Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America
Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry
Of all the men running for President in 1988, only two were forced, by the birth dates of their children, to admit to having had sex with their wives before marriage—and those two, Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson, were the only preachers in the race. To some, that might seem odd; but not to those who know preachers. The pulpit has always been a libidinous zone. Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker are not likely to surprise people familiar with the sexual exploits of Paul Tillich or Martin Luther King. Or of Henry Ward Beecher. Or, for that matter, of Peter Abelard, the twelfth-century theologian who was castrated for his affair with Eloise, the niece of his ecclesiastical superior. The ranks of the ministry would be considerably thinned if Abelard’s punishment followed regularly on Abelard’s sin.
Believers, in time, become inured to pastoral lust, less shocked than outsiders when Jimmy Swaggart has to wash his sins away in copious tears. It is the outsider who cannot understand why so many forgive and forget these offenses, or why it does not seem hypocritical for preachers to keep denouncing the very sins they succumb to. Thus Michael d’Antonio, after an intelligent survey of modern evangelicals’ activities, concludes that recent scandals are leading to “the inevitable collapse of the Christian Right.” But Randall Balmer, after an equally intelligent look at much the same material, finds it amusing that journalists repeat the error of thinking the downfall of a famous preacher means the end of religion. Balmer, brought up an evangelical, knows from experience that “faith is shaped by many forces.” Outsiders see only the salient preacher or two on television, not the dense religious undergrowth that produces leaders and influences generation after generation.
It was the secular press that made a great fuss over Jimmy Carter’s 1976 confession that he had lusted in his heart. Lust is not in the vocabulary of modern politicians, any more than sin is. Richard Nixon and Gary Hart do not even commit mistakes, much less sins; “mistakes are made” around them. Carter was using scriptural language (Matthew 5:28), which is not Dr. Bowdler’s language. Baptists are used to hearing about the weakness of the corrupt flesh—that all flesh is grass, friable, a decaying thing. Such terms break the decorum of Playboy, which is innocent of sin. Playmates do not have flesh of grass. More like polyurethane.
In the nineteenth century, Thomas Bowdler and others created the impression that religious people avoid even the mention of sex, except in the most oblique and delicate way, that they observe what D. H. Lawrence called “the puritan hush! hush!”1 But the Puritans of the seventeenth century were rather too blunt for modern tastes. They not only called a spade a spade, but counted the clumps of dirt on it. 2 Roger Williams would not have called so many enemies “whores” if he did not have an idea that whores were a lively threat. Loath as he was to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.