“It is too early, it seems to me, to send the firemen home. The fire is still burning on many a far-flung hill, and it may begin to roar again at any moment…. Heave an egg out of a Pullman window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today. They swarm in the country towns…. They are thick in the mean streets behind the gasworks. They are everywhere that learning is too heavy a burden for mortal minds.”
When Mencken suggested that fundamentalism might blaze once more, who took him seriously? Clarence Darrow had made William Jennings Bryan look like the country bumpkin he was. Outside the Bible Belt, many mainline churches were promoting the “social gospel” as they tumbled down the hill of liberal theology toward secular humanism. Remember that hullabaloo over the proposition that “God is dead”? Then a few decades ago, to the amazement of intellectuals, hardline fundamentalism began to roar again.
Sociologists are still trying to figure it out. There is no evidence of a large-scale religious revival sweeping the nation, but within Protestantism there has been an unmistakable decline in liberal theology and an upsurge of fundamentalist dogma. While the congregations of mainline churches dwindle, especially with respect to the young, the old-time gospel churches are bursting at the seams. Scores of fundamentalist magazines, seldom seen in public libraries, have circulations larger than the liberal Christian Century. Fundamentalist books, published by sectarian houses and distributed through Christian bookstores, never make The New York Times best-seller lists even though their sales often far exceed most books on those lists.
Polls taken during the last decade all agree that the United States is one of the most deeply religious nations in the world. Over 95 percent of its population say they believe in a personal God and life after death. Only about 25 percent now believe in hell, a remarkable decline, but 25 percent means a lot of souls who are worried. Many who have abandoned Christianity are still drifting East into reincarnation and the New Age of psychic wonders, but growing numbers of those who remain Christian want more from their ministers than hazy doctrines and dull sermons about beauty and ethics. They want to be told about heaven. They want to sing and shout about the Blood of Jesus that washes away all sins.
This growth of fundamentalism has been a time bomb for the Democrats that exploded in 1984. An estimated eight million white evangelicals switched allegiance that year from Democrat to Republican. The South’s Bible Belt, once solidly Democratic, shifted heavily toward Republican. Last June the Southern Baptists, our country’s largest Protestant denomination, voted itself firmly under the control of fundamentalist leaders. In 1980, its white clergy were 28 percent Republican. In 1984 (see James Guth’s “Political Converts: Partisan Realignment Among Southern Baptists,” in Election Politics, Winter 1985–1986) the percentage rose to 43, with the steepest rise among young ministers.
Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1980 partly because born-again Protestants, black and white, perceived him as one of them. They abandoned him in 1984 partly because they thought Ronald Reagan was even more born-again. Raised by a devout fundamentalist mother, Reagan has often spoken about how she “planted a great faith in me.” Later we shall consider his remarks about the Second Coming. It is always hard, of course, to know when Reagan is expressing actual beliefs, or just skillfully choosing words to win votes, and the same ambiguity surrounds his appointments of ultra-conservative Christians to high posts. James Watt, for example, wasn’t joking when, as secretary of the interior, he told environmentalists not to worry because Jesus would soon be here.
Whatever the president’s inner convictions, and however his popularity may be diminishing, evangelical Christians continue to see the Republican Party as the bastion of conservative Christian values. Democrats are perceived as too tolerant of sexual (especially homosexual) freedoms, pornography, abortion, Marxism, liberalism, secular humanism (as reflected in the teaching of evolution and the forbidding of prayer in public schools), and women’s rights. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord,” wrote Saint Paul. “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.” (Ephesians 5:22–23). Every time the Democrats promote ERA they lose evangelical votes.
The religious programs on radio and television are now almost wholly dominated by fundamentalist preaching. It obviously meets the needs of believers in ways that mainline preaching cannot, but there is another aspect that is economic. The FCC’s free-market policies sell air time to the highest bidders, and the highest are the Bible thumpers. They are the only preachers so fired by the Holy Ghost that they are not ashamed to engage in the perpetual, blatant money hustling so necessary to stay on prime time.
