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The Television Evangelists

The most visible effects of the evangelical revival are the religious radio and TV programs. Almost all these programs are of the fundamentalist persuasion. [1] In the eighties it was the television programs that was capturing the imagination the Christian public. These programs featured fundamentalist preachers such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell in his Old Time Gospel Hour, Pat Robertson and his 700 Club and Jim and Tammy Bakker in their PTL Club. Their preaching is a mixture of quotations from the Bible, endless warnings against the evils of "secular humanism" and unceasing requests for financial contributions from the viewers.

With an estimated total viewership of ten million [2], the money these preachers raked in were, by any reckoning, immense. In his heyday Jimmy Swaggart was making close to US$140 million a year. [3] The Bakkers were close behind with an estimated yearly income of US$130 million. [4] Jerry Falwell netted, by his own reckoning, about US$60 million a year. [5]

The money, which was meant for their ministry, went to maintain their extravagant lifestyles. Swaggart bought himself a US$ 1.5 million mansion. In his show of fatherly affection, he bought another mansion, worth US$700,000 for his son, Donnie. [6] The Bakkers had bought mansions and luxury cars. As a measure of their decadent lifestyle, it should be mentioned that even the doghouse was air-conditioned. [7] Pat Robertson owned a Georgian mansion and a country house. [8]

Even the lesser lights of TV evangelism lived luxuriously. Peter Poppoff used to earn, in the years before the damning revelation by the arch-skeptic James Randi, at least US$15 million a year. He lived like a king. He owned a US$800,000 mansion and many luxury cars. His monthly expenses included a US$5,000 to an interior decorator who was remodelling the Poppoff's residence at a cost of US$300,000. He was even reported to have regularly hired limousine to take him and his wife to dinner downtown: the cost was US$145 per trip for the car and US$200 for the dinner. [9]

Who are the people who give so freely to support these extravagant lifestyles? Surveys show that they are mainly poor elderly women with ages ranging from 50 to 75, with 71 as the peak age of giving. Many of these live on social welfare and some are even in nursing homes. [10] The donations, mainly in cheques of five to ten dollars are mainly all, perhaps more than, these women can afford to give. [11]

Apart from directly soliciting for donations in the TV shows, another favorite method of the TV evangelists is the use of computerized mail made to look and sound personal. This method is dishonest, to say the least, as the letters always sounded as though the evangelists was personally responding to each and every donor. [12] With tens of thousands of letters sent out each week, simple common sense will tell us that is an impossible thing to do.

The letters sometimes even come with a religious gimmick. One example is the "sacred handkerchief" imbued with the preacher's sweat. Alex Poppoff once bought 36,000 of these handkerchiefs (at US 25 cents a piece), had his people tore each into three and then sent each of these to the faithful. The letter accompanying this piece of cloth claimed that Poppoff had actually mopped his brow with it. Based on the 108,000 pieces that was mailed out, he must have sweated a lot!

The letters and the ideas for soliciting funds are not even original to the preachers. They are prepared by professionals who know how to create crisis situations to enable the preacher to beg for more money. The same professional that wrote the letters for Poppoff also composed letters for other evangelists such as Oral Roberts and Rex Humbard. [13]

On the subject of soliciting money, the name Oral Roberts, one of the all-time greats in the field, should never be forgotten. Oral, born in 1918, is certainly one of the most longest lasting preachers in the fundamentalist circuit. The Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a US$500 million conglomerate consisting of a university (modestly named the Oral Roberts University), a hospital and a medical research center. [14] All these were funded with money donated by his electronic flock. By the mid-eighties, however, due to intense competition from other evangelists, the donation coming in to Oral's ministry began to dry up and his empire began to crumble. The desperate Oral came up with a method of soliciting funds that was probably copied by him from the hostage holding middle east terrorists. On January 4th 1987, he announced over his TV show that God had told him to raise US$8 million by the end of March. Should he fail to raise that required amount, he said, God will "send him home." (i.e. to heaven) The response of reasonable people was one of outrage. The Tulsa Tribune called his threat an "emotional blackmail." But his followers were convinced believers, and the money started rolling in, at US$160,000 a day. One can imagine the poor old women scraping whatever savings they may have and sending it to Reverend Roberts so that he can stay on earth for a few more years. To top it all up, the owner of a dog racing tack in Florida wrote Oral a cheque for US$1.3 million. Oral's life was saved! And so was his bank account. [15]

With the exception of Pat Robertson, who was a Yale Law School graduate, none of the evangelists had had much education. Jerry Falwell was an engineering school dropout of Lynchburg College. It should be mentioned that Dr. Jerry Falwell's PhD is an honorary one, for theology, from the Tennessee Temple Bible College in Nashville. [16] Jim and Tammy Bakker were both dropouts from a Bible College in Minneapolis. [17] Jimmy Swaggart never even finished high school! [18]

With such a collection undistinguished academic under-achievements it is not surprising that these evangelists are anti all things rational and intellectual. Tammy Bakker once warned against too much education: "You can educate yourself right out of a relationship with God." [19] Jerry Falwell is on record with a warning to his followers not to read any other books other than the Bible. [20]

Their general lack of education, together with their complete acceptance of the generally intolerant message of the Bible have made these men bigots. These evangelists, and many of their followers, are anti-secular humanists, anti-communists (in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall), anti-homosexuals and anti-women's rights. An example of this attitude can be seen in the following excerpt from a sermon by Jimmy Swaggart:

