Tag Archives: televangelists

Call It What You Will

I didn’t even know the House of Representatives had a chaplain. Then Paul Ryan fired him. I wondered once again if evangelicals were interested in religion at all. We all have labels we’d like to claim but lack of legitimacy prevents us from keeping them. My secret wannabe title is rock star, but given that I can’t sing and can’t play any instruments, I have trouble retaining it. Evangelicals, however, have no challengers. They are so flexible they’d make Proteus blush. Such theological promiscuity, traditional religion teaches, will have its comeuppance. If 45 has accomplished nothing else, he’s forced the religious right to show its true, secular colors. Of all the great ironies of the situation none is greater than the fact that “nones” of whatever description hold up the weightier matters of morality better than those most vocal about their faith. Evangelicals, however, control the narrative and claim to do so with God’s own authority. They have few challengers.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

Then, mere days latter, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy was reinstated by the whiplash GOP. Did somebody warn the religious right that “religious” was part of their name? “Hypocrisy” comes from a Greek root meaning to play a theatrical part. As my stepfather used to tell us, “do as I say, not as I do.” He was a secular man, so his hypocrisy could be overlooked. Noble, even, at times. When those who stake their entire identity on WWJD promote, vocally and enthusiastically, an unrepentant candidate for sinner of the year, you’ve got to wonder if even hypocrisy has lost its punch. How can you reason with people who refuse to reason? We used to lock them away in asylums. Now we throw them into the swamp.

Double standards are the new normal, I guess. Nobody really paid any heed when the fall of the towering televangelists showed, decades ago, that the idol they proclaimed as true religion was rotten to the core. Oh, they made the headlines for a while, but their tumble did nothing to dissuade their true followers. Evangelicals control their own narrative. For many decades now higher education and the media have pretty much ignored religion as a force for social change. Once upon a time Evangelicalism meant change based on ideals that more or less fit the recorded words of the carpenter from Nazareth. Now that its inspiration is the ninth circle below, those who have access to the funds of higher education prefer to put their money elsewhere. Why study something that threatens democracy on a daily basis? Why bother trying to understand Evangelicals? Call it what you will—there’s no way to object to anyone claiming whatever name they want. I should know; I’m a rock star, after all.

Paraleipomenon

EarnestI suspect, like most people, I missed quite a few classics in school. This was the ’70’s when new and experimental were still the rage. One of the must-reads I missed was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As usual when approaching books like this, I’m delighted at the sheer number of famous lines I’ve repeatedly heard, whispering to myself, “So that’s where that comes from!” as I go. Since I expect you, my cultured reader, have walked on the Wilde side, I need not provide any of these lines here. I won’t even have to go over the plot. The edition I read, however, contained lines and scenes that did not make it into the canonical version. As an erstwhile writer, I know that final versions seldom resemble those that felt so magical at their penning. Cuts must be made. Editors must be satisfied. And so goes the life of the writer.

It was one of these cut lines that caught my eye. With Wilde’s keen wit, the clergy, represented by Dr. Chasuble. (For those liturgically challenged readers, a chasuble is a priestly vestment in the Roman and Anglican traditions.) In an unfortunately stricken scene the minister says, “I am compelled, like most of my brother clergy, to treat scientific subjects from the point of view of sentiment. But that is more impressive I think. Accurate knowledge is out of place in a pulpit. It is secular.” Accurate knowledge is secular. That thought stayed with me long after reading the out-takes and deleted scenes of the play. Those that remain contain priceless comments about the church and the dangers of christenings. This particular gem, from the cutting room floor, would be hilarious were it not so often true. It explains, for example, creationism.

It’s a fair wager that science remains, even today, a subject that flummoxes clergy and laity alike. It is the new revelation, after all. No truth cannot be reduced to numbers. Even my scribbling this post is mere electro-chemical signals jumping synapses like electro-chemical salmon dying to spawn. We’ve simply substituted one clergy for another. When’s the last time a preacher has been cited as an authority on anything? What with televangelists setting the bar (for anything we see on the media is necessarily representative), it stands to reason that no real intelligence lies here. By default we nod toward those who hold the paten and chalice of empirical evidence. As it is now, but never was, and shall be forever, amen. Who’s being earnest now?

Remember the Alamo

Midtown Manhattan is awash in litter, particularly on a Monday morning, or first thing after a holiday. I generally arrive in the city shortly after 7 a.m., before the detritus is swept away. Frequently I see, among the discarded food wrappers and cigarette butts, copies of Tony Alamo’s World Newsletter. You can get a pristine copy if you take the subway. An abstemious young man will gladly hand one to you with a smile. The articles are accusatory and unsophisticated examples of prooftexting of the worst kind. Even I know better than to use “you” all the time, implying that “I” am better. The following is typical: “It may seem fun to you to run wild, to do whatever you please, but remember…” Not that Tony Alamo would ever run wild, doing whatever he pleased.

