Salvation For Sale

I’m fascinated by televangelists. Ninety-nine percent of them are going straight to hell if I have anything to say about it, but I doubt I’ll be consulted. Heck, even if I was, I’d be too much of a soft touch. I’d make a miserable district attorney. Okay, are you sorry you murdered those seven people? Yeah, well … alright then, just don’t do it again, okay?

Jim Bakker is back on the air. If there was ever born a man with absolutely no sense of shame, or decency, it’s Jim Bakker. He got sent to prison for shafting gullible Pentecostal rednecks to the tune of $40 million, and even that didn’t stop him from reverting to his snake oil selling when he got out. He has a new blonde wife on the show with him; he’s white-haired now, with an elegant beard and glasses, and he hawks disaster supplies — 30-pound tubs of mashed potatoes and other comestibles — for survival in the wake of some unspecified coming conflagration. I can only assume these giant plastic tubs of gross raw food (available for a “love gift” of $500) are for people who get left behind after the rapture, in which case your lack of 30 pounds of pre-seasoned taco meat is the least of your problems.

There’s a fellow on his show all the time, a fifty-ish mollusk  in a sharp, shiny suit; a magnificent jet-black coif; and a beard shaved both on top and on bottom so it’s nothing but a thin road of whiskers running along his jawline and coming down to a goatee. I never trust a man who shaves his beard like that. He’s hiding something, not least perhaps his smug contempt for the very believers he’s bilking.

The big thing for Jim, or Peter Popoff, or Paul and Jan Crouch (who may be dead now, I didn’t check and who cares), or Jimmy Swaggart, is the “vow of faith” they ceaselessly encourage people to make. The vow is to pledge $1,000, or $5,000, or $10,000 to the television ministry, to keep the ministry on the air, the incentive being that riches will flow to you surpassing all the money you’ve ponied up. (They let you pay it over time in installments; they’re nice that way.)

The absolute master of the vow of faith was Robert Tilton. Diane Sawyer ruined his career with a 20/20 exposé in 1992. Her team dumpster-dove and found all the prayer requests in the garbage, having been discarded after removing the checks, cash, or money orders from the envelopes. For 30 minutes every day he would harangue about making the vow of faith. He never EVER preached the Gospel; he never gave spiritual advice, he never did anything but cajole his viewers into sending him their money. Like Bakker, Popoff, Kenneth Copeland, and others, he lived like a Saudi prince, with a yacht, a Porsche, multiple homes the opulence of which beggars the imagination.

You wonder if these people ever feel a twinge of guilt, or if they’re sociopaths on the level of Josef Stalin. Speaking of Copeland, he’s another classic, with a country rude Arkansan manner and ice-blue Manson lamps revealing in no uncertain terms he was crazier than Joey Gallo. Meaner, too.

Boy did my dad loathe those people! Dad was the Executive Secretary of the Kentucky Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. He was a guest preacher to a different congregation in the state every Sunday, leaving the house at 4 a.m. to log hundreds of miles. I remember as a 9-year-old in 1972 learning that he took home $100 a week, and Mom fed a family of five on $20 a week, serving us fried potatoes every night, recycling aluminum foil, and keeping a box labeled “bits of string too small to use.” I thought we were middle-class at the time, but looking back on it, I see we were of the working poor, and Dad was a great preacher. He DID preach the Gospel, and while he was a flawed man — irascible, grouchy, and pissed off for some reason we never figured out — his heart was in the right place. If there is a Heaven, he’s there now. Mom too.

You cannot serve both God and mammon. I believe that. Even though I don’t really know what mammon is. It sounds like some type of food. I’m sure Jim Bakker sells it by the tub.