Why do so many poor people send them money? Surveys show that there are about five million hard-core donors, most of them women from fifty to seventy-five, with seventy-one as the peak age for giving. Many live alone on social security, some in nursing homes. Many are too disabled for church going. Lonely, neglected, they see the electronic evangelist as their pastor. A widow’s mite dropped in an offering plate is anonymous, but the smallest donation to a TV preacher brings a warm letter of thanks that makes the giver feel that he or she is a true partner in a great soul-winning enterprise.
Of the country’s top six television preachers—Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell,1 and Robert Schuller2—all but the last two are Pentecostals. (Southern Baptist Billy Graham, though still the most admired fundamentalist preacher, has no regular TV program.) But what is a Pentecostal? Before examining the wild careers of the first four, some definitions will be useful.
Evangelicals are born-again Protestants whose views can vary from fundamentalist to liberal. Fundamentalists are evangelicals who regard the Bible as free of all error. Pentecostals are fundamentalists who think the gifts of Pentecost (Acts 2) were given for all time. On the Pentecost (Greek for fifty), which occurred fifty days after the Resurrection, the Holy Ghost descended on Jesus’ disciples, taking the form of tongues of fire; the disciples began to
speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance…. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
To lead a full Christian life a born-again person must undergo a second miracle, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. This confers upon the baptized the ability to speak the Unknown Tongue, a prayer language understood only by God and the angels. Saint Paul, in First Corinthians, writes at length about the practice, warning against its misuse but thanking God that he speaks in tongues “more than ye all.”
Tongue speaking, or glossolalia, almost vanished after the apostolic age except for a brief revival by Montanus in the second century. Saint Augustine set the pattern for the Catholic Church and the Reformers by asserting that God withdrew the gift after it served its purpose. This was also the view of Thomas Aquinas. There is no evidence that Luther or Calvin spoke in tongues, but early Methodists revived the gift, and it was soon flourishing among the Quakers, Shakers, Irvingites, Mormons, and other fringe sects. After 1900 a variety of churches sprang up in the United States, on fire with tongues and faith healing, to become the denominations now called Pentecostal. Today there are about thirty-five of them. They are the fastest growing segment of Christianity, not only here but throughout the world.
Charismatics, sometimes called neo-Pentecostals, are evangelicals, not necessarily fundamentalist, who accept the gifts of faith healing and tongues. The term applies of course to the old or “classical” Pentecostals, but also to Catholics, Episcopalians, and members of mainline Protestant churches where there has been since 1960 an astonishing inrush of Pentecostal fervor.
Non-Christian glossolalia is a problem for charismatics. Ancient soothsayers, and devotees of Greek and Roman mystery cults, often gurgled meaningless sentences. In the Aeneid (Book 6) Virgil describes tongue speaking by a Roman sibyl. Some Moslem sects and primitive cultures practice glossolalia. In The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler gives a rousing speech in German double talk. None of this, charismatics maintain, is the real thing. Non-Pentecostal fundamentalists think the babbling of their Pentecostal brothers isn’t the real thing either, and may even be inspired by Satan.
Roberts, Bakker, Swaggart, and Robertson all speak in tongues, as do their wives and most of their children, but no one has stressed the gift more than Oral Roberts, the oldest and best known Pentecostal preacher of the four. He and his wife, Evelyn, pray in tongues daily, though you’ll never hear them do this on camera. Pentecostal televangelists discovered early in the game that glossolalia frightens too many viewers.
“Ye ked ee aky shangda” was how Time reported a phrase spoken at the first international assembly of charismatics at Kansas City in 1977, but you can put down your own nonsense syllables and they’ll sound as authentic as anyone’s glossolalia. Linguists who have studied tongue speaking find nothing the tongues have in common except the sounds and rhythms of a natural language. Visit any Pentecostal church and you’re likely to see someone stand up and babble the prayer language, often followed by a person with the “gift of interpretation” who will explain what has been said.