I was curious about the movement. Ironically, Tony Alamo, according to Wikipedia, was convicted as a child sex offender in 2009. It is a pattern as familiar as it is unfortunate. Those who rail loudly against certain behaviors often find themselves practitioners of the same. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this phenomenon is that it never seems to change, as if the learning curve is just too steep to climb. In the case of evangelists, it may be that treating the Bible as a magical book—mashing all verses together out of context, cherry-picking the one that best seems to fit the sin of the day, creates an impossible standard to follow. The Bible both indicates that you should love your parents and hate them. What it might mean depends on context. Those who snatch a verse from here and a verse from there are practicing the old form of treating the Bible like a book of spells. It can be done, of course, since it has one author (God) and mix-and-match is as good a method as any. What if God was having a bad day?

WorldNewletter

The lead article I was handed last time on the subway confirms this: “Why Does God Bless and Why Does He Curse?” the pastor wonders. The answer to the latter question, which I have eagerly sought all my life, is finally made plain. What seems to be God’s curse is your own darn fault. You deserve worse, since you are such awful sinners. Pardon me, I seem to have slipped into the second person, based on the vernacular I have been reading. Classic blaming the victim. One can hardly be surprised when evangelists resort to this inexpensive explanation—theodicy has historically been one of the most difficult problems faced by those who declare God all-powerful and all-good. The 6 train squeals into the station. As the doors clinch shut behind me, I see passengers eagerly reading the newsletter. There are those who might give more reasoned answers to life’s pressing questions, but they can’t afford to hire young proteges to stand in a dank subway station to hand out their wisdom. It has to be found by chance, like litter on the streets of the city.

Hardsell and Gospel

When I find myself a considerable distance from my point of egress sometimes I have to take the subway to escape New York. Don’t get me wrong—I love New York, but Monday through Friday it is a place to work, not to play. Getting home is serious business. To get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal from the subway, one venue is a long underground passage. When I take this corridor, I find that it is often a favorite place for street evangelists during inclement weather; apparently the gospel goes underground when the weather turns nasty. So as I recently padded along that tunnel, I noticed an interesting conflict in worldviews. There were a series of street preachers, the central one with Bible in hand, and several others handing out tracts. If I’d had time I’d have listened to the preachers a bit; one was riffing with street language and intonation, and another was fluently flashing between English and Spanish. I took one of his tracts.

HanselGretel

The contrasting worldview was the posters repeatedly displayed in a long line along the wall—Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. The movie is due for release next week. One of the modern remakes of fairy tales in the horror/action genre, this might be a fun ride, but the idea of secular forces taking on monsters clashed with the old fashioned gospel I was hearing with my ears. Or did it? Witch-hunting is not exactly PC in the days of religious pluralism when Wicca is becoming as normal a religion as the Anabaptists. Anyone who listens to most modern day witches knows that they are not evil, so I wonder how the movie plans on setting up the “evil” that our eponymous brother and sister have to conquer. I might just have to go to the theater alone to find out.

Tract

But is this really so different from our earnest street preachers below the ground? They are railing against the evil in the world, and if you follow their tracts, there is clearly no shyness about blood and torture here. The movie is rated PG-13, but what about the slip of paper I hold in my hand that shows a much bloodied Jesus hanging on a cross? Whether it’s with fancy crossbows or just plain crosses, the goal is to overcome evil. The real question is how to define it. Some, I suppose, would consider this movie a kind of evil; Gretel’s tight-fitting uniform is a little low-cut for taking on the forces of darkness, I should think. But the real evil is treating other people as enemies. And that even goes for street evangelists. If only they would admit the same for the wider world, maybe all this blood wouldn’t be necessary.

Nouveau Riche

Among the vibrant areas of interest for scholars of religion is the emergence of new religions. Unlike the religions of antiquity, New Religious Movements provide a direct view, occasionally in “real time,” of what constitutes religious belief. The possibility of sitting Jesus, or even Paul, down for an interview remains vastly remote. The same is true of Ellen White or Joseph Smith, but here we have many historical records upon which to draw and a clearer context against which such religions might be read. Supposing the religious urge is something people of antiquity felt, we can get a sense of what might have satisfied that itch, at least in an oblique way, by looking at the modern period. As a student of religion I was mired in the ancient period. Learning obscure, dead languages, I supposed, would lead me back to the earliest forms of religious belief, therefore the most authentic. Like many of my colleagues, I came to discover that the origins quickly disappear into the distorted view our poorly ground telescope into the past reveals. As one writer recently suggested, if humanity evolved in Africa, so did religion.

