Jimmy Swaggart

Same old song? The Charlotte Observer takes new look at Jim Bakker and his latest gospel

Same old song? The Charlotte Observer takes new look at Jim Bakker and his latest gospel

Long ago, The Charlotte Observer won a Pulitzer in 1988 for its groundbreaking reporting on the misuse of funds by the PTL television ministry. Thus, the folks who run that newsroom no doubt feel the need to keep readers updated on the doings of PTL founder Jim Bakker after a 31-year hiatus.

So it’s come out with an anniversary package detailing not only Bakker’s new calling in life but also a sidebar on a new book about PTL and a piece on whatever happened to Tammy Faye Messner, Bakker’s first wife. The main Observer stories on PTL’s problems broke in 1987 (you can our own tmatt about lots of the background on that). One year later in February 1988, Jimmy Swaggart’s empire fell due to his sexual sins.

It would be a whole other post describing what it was like being a religion reporter during those two years. I was at the Houston Chronicle and the Bakker-Swaggart scandals, plus Pope John Paul II’s 1987 swing around North America, ensured members of the religion-beat team got on the front page a number of times.

But that was then. Here’s what the Observer just wrote.

BLUE EYE, MO. -- Three decades after his PTL empire near Charlotte crumbled amid financial and sex scandals, Jim Bakker is back on TV with a different, darker message:
The Apocalypse is coming and you better get ready.
Ready to be judged by God, sure. But the main mission of “The Jim Bakker Show” -- broadcast from a Christian compound deep in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri -- appears to be to sell you fuel-less generators, doomsday guidebooks and freeze-dried food with a shelf-life of up to 30 years.

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

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. 

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That same old question for 2016: What is an 'evangelical,' anyway?

 That same old question for 2016: What is an 'evangelical,' anyway?

The Carson- Cruz- Rubio-Trump piety sweepstakes aimed at the vital “evangelical vote” in Iowa has produced recent news that would have been unthinkable a generation ago:

* Businessman Donald Trump brags that “Franklin Graham said incredible things about me” (the evangelist isn’t endorsing anyone), then targets Senator Ted Cruz: “In all fairness, to the best of my knowledge not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK?” Unclear what that means, but it followed Trump’s previous slap at surgeon Carson’s Adventist church after Carson questioned Trump’s faith.

* Preacher’s kid Cruz tells a church rally, “Keep this revival growing. Awaken the body of Christ that we might rise up to pull this country from the abyss,” and quotes the favored Bible verse of evangelical activists, 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people ...”).

* Not to be outdone, Senator Marco Rubio states in an online ad, “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator and for all time, to accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ. ... The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan...“ The Catholic candidate also appoints 15 evangelical, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish notables (e.g. law Professor Michael McConnell, Pastor Rick Warren) as advisors on future religious liberty issues.

* An e-mail blast from Eric Teetsel, late of the Manhattan Declaration now running Rubio’s “faith outreach,” quotes Southern Baptist social-issues spokesman Russell Moore on evangelical constituencies: “Ted Cruz is leading the Jerry Falwell wing, Marco Rubio is leading the Billy Graham wing and Trump is leading the Jimmy Swaggart wing” (the latter a scandal-scarred  televangelist).

Political nose-counters note that in 2012, 57 percent of Iowa voters identified as evangelicals (vs. 22 percent in New Hampshire, the second lowest percentage among states behind only Senator Sanders’ Vermont). Iowa polls show Cruz moving well ahead of Carson and Trump in evangelical support, while CNN says nationwide Trump leads Cruz by 45 to 28 percent among white evangelicals. And the Wall Street Journal reports the Cruz camp thinks there are  90 million U.S. evangelicals (!) of whom 54 million didn’t vote in 2012(!!).

Obviously, both politics and religion reporters need to pursue that ever-challenging question, What is an “evangelical”?

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