Oral Roberts was born in 1918 on a farm near Ada, Oklahoma, of Pentecostal parents, both part-Indian.3 At seventeen he collapsed on a high school basketball court, bleeding through his nose. Local doctors told him his lungs were in the “final stages” of tuberculosis. Home in bed, watching his father’s face miraculously become the face of Jesus, Oral was reborn. Soon thereafter, when a traveling evangelist touched his head, Oral was instantly healed. My Story, one of Oral’s numerous autobiographies, reproduces medical documents proving that a few months later his lungs were perfect, but there is no shred of evidence that he ever had TB. There is only his memory of what some country doctors told him.
Before the year ended Oral was ordained by the Pentecostal Holiness church, but it was not until after a decade of pastoring that he discovered a supernatural healing energy in his right arm. His rise to fame was swift, and his books swarm with lurid accounts of how God used the “fire” in his right hand to heal the sick and cast out demons.4 During a crusade in Fresno a “little baby died.” The mother tossed the “stiffening” body to Brother Roberts, and when he touched the baby it began to breathe. “God,” Oral asked, “how could I ever limit you again?”
Stichomancy is an ancient art of divination. One opens a sacred book at random, then reads. The Greeks consulted Homer. Moslems consult the Koran. Pentecostals, like medieval Christians, love to consult the Bible. In 1947, when Oral flipped his Bible open, his eyes fell on III John: 2. “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health.” The passage hit Oral like a thunderbolt. God doesn’t want anyone to be poor!
Soon Oral was proclaiming his famous doctrine of seed-faith. Don’t wait for something good to happen before you give to the Lord. Give money, especially to Brother Roberts, and God will multiply it back many times over. Hundreds of other evangelists have adopted this seed-faith doctrine (calling it by other names), as well as Oral’s ingenious methods of obtaining seed. Roberts’s monthly letters to his millions of “prayer partners” are often accompanied by token gifts designed to involve the partner in a physical ritual that will encourage giving. Here are three typical items Oral has sent to his partners:
A prayer cloth with a print of Oral’s magic right hand. Put your hand on the imprint, send money, and await your blessing.
A tiny bag of cement. Send it back, with a donation, so Oral can mix it with cement from others to symbolize cooperative faith in a building project.
A tiny sack of cornmeal. Pray over it and return it with cash. “I am going to have Evelyn mix the cornmeal…and bake for me God’s representative of the body of Christ.”
Oral folded his circus-size healing tent when God told him to start preaching on radio and television. In the early Sixties the Lord said to him, “Build Me a university.” After ORU (Oral Roberts University) was completed in Tulsa, God told Oral to build beside it a City of Faith—a towering hospital that would combine prayer with medicine. Tulsa doctors opposed it on the sensible grounds that the city didn’t need another hospital, but of course Oral had to obey the Lord. It was when he desperately required money to complete the edifice that he had his most spectacular vision:
I felt an overwhelming holy presence all around me. When I opened my eyes, there He stood…some 900 feet tall, looking at me…. He stood a full 300 feet taller than the 600 foot tall City of Faith. There I was face to face with Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. I have only seen Jesus once before, but here I was face to face with the King of Kings. He stared at me without saying a word; Oh! I will never forget those eyes! And then, He reached down, put his Hands under the City of Faith, lifted it, and said to me, “See how easy it is for Me to lift it!”
The funds poured in—more than $5 million. Posters around Tulsa showed the City of Faith behind a warning sign: “Begin 900-foot Jesus Crossing.” A few years later Oral collected another $5 million for a research center after announcing that his doctors were on the verge of a major cancer discovery.
Roberts’s empire started to crumble in 1985. Hospital patients were few, expenses were skyrocketing, and new electronic preachers were carving up the cash flow. Oral’s TV ratings dipped below those of Jimmy Swaggart and Robert Schuller. Oral closed his dental school. He gave his law school to Pat Robertson.