This past week I read Jon Butler’s New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America. Growing up I always felt that our own history was too young to be interesting. As I learned more about the horrid treatment of Native Americans, my sense of newness was accompanied by a sense of collective guilt. I like to think I wouldn’t displace a population in hopes of getting wealth, but as Butler demonstrates, the colonial experiment from the beginning was a profoundly religious one. We all know the pilgrims were dissenters from the established Church of England. Butler takes time to pause and consider the unwritten religions of those subjugated to European rule and sometimes extermination. How many of the first to brave the Atlantic crossing did so with missionary zeal, convinced of the superiority of a Christian culture. Not incidentally, they noticed great wealth could be had in this new land. Slaves would be needed to extract it and the Bible seems a slave-friendly document.

Butler’s little book is a good guide to the larger issues. The religion of African slaves grew into something to be feared. Colonial religion split along hairline fractures of doctrine, leading to the fascinating multiplicity of religions we now have in this country. Then, in his discussion of the early Presbyterians of Philadelphia, I ran across a sentence with immense explanatory value: “At the same time, congregations found that they could exercise their own power over clergyman through controlling their ministers’ salaries.” Conviction quickly falls by the wayside with a God whose arm is too short to save. The paycheck is something you can take to the bank. Religions develop into something different once gold enters the equation. I have watched the birth of empires with megachurches and televangelists in my own lifetime. I know that we are witnessing the birth of yet another human scheme to acquire eternity in the form of liquid assets.

Varieties of Non-Religious Experience

The New York Public Library is an icon of rationality. Daily tourists throng by—some inspired by Ghostbusters, others by Between the Lions. Nestled in among some of the tallest buildings in New York City, it is a symbol of culture amid its antithesis, business. Nearing its last days is a small display in the library entitled “Shelley’s Ghost.” Containing handwritten manuscripts and a few artifacts from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s cradle to his grave (literally, his baby-rattle and fragments of his skull), the display celebrates one of England’s most famous and short-lived poets. Shelley, although his life was scandalous at points, was no doubt an idealist. A vegetarian, advocate of “free love,” and protestor, he would have fit well into life a century-and-a-half after he died. He was also an early atheist.

“If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction,” he wrote in The Necessity of Atheism. Not quite the angry atheism often found today, but then, despite his obvious spirituality, Shelley was a rationalist. Born during the English Enlightenment, be was a strange mix of the alchemical and the reasonable. To his young mind the truth was self-evident: the belief in gods grew from nature and therefore the study of nature would reveal those origins. Today the origin of gods is still up for debate, as is the nature of the human animal. It is routine for scientists to claim that our brains are simply processing electro-chemical signals that have no reality beyond this physical world in which they occur. To be a human, however, sure feels like more than that. Shelley was a writer at this nexus. No one writes poetry like that who believes their brain to be full of only electrons.

Reductionism often gets us into trouble. The problem has always been that humans are myopic; we can only see so far and yet assume we have all the data. This myth persists despite the fact that we know some animals pick up on environmental factors that we as humans miss. It need not be supernatural to claim that there is more to the world than we can perceive. This is a double-edged sword. Many of the absolute pronouncements of religions simply don’t match our experience of the world. We find ourselves bombarded by authoritative statements by experts who know as little as we do. I have yet to hear a televangelist who can claim on any intellectual basis any reason that anyone else should pay attention to his raving. Perhaps what the world needs is a few more like Shelley’s ghost—rationalists who still recognize the necessity of poetry.

Cheating God

Anyone engaged in education long enough will eventually encounter cheating in one form or another. Social psychologists have suggested that whether one believes in God or not has little bearing on moral behavior. A recent report in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion demonstrates that belief in God does not effect cheating by undergraduates. Among those that believe in God, however, those that believe in an angry, punishing God cheat less than those who believe in a loving, forgiving God. An explanation of the study may be found at Medicalexpress.com.

Someone's watching you

Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” it seems, is the bane of cheaters. The Great Awakening chased along the heels of a wrathful deity baying “believe or else!” Those believing in a nicer God are more apt to take liberties. The interesting corollary of this finding is that it does not divide believers along denominational lines but rather along personal outlooks on God’s kindliness. Nobel pagans and fearful believers share a strong moral center.

An informative follow-up would be a study to determine how many believe in a loving versus a wrathful God. From such data we might be able to extrapolate who is more likely to cheat on taxes, spouses, or any other big-ticket items in the economy of our society. Given the number of high profile spouse-cheatings among televangelists and Christian politicians, one thing seems clear: belief in a friendly God willing to look the other way is in no danger of extinction any time soon. Oh, and please keep your eyes on your own paper.