Jimmy Swaggart and the hairy swamp monkey

Jimmy Swaggart has apologized, in the classic "I'm sorry if anyone was offended" style, for saying about gay men, "If one ever looks at me like that, I'm going to kill him and tell God he died." The Associated Press reported:

On Wednesday, Swaggart said he has jokingly used the expression "killing someone and telling God he died" thousands of times, about all sorts of people. He said the expression is figurative and not meant to harm.

"It's a humorous statement that doesn't mean anything. You can't lie to God -- it's ridiculous," Swaggart told The Associated Press. "If it's an insult, I certainly didn't think it was, but if they are offended, then I certainly offer an apology."

Swaggart's telling the truth about his history of overheated language. Swaggart recorded many teaching LPs in the early 1970s, including two that are still occasionally available through eBay: The Plague and The Ring of Fire.

On these records, Swaggart holds forth on Vietnam, the anti-war movement, movies, Madison Avenue, rock & roll and the prodigal ways of his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis. Two moments on The Ring of Fire stand out:

Swaggart on The Beatles

You boys and girls that have Beatle records at home, this is the most rotten, dirty, damnable, filthy, putrid filth that this nation or the world has ever known. And you parents that would allow this filth to be in your home, you ought to be taken out somewhere and horsewhipped, you hear me. And I mean it, my friend.

Swaggart on sex ed

I saw pictures the other day of what they're wanting to show our kids. And I want to tell you, if I ever hear of one teacher that shows my boy that filth, I'm going to get in my car and go to that school and pull off my coat, and when I get through with him, his face is going to be rearranged.

But let's get back to Swaggart's words of this year. As Ted Olsen of Christianity Today's Weblog wrote earlier this week, "One might think that someone who has publicly experienced brokenness in his sexuality might be a bit more careful in his words. In this line of thinking, wouldn't the prostitute that Swaggart hired have been justified in killing him?"

One might think it indeed. But Swaggart's national humiliation in the late 1980s hasn't stopped him from offering his insights on "Spiritual Adultery" ("It's a sobering thought to realize that most Christians don't understand the Cross, and despite all their efforts otherwise, are consequently living in spiritual adultery") and "Catholicism and Pedophilia" ("On this CD, we tell you why the problem is rampant in the Catholic Church. We also give you the Biblical cure").

No writer has better captured Jimmy Swaggart than Steve Chapple did in the July/August 1986 issue of Mother Jones (alas, I cannot find it online). Remember, this is before Marvin Gorman's son released the notorious photos of Swaggart entering and leaving a motel room with a prostitute. Chapple, author of Burning Desires and several other books, understood Swaggart's conflicts with sex long before any other journalist. Chapple indulges some of the habits of judgment that normally earn a writer a place in our Creeping Fundamentalism category, but he does so with a flourish that makes him a pleasure to read.

Consider these paragraphs, and remember the strange days when Pat Robertson was running for president:

I talk to two well-dressed women in rayon blouses, high collars, full bras, severely pulled back hair, and the requisite long skirts. They refuse to give me their names. One is the ex-manager of a modeling agency. "Jimmy Swaggart tells it like it is," she says. "Other ministers try to be proper. He feels the fire."

We're onto something here. Like so many things in the Jimmy Swaggart story, this is a case of having your cake and eating it too. Jimmy Lee gets to play the rock star and sing for the Lord at the same time. He is a minister of the Gospel yet is allowed to go cat-[expletive] with his Louisiana mouth.

"I hate -- hate -- those droning old mausoleum churches! They'd kill a dead man in a graveyard at midnight!" growled Jimmy Lee during last week's television crusade.

Can you imagine a minister of the Unitarian/Episcopalian/Catholic/Reformed Jewish faith talking like that? And Swaggart stands apart too from the other major TV evangelists -- Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson, Tammy and Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell -- slimy, unctuous poseurs all, if we may be frank, so patently false they would cause a stuffed dog to bark out.

To the big media -- Time, the networks, The New Republic,and so on -- Jerry Falwell and now Pat Robertson, since Robertson is running for the Republican presidential nomination and has been discovered to have a former U.S. senator for a father, seem more appropriate targets of coverage than Jimmy Lee. This is partly because the U.S. media rarely understand anything west of Riverside Drive or east of La Cienega Boulevard and partly because these secular humanists have, shall we say, a distant relationship with Christ. Yet it's Jimmy Lee the American people, God help us, really seem to juice for. Jimmy Lee is more than a marshaler of conservative votes and a denigrator of issues liberals hold dear.

Jimmy Lee lives movies like Poltergiest and The Exorcist. Jimmy Lee has beaten back the Devil/Bear/Beast in the middle of the night. Jimmy Lee Swaggart understands the hairy swamp monkey of fear and desire that is the American subconscious, because Jimmy Lee feels the fire.

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