Column: Revival or rerun? Return of the televangelists


For the Valley News

Published: 06-01-2019 11:00 PM

In case you hadn’t noticed, the televangelists are back. They may be less obvious than before, because they have taken advantage of a fractured media landscape. Whereas during their earlier heyday, the 1980s, they competed in a less crowded field and several had the advantage of access to satellites, now the televangelists have burrowed their way into dark corners of the internet, where they apparently have captured new audiences.

It’s not a pretty sight.

For those of us old enough to remember, an earlier generation of televangelists ruled the airwaves in the 1980s until their spectacular downfall. Oral Roberts, based in Tulsa, Okla., declared to his followers that the Lord would call him “home” unless God’s people ponied up something like $4.5 million. It was the first known instance of the Almighty taking anyone hostage and demanding ransom.

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker constructed a massive theme park, Heritage U.S.A., in Fort Mill, S.C., which became the third-most popular tourist attraction in the United States, after Walt Disney World and Disneyland. While tearfully pleading for more funds to complete the project, the Bakkers lived in luxury: multiple lavish homes, gold-plated bathroom fixtures, air-conditioned doghouses. Jim Bakker also diverted several thousand dollars from his ministry for hush money to cover up a sexual tryst with (you can’t make this up) a church secretary from Long Island.

After criticizing Bakker as one of those “pretty boy preachers,” televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, of Baton Rouge, La., was caught cavorting with prostitutes in Louisiana motel rooms. He insisted that his activities behind those closed doors were voyeuristic, not sexual, but he issued his tearful, televised apology — “I have sinned against you” — and sought to carry on, albeit to much diminished audiences.

The scandals tarnished another televangelist, Pat Robertson, who was then mounting a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Voters gradually became aware of Robertson’s history of loopy comments and actions on his television program, including the time he prayed to direct a hurricane away from his studios in Virginia Beach, Va. After coming in second in the Iowa precinct caucuses, ahead of George Bush, Robertson tanked in New Hampshire.

The televangelists of the 1980s fawned over the president, Ronald Reagan, who they regarded as a cross between a superhero and the messiah. Reagan was their savior.

In addition, all of these televangelists, to one degree or another, preached something called prosperity theology, or prosperity gospel. Deriving from the New Thought movement late in the 19th century, prosperity theology fit the purposes of televangelists perfectly. The idea, repeated endlessly over the airwaves, was that Jesus wants more than anything else to bestow material goods — vacation homes, sports cars, bulging bank accounts — on the faithful. And the key to such riches was to give out of your need, to give sacrificially, and then God would return that investment with far greater riches.

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In other words, the faithful could expect showers of blessings, but only after those blessings had cycled through the rain barrel of the televangelists themselves. The televangelists preached a kind of spiritualized Reaganism: Just as Reagan had based his economic program on the discredited theory of trickle-down economics, so too the televangelists assured their viewers that they too would reap the benefits of enriching the televangelists themselves.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Now, in the age of President Donald Trump, prosperity preachers are back in vogue. The roster includes (but in no way is limited to) Joel Osteen, Jesse Duplantis, Frederick Price, Paula White, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. Creflo Dollar (né Michael Smith), another televangelist, told his followers to send him $19 every month in order to “receive all of the abundant provisions, resources and promises that are available through Jesus’s finished work on the cross.” Dollar earlier asked his followers to buy him a $65 million Gulfstream jet. “If I want to believe God for a $65 million plane, you cannot stop me,” Dollar declared. “You cannot stop me from dreaming. I’m gonna dream until Jesus comes.”

Jesse Duplantis has more modest aspirations: a $54 million jet, which would be his fourth. Is his current jet not sufficient? “Yes, but I can’t go it one stop,” Duplantis complained. “And if I can do it one stop, I can fly it for a lot cheaper, because I have my own fuel farm. And that’s what’s been a blessing of the Lord.”

When Kenneth Copeland, who lives in a $6.5 million mansion, secured his new jet, purchased with tax-exempt money, his website declared: “Glory to God! It’s ours!”

In the wake of the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, Robertson lost the presidential nomination, Swaggart lost the vast preponderance of his audience and Jim Bakker went to prison for defrauding contributors.

I confess that I once felt a certain degree of sympathy for Bakker, a man brought low by prison and who, at one time, had renounced prosperity theology. But now I see he’s back to his old tricks. He’s building another complex somewhere in the Ozarks, a place he calls Prayer Mountain. (The website shows a bulldozer tearing into what I suspect was once a pristine mountainside.) And Bakker is once again making his prosperity appeals for money and stoking conspiracy theories.

On a recent show, Bakker, who also peddles survivalist gear and food (with a 30-year shelf life), provided air time to the notorious David Horowitz, who combines nutty conspiracy theories with odious racism. “If you’re a black Muslim female,” he proclaimed recently, “you’re innocent.” And if there’s any doubt about where he stands politically, Horowitz praised Trump as “a courageous leader.”

One of Bakker’s new sidekicks is another televangelist named Lance Wallnau, who claims credit for predicting Trump’s election as president. Wallnau’s latest scam is a 24-carat gold-plated coin emblazoned with the image of Donald Trump together with Cyrus, the Persian king who ruled in the 6th century B.C.E. (Right-wing religious leaders like Wallnau, Bakker and Jerry Falwell Jr. invoke Cyrus, a secular king and “ungodly man,” to excuse Trump’s moral failings. Cyrus allowed Jewish exiles to return and rebuild the temple; Trump moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.)

The Trump-Cyrus coins sell for $45 apiece. Viewers were encouraged to bring their coins to Prayer Mountain. “We’re going to be praying for America. We’re going to be praying for Israel,” a co-host promised.

Those prayers will also include petitions to the Almighty for the reelection of Donald Trump.

“The Democratic Party has been taken over,” Wallnau warned. “As believers, we have to take ownership of the spiritual atmosphere in America.”

I fear they’ve already taken ownership.

Randall Balmer, the author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, teaches at Dartmouth.