Next year Oral took an enormous public-relations risk. He said God told him he would be called home if he failed to raise $8 million by a certain date. A few weeks before the deadline, Oral revealed that during the night Satan had sneaked into his bedroom and tried to strangle him. Tulsa bumper stickers urged, “Send Oral to Heaven in 87.” Brother Roberts climbed his Prayer Tower to fast and pray. A few days later his life was spared by a $1.3 million check from a Florida dog-track owner.
Oral’s handsome singing son Richard, who now has his own daily TV show and conducts healing crusades around the world, is being groomed to take over the Roberts conglomerate.5 Richard’s first wife, Patti, who used to warble hymns with him on his father’s show, has written (in her book, Ashes to Gold) about her distress in watching Richard turn into a clone of Oral, and the shameless way that she and Richard rationalized their jet-set ways of life. The Bible says a workman is worthy of his hire, Richard would remind her, and if an ox treads the grain it has a right to eat it. How about “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want“?
There is a horror story in Patti’s book. Before she and Richard left on their honeymoon, Oral summoned them to his study and began to weep. He had a dream, he said, in which God told him that if Patti and Richard ever left his ministry they would be killed in a plane crash. After years of faking the feelings of a loving wife on TV, Patti tells us, she divorced Richard, remarried, and is now living contentedly near Nashville. In 1977, the year Patti left the Roberts organization, Oral’s own daughter Rebecca was killed in a plane crash.
As soon as Brother Roberts came down from his Prayer Tower he had another revelation. God told him to build a $14 million healing center. Construction work has begun, and he and Richard are now pleading for funds to complete it. Last May, God told Oral to raise $1 billion, his largest request ever, as an endowment for ORU.
Oral blundered again last June when he told a conference of charismatics at ORU that he had often raised the bodies of persons who died during a service. “I had to stop and go back in the crowd and raise the dead person so I could go ahead with the service.” There are “dozens and dozens and dozens of documented instances,” his son Richard added, of people resurrected by ministers. Oral also revealed that God has told him he will die before the Second Coming, but that he will return with Jesus to help rule the new earth, presumably from a throne in Tulsa. “Watch what happens to ORU when I get back,” he said.
I grew up in Tulsa and have been a bemused Oral watcher ever since. Friends there like to say, “Oral may be a charlatan, but he’s our charlatan.” True, his fund-raising tactics are deceptive, and he often stretches the truth, but Oral is not a charlatan. He genuinely believes, I am convinced, that everything he says and does is part of God’s plan for him to heal and save as many souls as possible before Jesus returns. Insecure feelings about his early poverty and lack of education mix with an awesome ego. Oral will never consider that when he hears the voice of God he is listening to himself, that when he builds a bigger monument it is a monument to himself. His visions are too childish to be fabrications. As his financial woes proliferate, his God-told-me’s become more bizarre and self-destructive.
Richard Roberts is trying hard. Last July he sent his partners a tiny plastic bag of “anointed water” from the River of Life, an artificial stream that flows under the huge bronze praying hands near the City of Faith. Richard and his father had blessed the water by placing their palms on the river and praying. The water was then put in fifty-gallon drums and sent to a factory for packaging. Poor Richard is trapped. He couldn’t leave even if he wanted to. The old man would disinherit him and die of a broken heart.
Jim and Tammy Bakker, top bananas in the still unrolling PTL burlesque show, met when they were students at a Bible college in Minneapolis. The letters are supposed to stand for Praise the Lord and People That Love. (Pass the Loot and Pay the Lady are recent interpretations.) Jim had gone there from Muskegon, Michigan. Tammy Faye LaValley came from International Falls, Minnesota. Her Pentecostal mother had fought constantly with her unsaved father. After a divorce, the mother (with custody of Tammy and her younger brother) remarried and had six more children. They all lived in a ramshackle house with no bathtub and a privy in back.
The Bible college forbade student marriages, so when Jim and Tammy took the vows, during their first year, they had to leave. Jim had no further education, but the Assemblies of God ordained him anyway. In 1965 he joined Pat Robertson’s newly started Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), now the largest cable network in the nation. For a while he and Tammy had a Christian puppet show, then Jim founded and hosted CBN’s 700 Club. (The name came from an early telethon that sought 700 pledges.)
