To judge by the tone, content, and amount of recent media coverage of Protestant Fundamentalism in general and television evangelists in particular. Fundamentalists are a collection of interchangeable religious parts that have grouped themselves into a united cultural force which grows stronger and more indivisible by the week. But the conclusion is incorrect because the information that supports it is skewed or incomplete. The fact is, Fundamentalists are sort of like pickles: They all start out as cucumbers, but after that it’s Heinz 57 Varieties. What’s more, the gherkins aren’t always willing to share shelf space with the dills, and vice versa.
Nearly every variety of Fundamentalism is presented on religious television, and only victims of predetermined expectations or doctrinal illiteracy could decide that these varieties form either the makings or the product of a single batch. Under the Fundamentalist label are Positive Confessionists and Back to the Crossers, pre-Tribbers and post-Tribbers, will-of-God seekers and will-of-God knowers, prophesiers and false-prophesy denouncers.
Among the major television figures there is Paul Crouch, founder of TBN, who, called to use the “miracle of satellite” to bathe the world in Christian programming, schedules two “Praise-A-Thons” a year for that purpose, thus sparing viewers constant entreaties for money. There is Pat Robertson, the answered prayer of many Pentecostals, possessor of a Yale Law School degree, a personal political agenda, and the gift of tongues (take that, secular humanists). There is Jim Bakker of PTL whose daily talk show is an ongoing Christian soap opera, his personal vehicle for showcasing his latest project, begging money for his latest project, or lamenting his persecution by the enemies of his latest project. There is Jerry Falwell, who delivers political lectures in the guise of sermons. There is James Robison, the skillful Baptist preacher who currently is bringing his We Must Stop Judging One Another message to Spirit-filled Pentecostals, along with the irrepressible reminder that he has “never spoken in tongues in [his] life” (talk about your gherkins and dills).
There are Oral Roberts, faith-healing and Seed Faith pioneer, Okie handsome in his finely tailored suits, refreshing in his lack of malice (he really does seem able to love his enemies), and Richard, Oral’s over-eager, over-earnest, equally well-tailored son and successor. There is Kenneth Copeland, loose, slick, and effective, the one-note leader of the claim-your-miracle Positive Confession movement. In the same category, if not in the same league, is Robert “Success-N-Life” Tilton, proud owner of a designer haircut, a frighteningly animated face, and endless Scriptural evidence that God’s just itching to make you rich. Aside from a common theological starting point and readily available cassette-taped “interpretations” of everything in the Bible, what these men appear to have most in common is a compulsion to present Pat Boone repeatedly as a guest on their programs.
Finally, with his televised crusades and his daily program, “A Study in the Word,” is the blue-ribbon winner, the repository of all secret ingredients of God’s Word, Jimmy Swaggart. Remember that name.
In the past, worldly observers looked upon the forerunners of these men (in some cases, the men themselves, e.g., Oral Roberts) with amusement or disgust. Aided in their reactions to some extent—but not totally—by the preachers themselves, skeptics saw an aberrant collection of (usually Southern) religious crackpots and cultural misfits. Smug and comfortable with this stereotype, figuring they knew all there would ever be to know, these (usually liberal) religious and cultural sophisticates dozed off. By the time they woke up, television evangelists had got smart and their ministries had got rich.
The accomplishments of some evangelists are enough to have roused anyone. Among other things, these men have created successful television networks, built enormous tourist attractions, and founded accredited universities. In the process, they have adapted skillfully to the medium of television, learned the latest marketing and direct mail techniques, acquired state-of-the-art computer technology, gained devoted followings, raked in massive amounts of money, and discovered that all of the above just might be used not only to win souls but to affect national political and social policy as well. The rejoicing you hear is from Fundamentalists celebrating their discovery. The howl is from liberals awakening to their nightmare.
To fight the new Fundamentalist bogeyman, liberals are using the only means they know: circular thinking. (Circular thinking happens to be a trait liberals and Fundamentalists share. Propelling themselves by similar methods of thought while moving in completely different orbits, they manage to drive each other crazy without ever getting near one another.) It has been decided that if television evangelists don’t believe what they’re preaching (a presumption nearly perfect in its cynicism), they’re dangerous; and if they do believe that stuff they preach (an attitude nearly perfect in its arrogance), they’re still dangerous. Whether frauds or fanatics—the only choices allowed—they victimize their audiences by turning them into givers, or believers, or both. Too righteously indignant to understand that victims exist only when they are self-declared, these critics are naturally too predisposed to get much past the presentation, the look, of Fundamentalist theology.
