Marlette and his flawed, funny, church of one

MarletteFalwellI have had a number of requests to go ahead and post my tribute to the late Doug Marlette. However, the column is already up at the Scripps Howard News Service home page, so click here if you want to see the full text. Also, I will try to scan a copy of the original Marlette cartoon that is framed and hanging in my home office -- since I cannot find a copy of it anywhere in cyberspace. It shows PTL televangelist Jim Bakker kneeling before a dollar sign that towers over a primitive stone altar framed with candles. Bakker, with that grin of his, is saying, "Gimme that old time religion!"

I worked with Doug at The Charlotte Observer early in the PTL scandal and we often talked shop about the religion angles of that story, which seemed to take forever to unwind. This was just a few years before he won the Pulitzer Prize for his cartoons.

You may find this hard to believe, in light of years of research into the booming world of Pentecostal Christianity, but it was hard to convince editors there to take the charismatic movement seriously. The old mainline world was in decline and a new post-denominational brand of Christianity was being born, and many of the people making the trek from one to the other were tuning in to the Jim and Tammy Bakker soap opera and getting hooked.

The scandal, in other words, had roots in a larger story, a story that was even more complex than the nearly decade-long scandal itself. There were a few -- but not many -- people in that talented newsroom who were interested in the bigger picture and Marlette was one of them. To say that he was a lively conversationalist would be putting it mildly.

Here is a large piece of the column that I sent in this morning:

Marlette insisted that his goal was to remind his fellow believers to practice what they preach.

"As I look back through my work, I'm always amazed by how much of what I do just comes out of having gone to Sunday school," he said, taking a break in his cluttered Observer office in the mid-1980s. "The perspective, the viewpoint, comes out of that. They don't teach subversive ideas in the Magnolia Street Baptist Church in Laurel, Mississippi." ...

Marlette had a better grasp of the power of religion than most journalists, noted former Observer editor Rich Oppel, who led the newsroom during the PTL era. The cartoonist was a provocateur and, at his best, a prophet.

"After 10 years of our reporting, televangelist Bakker resigned from PTL and was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to federal prison," noted Oppel, in his editor's column at the Austin American-Statesman. "Bakker's handpicked successor was Jerry Falwell, who came in to see me and 'make peace.' From a corner, Marlette cast a gimlet eye on Falwell as the minister did his best Sunday school number on me. Marlette then retreated to his lair to pen a cartoon of the preacher as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Falwell refused to talk to me again."

When it came to religion, Marlette thought of himself as a Baptist's Baptist, a fierce believer in the "priesthood of the believer," the authority of human experience and the separation of church and state.

There are, he told me, people who become cynical about religion and he was determined not to yield to that temptation -- very often. But there were many times when he preferred laughing, instead of crying.

While he took the Christian faith seriously, he also thought it was futile to obsess over details. There were times when he felt like a church of one.

"It's my own church, my own perspective. It certainly doesn't deserve to be institutionalized or taken more seriously than other people's," said Marlette. "It's not infallible. It's skewed. It's mine. ... It's kind of like dissecting a frog. Once you get the thing cut up and taken apart, it's not really a frog anymore. Something dies in the process."

Marlette's home page now hosts a tribute to his work -- cartoons, books, magazine articles, etc. It's a cliche, but true. He had lots of work left to do. There was only one Marlette. I am sure there are other tributes yet to come.

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