In her autobiography, I Gotta Be Me, Tammy is candid about her love-hate feeling for Pat. She loved him, but when “he would do certain things…I built up a terrible, terrible resentment.” Every time she and Jim consulted God’s Word it fell open on Ezekiel 12:1–6, where God tells the prophet to take all his “stuff” and leave a “rebellious house.” Jim and Tammy packed up their stuff and left, taking along their most valuable possession—trade secrets of the 700 Club.
After an unsuccessful effort to start the PTL Club in Los Angeles, Jim and Tammy finally got it rolling in Charlotte, North Carolina. Modeled on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, PTL soon became the nation’s most widely watched Christian talk show and vaudeville act. Jim and Tammy frequently cried on camera, especially when they talked about how poor they were. (In their autobiographies, they sob off camera on almost every page.) Tammy’s mascara dripped from her huge false eyelashes until she started using waterproof clown makeup.
The sixty blue telephones of Jim’s telethons, which he ran about two hundred times a year, were monitored by operators who took down pledges, reports of miracle cures, and prayer requests. Ailments were checked on alphabetized lists (arthritis to ulcers), then a computer would mail out responses. It’s hard to believe, but millions of people actually think that when they get a letter with their name on top, signed in ink, the evangelist has written to them personally. The tens of thousands of letters that go daily to every prominent television evangelist are, of course, mechanically opened, sorted by the kinds of requests, then answered by computers with appropriate form letters. It’s not dishonest, but then it’s not exactly honest either, since the evangelist implies that he reads every letter. Oral Roberts once asked his partners to send photos of themselves so he could see what they looked like when he prayed for them. Can you imagine Brother Roberts studying each face in a million snapshots?
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.”
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.
August 13, 1987
Jerry Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, the right-wing Moral Majority (now called the Liberty Federation), and Liberty University. His Old Time Gospel Hour televises his Sunday sermons over some 350 stations. A noncharismatic, Falwell takes a dim view of tongue speaking and faith healing. ↩
Robert Schuller is a noncharismatic minister of the Reformed Church in America, with misty doctrinal views as hard to pin down as those of his mentor Norman Vincent Peale. Instead of Peale’s positive thinking, Schuller calls it “possibility thinking,” but it’s the same thing. Avoid negative thoughts, trust God, and you’ll be healthy, happy, and make lots of money. Like Peale, he has written dozens of breezy books peppered with such snappy slogans as “Turn your scars into stars” and “It takes guts to leave the ruts.” His mammoth Crystal Cathedral, in Garden Grove, California, is filled with flowers, fountains, chirping canaries, and the world’s largest pipe organ. ↩
Among several biographies of Oral Roberts, the most recent, most accurate, and best documented is Oral Roberts: An American Life (Indiana University Press, 1985), an objective, impressive study by David Harrell, Jr., a historian at the University of Alabama. The strongest critical attacks are in two out-of-print books: James Morris’s The Preachers (St. Martin’s, 1973) and Jerry Sholes’s Give Me That Prime-Time Religion (Hawthorn, 1979). ↩
How does Oral recognize possession by demons? “First I feel God’s presence, usually through my hand, then I catch the breath of a person—it will have a stench as of a body that has been decayed. Then I notice the eyes. They’re—they’re like snake eyes.” During one of Oral’s wild exorcisms in Brazil, he tells us, a demon levitated a woman in midair, “horizontally between me and the audience.” ↩
In his autobiography, He’s the God of a Second Chance!, Richard tells how his healing ministry started in 1980, a few months after his second marriage. At the close of a preaching service, God suddenly gave him the “word of knowledge” (another gift of Pentecost; see I Corinthians 12:8), and he blurted out “Lord, heal that man’s toe.” Later he received a letter from a man who had been in the audience. He said he had felt his broken toe pop, and when he got home, the toe was as good as new. Before the year ended, Richard was healing the deaf, blind, and lame. ↩
The New York Times, July 11, 1987, p. 16. ↩