I'm tired of liberal, communist fellow travellers tearing down our country. I'm tired of pot-smoking and alcoholic ne'er-do-wells living on welfare. I'm tired of God-reviling "secular humanists" telling us we can have prayers in our schools. [21]

Another prominent evangelist within this mould is Jerry Falwell. He called for a return to the "McCarthy era [a] where we register all communists and send them back to Russia." [23] Falwell also headed a political pressure group (now defunked) originally called the Moral Majority, which subsequently changed its name to the Liberty Federation. It boasted, in its heyday of some four million registered Christian voters. Due to its smooth organization, it exerted considerable political muscle. Any politicians who supported "unChristian" bills in the Senate or Congress are warned by the group to step back in line or be prepared to lose their jobs. Examples of "unChristian" bills include allocation of funds for research in social science [b], allowing abortion and disallowing prayer in schools. At least four politicians were forced out by the Moral Majority: George McGovern, Frank Church, Birch Bayh and John Buchanan. [24]

Falwell's reason for wanting to curb homosexual rights is definitely scriptural. He once thundered: "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" [25] His Moral Majority also succeeded in blocking the passage of the Equal Rights Amendments in fifteen states. [26] In this anti-equal rights for women crusade, Falwell has the staunch support of Pat Robertson. [27]

Although Falwell's fortune has suffered of late (due to lack of support-his Moral Majority had to close down 1989), he still remains very much in the news. In 1999, his National Liberty Journal ran an article attacking the television series Teletubbies by claiming that one of its lead character "Tinky Winky" is gay. The show is a show for preschoolers showing four characters (Laa Laa, Po, Dipsy and Tinky Winky) and were dressed in colourful costumes attractive to its audience. Yet, Falwell's magazine article claim that Tinky Winky's purple costume and triangular shaped headgear are gay pride symbols! Thus the Teletubbies creator have a siniter aim of providing a postive gay role model for little kids!

Needless to say, this ludicrous "outing" of a children's show character made Falwell the butt of jokes in late night TV shows and newspapers columnists. It was this "outing" perhaps that led Robert Boston, the communications director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to call Jerry Falwell a "has-been".[28]

This then is a short introduction to the main figures at the forefront of the fundamentalist revival. Many critics of this modern day fundamentalism tend to assert that their teachings is a perverted form of Christianity. But it is the contention of this author that these fundamentalists do not represent a new development in Christianity, but are in fact true to its spirit. We have seen from the previous chapters that Christianity had always been intolerant and anti-reason. The "natural" base of the religion is fundamentalism, as the political scientist Charles L. Liebman pointed out:

[A] propensity to religious extremism does not require explanation since it is entirely consistent with the basic religious tenets and authentic orientations. It is religious moderation and religious liberalism, the willingness of religious adherents to accommodate themselves to their environment, to adapt their behavioral and belief patterns to prevailing cultural norms, to make peace with the world, that requires explanation. [29]

Even the practice of soliciting money from poor elderly folks have its scriptural base:

Mark 13:41-44
And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

One can just imagine the elderly followers of Falwell, Robertson, Swaggart, Roberts and Poppoff putting every dollar from their social security cheques and finding solace in the passage above. Modern fundamentalist evangelicalism is no different from the Christianity of history; at least in the social harm in brings both to believers and non-believers.

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Notes

a.For those unfamiliar with American history, the "McCarthy Era", named after the republican senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), was one of the most notable "hiccups" in American democracy. During the mid-fifties McCarthy, who was chairman of the Senate Permanent Investigations Committee, started making unsubstantiated accusations that some government departments were infiltrated by communists. He hurled equally baseless accusations at many individuals and branded them communists. The term "McCarthyism" has become synonymous with "witch-hunts." [22]
b.The fundamentalists had always, either on purpose or otherwise, fused the humanist and humanities in one single concept.

References

1.Gardner, The New Age: p224
2.Randi, The Faith Healers: p198
3.Gardner, The New Age: p223
4.Randi, The Faith Healers: p66
5.Haiven, Faith, Hope, No Charity: p54
6.Gardner, The New Age: p233-234
7.The New Straits Times, 6th October 1989
The New Paper,6th October 1989
8.Gardner, The New Age: p235
9.Randi, The Faith Healers: p68-69
10.Gardner, The New Age: p225
11.Randi, The Faith Healers: p69
12.Gardner, The New Age: p232
13.Randi, The Faith Healers: p140-141
14.Ibid: p184
15.Gardner, The New Age: p228-229
Randi, The Faith Healers: p63-66
16.Haiven, Faith, Hope, No Charity: p57
17.Gardner, The New Age: p230
18.Ibid: p233
19.Simon Hogart, Great Bawls of Fire, The Observer 1988.
20.Godfrey, Scientists Confront Creationism: p30
21.Haiven, Faith, Hope, No Charity: p214-215
22.Benet, The Reader's Encyclopedia: p593
Rosenbaum, The Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p783
23.Haiven, Faith, Hope, No Charity: p46
24.Ibid: p40-46
25.Ibid: p20
26.Ibid: p48
27.Ibid: p93
28.Boston, Close Encounters with the Religious Right: p105-121
29.Quoted in Cohen, The Mind of the Bible Believer: p9

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