Old story of Marvin Gorman, Jimmy Swaggart's onetime accuser, shows that faith details matter

Until just recently, you'd have to have been a rather deep-in-the-weeds religion nerd to remember Pastor Marvin Gorman, a pentecostal preacher who, like the much-more-famous Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, was once affiliated with the much more mainstream Assemblies of God.

Gorman, 86, who passed to his rest on January 4 in New Orleans, was one of the first, in 1987, to formally accuse Swaggart of adultery, and he had the photographic evidence to support the charge.

As the New Orleans Times-Picayune captured it:

Rev. Gorman was brought down in an epic feud that sullied the Pentecostal movement three decades ago. In 1986, Swaggart, a fellow Assembly of God televangelist based in Baton Rouge, accused him of adultery. Swaggart also helped blow the whistle on Jim Bakker, an Assembly of God televangelist in Charlotte, N.C., for an extramarital affair with a church secretary.
In response, Rev. Gorman circulated photographs of Swaggart and a prostitute at an Airline Highway motel in Metairie, leading to Swaggart's downfall, and he sued Swaggart for defamation. He won a $10 million award, although the parties later settled out of court at $1.85 million.
By this time all three men's ministries were in ruins. Rev. Gorman declared bankruptcy, Bakker went to prison and Swaggart's empire collapsed.

Those of us in or around the Godbeat in those days know how tumultuous a time it was. But it was long, long ago, and the media could be forgiven for having moved on to the latest prosperity gospel preacher who's set to pray at Donald Trump's inauguration, or something else more contemporary.

I believe, however, that it's important to remember the lives and works, good or bad, of those who've labored in the vineyards of faith, and thereby hangs, I would also suggest, a journalistic tale.

Marvin Gorman's life story, as told in New Orleans and by The Washington Post, illustrates why it's vital to do this -- and how to get a complicated story right.

Before we go there, some general background: It was off-putting to me, and others, when The New York Times hung the "fundamentalist" label on the late Rev. Tim LaHaye, the Southern Baptist pastor-turned-mega-bestselling-novelist. As Julia Duin noted, there were many other problems with the Times' obit, but that "journalistic 'f-word,' " as she put it, set the tone for a hit piece disguised as a remembrance.

There is, as this blog regularly notes, a tendency to often frame holders of more traditional religious viewpoints -- ones that don't comport with Kellerism, the tmatt-coined word describing matters the overlords of the media have already settled, be it marriage, origins or whatever. When this creeps into obituaries, as it did in the case of Tim LaHaye, readers suffer because such a viewpoint obscures important facts. Unlike a mere news report, the subject of a malicious obit can't send a letter to the editor.

By contrast, the Gorman articles in the Times-Picayune and the Post were respectful, thorough, and -- wait for it! -- balanced. Each story acknowledged that Gorman, whose own mid-1980s television ministry was perhaps eyed by Swaggart as unwelcome competition, had his own flaws. As the Post recalled:

On July 15, 1986, Swaggart invited Gorman to his bayou mansion and accused the married preacher of committing adultery with several different women.
He claimed the confrontation was a kindness. In fact, six weeks later, according to The Post, he sent Gorman a letter that read in part, “We want you to know we love you and are continuing to pray for you.”
The accusations eventually led Gorman to admit to having a single tryst with a church member.

Both Gorman and Swaggart lost their Assemblies of God ministerial credentials, both saw tremendous setbacks in their ministries, with Gorman having to file bankruptcy. And each later returned to active preaching, Swaggart on his own satellite/cable channel and Gorman with a smaller ministry operating out of an independent church he'd founded.

As the Times-Picayune noted of Gorman:

In 1999, sensing a call to a "broader scope of ministry," he handed over Temple of Praise to his son-in-law. A few prayer meetings at Christ Cathedral of Praise in Ville Platte evolved into a 3 1/2-month revival, according to Charisma. He taught at Christian Life School of Theology in Columbus, Ga., and spread the Gospel in sermons and missions trips in the United States, Africa, Mexico, India and Central America, according to his published profile.
Those closest to Rev. Gorman remembered a man who dedicated his life to bringing the word of God to others, guiding fellow ministers and leading vibrant healing ministries that changed the lives of thousands of people. They credit Rev. Gorman with bringing Teen Challenge, a faith-based substance abuse recovery program, to Louisiana and for seeking to sow unity, not division, among Christians in a predominantly Roman Catholic city.

By all accounts, the onetime-sad tale of Marvin Gorman had a peaceful and happy end. He'd restored his ministry, served others, and refused to be embittered.

The two stories from newspapers a few thousand miles apart offer proof it's possible to report on controversial, or even fallen, religious figures without over-sensationalizing, dropping the religious "f-word" when it isn't warranted, or engaging in other hyperbole. Just tell the story straight, and readers will appreciate it, not to mention the bereaved families.

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