Against the pageantry and scholarly traditions and ageless rituals of some other religions. Fundamentalism sits in the hinterlands like an unfinished lean-to inhabited by squatters. Easy to miss is the fact that the place is perfectly designed—it makes its own kind of perfect religious sense—once you step inside. Inside are the Fundamentals, the givens, from Original Sin, to atonement at Calvary, to the promised Second Coming (and several more in between)—all of which rest within and are verified by the unquestioned literal truth of the Bible, the Word of the Living God. Instead of getting close enough to take a look at what’s so simple and self-contained—no one’s forcing them to live there—the intellectually pristine and the politically wary spend their energy issuing pompous and empty demands that the whole place either be condemned or brought up to code.
In avoiding exploration of the common ground shared by all Fundamentalists, their critics are left ignorant of the differences in doctrine and practice that divide Fundamentalism’s various denominations. How long have you got? For at this point, one man’s Truth becomes another man’s heresy. At this point, things become complicated and disputatious—and revealing. And Fundamentalism’s present and future status as a cultural and political force can be evaluated accurately only through what is revealed in its divisions and conflicts. This fact escapes opponents of the Fundamentalist movement, who have chosen, even in their fury (because of their fury?), to stick with the tidy assumption that if you’ve heard one Bible-thumper, you’ve heard them all.
The first and major bylaw of Fundamentalists is I know that I know that I know. The second is In the world but not of it. The thing is, what Fundamentalists know that they know that they know has always varied dramatically from denomination to denomination (even within denominations), and their recent political activities in the world have betrayed suspicious signs of these divisions. Sensing in their newfound collective political influence a remedy for their longstanding status as cultural rejects, some ambitious Fundamentalists are engaged in a mighty effort to forget their contentious history, the history that dooms the very attempts at unity it makes desirable. In short, a group that is defined as much by its differences as by its similarities is trying to unite around a common agenda by putting aside a common past. As easy to teach close-order drill to a swarm of hornets. For in this crowd it is guaranteed that there will always be at least one guy, tail up and stinger out, knowing what he knows, no matter what.
Which brings us back to Jimmy Swaggart.
A born preacher and a down-home Pentecostal, Swaggart’s as good as they come and as tough as they get. When he interrupts himself to declare “Man, that’s good preaching,” he merely speaks the truth. And when he hunkers down, offering a tight smile and the warning “I’m not here to serve up some nice religious dainties,” he’s not joking. While others are called to set America back on a moral path, or to preach forgiveness, or to teach the Prosperity Message, Jimmy Swaggart’s mission is simpler: He is here to call sin by its name. Since sin does not confine itself to the unsaved only, he also runs a thriving side business in exposing backsliders. Working I know that I know that I know in both directions, Swaggart finds as much sin and wrongheadedness within the flock as he finds within “the world.” Thus he manages to discomfit fellow believers and infuriate nonsubscribers at the same time.
Aggressively fearless, he jumps up and down on questions most evangelists won’t even approach (in public, anyway). Can the born-again lose their salvation? Yes, indeed, because “you’re not going to be raptured out of some honky-tonk.” Will Mother Teresa’s good works get her into heaven? No sir, just check the Bible. (Reaction to Sivaggart’s Mother Teresa remark was interesting. While Catholics were understandably offended, right behind them in the outrage department was a collection of nonreligious meddlers who, having either rejected or outgrown any personal religious commitment, nevertheless decided that if there were such a place as heaven, it would have to be an affirmative-action sort of deal where no soul would suffer exclusion for any reason.)
