture stuff, but my love and concern for these men made the plan seem not odd…. Clinically, this would be called paranoid-schizophrenia with delusions of grandeur…. But at CBN it was normal.

Still, I find it easier to believe than a story Pat himself relates in Beyond Reason. One Sunday, after services, when he was assistant pastor of a church in Mount Vernon, New York, a twelve-year-old girl ran out of the entrance into the street and was killed by a car. Next day, Pat and his congregation prayed that the child would rise from the dead. The girl’s body, lying in an open casket, had been embalmed.

Here then is a man who wants to be president and has the support of Jimmy Swaggart and millions of other Pentecostals. He believes that God, hearing his prayer, can revivify a corpse. Did not Jesus call Lazarus from the grave after his body (as Martha said) “stinketh”? Did he not turn water into wine? It would be no great thing—after all a miracle is a miracle—for Jesus to resurrect the poor girl and turn her embalming fluid into blood of the right blood type.

Pat sees nothing unusual or funny about this incident. “She did not rise,” he concludes solemnly, “and we buried her on Tuesday.”

3.

Earlier we considered some of the national political implications of the fundamentalist revival. Although Robertson has no chance of getting the Republican nomination for president, the loyalty of his followers may exert a strong influence on who the Republicans choose. Perhaps even more disturbing are the subtle pressures on foreign policy that flow from the universal belief of fundamentalists that the Second Coming is near at hand. “I firmly expect to be alive when Jesus Christ comes back to earth,” Robertson writes in his Answers to 200 of Life’s Most Probing Questions. Here is how he outlines the grim scenario.

The Bible’s prophecies about the Second Coming began to be fulfilled with the establishment of Israel. The Jews are still God’s chosen people, and before Jesus returns they will convert in large numbers to Christianity. Robertson’s passionate support of Israel, like that of Falwell and most other fundamentalists, rests on biblical prophecy and nothing more. Robertson’s TV station in Lebanon, the “Voice of Hope,” blasts out a steady stream of anti-Arab rhetoric.

Before Jesus returns the world will experience a Great Tribulation, a time of economic and political chaos. Satan’s counterfeit Jesus, the Antichrist, will take over—“the most hideous example,” writes Pat, “of dictatorial power the world has ever known.” No one will be able to buy or sell without the Number of the Beast, 666, stamped on a hand or forehead. Robertson urges the stockpiling of food for the terrible times just ahead. He wrote the foreword to Jim McKeever’s The Almighty and the Dollar (Omega, 1980), a survivalist book that tells believers how to take advantage of the coming financial panic.

The Battle of Armageddon, almost surely a nuclear holocaust, will engulf the planet. Only the arrival of Christ will restore peace. The faithful will be “raptured”—caught up in the air to meet the Saviour—and for the next thousand years, the Millenium, Jesus will rule the earth. Why does he tarry? So the electronic ministry can reach as many sinners as possible before it is too late. It is not mere fantasy to contemplate the possibility of a Pentecostal in the Oval Office, who accepts the above scenario, who hears and obeys direct orders from Jehovah, and whose finger is on the nuclear button.

There is a more plausible possibility. As the flames of fundamentalism leap higher, there will be a growing subliminal longing among believers for provoking Armageddon. The war is inevitable, so let’s get it over with, and maybe we shall be among those who escape death by being levitated above the clouds. As go public sentiments, so talk our politicians. You’ll find Reagan’s pronouncements about Armageddon collected in Grace Halsell’s frightening Prophecy and Politics: Militant Evangelists on the Road to Nuclear War (Lawrence Hill, 1986). “We may be the generation that sees Armageddon,” the president said in 1980 on Bakker’s PTL show. “Jerry, I sometimes believe we’re heading very fast for Armageddon,” he told his friend Falwell in 1981. Here are some remarks Reagan made at a 1971 dinner:

Everything is falling into place. It can’t be too long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God’s people. That must mean that they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons. They exist now, and they never did in the past.

Ezekiel tells us that Gog, the nation that will lead all of the other powers of darkness against Israel, will come out of the north. Biblical scholars have been saying for generations that Gog must be Russia. What other powerful nation is to the north of Israel? None. But it didn’t seem to make sense before the Russian revolution, when Russia was a Christian country. Now it does, now that Russia has become communistic and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God. Now it fits the description of Gog perfectly.

Was Reagan voicing his own beliefs or just shrewdly currying fundamentalist favor? In any case, let us all pray that if the presidential nominees of 1988 feel compelled to make similar noises, none of them will believe what they are saying.

  1. 6

    The New York Times, July 11, 1987, p. 16.

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