More than one observer has charged Jimmy Swaggart with ignorance, the expression of uncultured thoughts in crude terms. It’s true that he has an untutored mind. And it’s true that when he strays too far from the language of the Bible or the vocabulary of his native Louisiana, he can be unintentionally colorful, as when he says “you-bel-int” for ebullient and pronounces rampant with ferocious emphasis on the last syllable. (What he does to the names of certain Russian “Comminists” is past description.) But in this case, the accusation of ignorance misses the point. And, in this case, it can be directed back at the accusers. For Fundamentalism means turning away from “the things of the’ world,” one of which happens to be the open-minded investigation of human knowledge and ideas. To take offense at this is to get miffed that a jar of pickles is not a can of stew. “Where are the carrots and potatoes?” they keep huffing. “Where is the meat?!” Read the label, folks.
Jimmy Swaggart knows that he is not an intellectual stew. Jimmy Swaggart knows a lot of things. Starting and stopping with the Word, beginning and ending at the Cross, Jimmy Swaggart knows what is not “of God.” He also knows that he himself has “never cooled off, never plan[s] to cool off” and that the only religion worth anything is one that “makes you so miserable you can’t eat, sleep, rest, or think.” Possessing an ignorance of no relevance, he rounds things out with an edged and quirky native intelligence that serves his calling perfectly. This particular combination makes him far more dangerous to the ambitions of his fellow Fundamentalists than to the intellectual standards of his outraged critics.
In their book The Seduction of Christianity, Fundamentalists Dave Hunt and T.A. McMahon have labeled Possibility Thinking and Positive Confession “sorcery” and have traced both movements—which are sweeping many Fundamentalist circles—to roots in the occult. Jimmy Swaggart takes a more direct route to his rejection of such practices, stating simply and flatly that they are “beyond the Cross”; that they are “a device of Satan”; that they lead to “nothing but backsliding”; that, finally, “If it’s not in the Bible, I don’t want it.” Either way, the sparks are beginning to fly over this one, and they will fly over many more issues. While Jimmy Swaggart is obviously not the only purist spoiler in the ranks, he is without doubt the best-known, the most relentless, and the least restrained. To quote the man himself, “When I go to kill a snake, I don’t spread a tablecloth and lay out silverware.” Pity the snakes, for his weapon of choice is . . . “an ax.”
Paul Crouch hosts discussions of rock ‘n’ roll’s “satanic influence” on teenage sex, suicide, and devil worship, then follows these shows with “contemporary Christian” video programs whose look and sound are indistinguishable from those of MTV. Jimmy Swaggart knows not only that rock ‘n’ roll is an abomination, but that contemporary Christian music is merely rock ‘n’ roll in disguise, yet another insidious trick of Satan to turn believers into (you guessed it) backsliders.
Jim Bakker, not satisfied with his opulent “Christian retreat center” and his new $10 million water park, is now planning an amusement park featuring a River of Life ride that will take Christian fun-seekers first to Heaven (“in quadraphonic sound”), and then to Hell (with “eyeballs melting out of their sockets”). Objective observers might call this plan vulgar, and they might be right. But at least one very nonobjective observer—the one who’s never cooled off—knows more. He knows that all such amusements are likely to pull the faithful from their prayer closets; that none of them are designed to make Christians so miserable that they “can’t eat, sleep, rest, or think” (though they would do the trick for me).
And then there are the religious politicians who, lured by greater political influence, might be tempted to soft-pedal their beliefs and double-talk their way into wider political acceptance. Very risky with a man like Jimmy Swaggart around, a man with an ax, a man who not only counts the means as important as the end, but who believes the means determine the end.
Jimmy Swaggart is a moral bully. But he’s an honest moral bully, upfront, disguising nothing. He is his own show, an anointed man of God and, not incidentally, an American. As such, he exercises both his duty as a preacher and his rights as a citizen by telling others what God thinks. The ones who disagree, believing that God doesn’t talk to Jimmy only, or that God doesn’t talk to Jimmy at all, or that God doesn’t exist—these people, being equally convinced of their rights, stand fast and return the force. An example of America coming back on itself—to no real effect, but to no harm, either.
The people about to be affected are true believers, the Fundamentalists who have set about doctoring the old religious recipes—a little of this, a dash of that—with a fervor. In their creativity, they might remind themselves of one thing: Jimmy Swaggart never has Pat Boone as a guest on his programs. And agitated nonbelievers might do themselves a favor to learn why such a fact has significance.
But don’t hold your breath.