"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Religious Sanctimony–The Irrelevance of Rick Warren

Religious touts have been a staple of American society for decades.  Billy Sunday was a baseball player who found religion, and went on the revival circuit.


One of his modern-day adherents described Sunday and the American tradition of street preaching:

Billy Sunday was saved because a soul-winner wasn't afraid to go out onto the street preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ!  You'd be shocked how many Christians get upset when other Christians go street-preaching. I remember street-preaching in downtown Chicago at State and Rush Streets one night years ago. I was standing up on a fire-hydrant with my Bible in hand preaching and a taxi-cab driver pulled up in front of me. Tears were just running down his face and he wanted to be saved. I witnessed to him concerning Christ. You just don't forget moments like that. I also remember when a friend of mine had a bag of flour throw at him while preaching. Then came the tomatoes. There is nothing like street-preaching! I was younger then and didn't know any better to stay off the fire-hydrants, but I wanted to reach people for Christ. (David J. Stewart, www.jesus-is-savior.com)

Sunday also energized the rural revival tradition, and in the early years of the Twentieth Century thousands attended tent revivals throughout the country.

Elmer Gantry, written by Sinclair Lewis in 1927, satirized this movement.  One of the most memorable lines of the movie (1960) with Burt Lancaster as Gantry, was spoken by Lulu Bains:

Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit Christmas Eve. He got to howlin' "Repent! Repent!" and I got to moanin' "Save me! Save me!" and the first thing I know he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps!

Amy Semple McPherson was the first radio evangelist:

Aimee Semple McPherson, pastor of the enormous Angelus Temple in the booming city of Los Angeles, preached to a vast radio audience and pioneered the novel technique of faith healing over the airwaves. In this audio clip from a 1924 sermon, McPherson described a loving, kind, and rewarding God instead of the severe, wrathful God of Old Testament tradition. Her youthful persona and cheery good humor helped make her radio presence highly effective (History Matters, George Mason University Online)

McPherson was a full-time revival preacher, broadcasting sermons and services over her Kall Four Square Gospel radio station.

She, however, was forced off the air because of scandal – she allegedly faked her own death:

She later claimed that she had been kidnapped, but a grand jury adjourned with no indictment, saying it had not enough evidence to proceed. Roberta Semple Salter, her daughter from her first marriage, became estranged from Semple McPherson and successfully sued her mother's attorney for slander during the 1930s. As a result of this she was cut out of her mother's will. Aimee Semple McPherson died in 1944 from an accidental overdose of barbiturates (Wikipedia).

She was the first well-known evangelist to fall because of scandal, but she led the list of hundreds to follow.  Wikipedia provides a list of the 50 most outstanding.   (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scandals_involving_evangelical_Christians).  The recent cases of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker are perhaps the most memorable because of their inimitable sleaze:

In 1986 Swaggart uncovered Gorman's [another evangelist] affair with a member of Gorman's congregation, and also helped expose Bakker's infidelity with Jessica Hahn.  These exposures received widespread media coverage. Gorman retaliated in kind by hiring a private investigator to uncover Swaggart's own adulterous indiscretions with a prostitute.

Swaggart was caught again by California police three years later in 1991 with another prostitute, Rosemary Garcia, who was riding with him in his car when he was stopped for driving on the wrong side of the road. When asked why she was with Swaggart, she replied, "He asked me for sex. I mean, that's why he stopped me. That's what I do. I'm a prostitute." (Wikipedia).

Billy Graham was a successful televangelist who was perhaps most famous for being the religious trained seal of American Presidents.  Here he is praying with two famous crooks:

Always political, and ceaselessly desirous to be in the limelight, Graham recently came out of deep retirement to endorse Chick-Fil-A

Billy Graham, the dean of American evangelists, has once again broken his usual silence on hot-button issues, defending the president of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain for his opposition to same-sex marriage days after issuing a letter decrying what he sees as the nation's moral decay.(CNN)

After Graham, there were others cut of the same cloth – in addition to Swaggart and Bakker, there was Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.  They all created media empires and exerted significant political influence.  Although they all insisted that they were just simple, humble, and pious Christian men, their organizations were awash in money.  Falwell’s Moral Majority was religious cover for Right Wing policies:

He staged "I Love America" rallies, a potent mix of religion and patriotism that attacked what he believed were evils threatening to bring down the country: the Equal Rights Amendment, homosexuality, pornography and women's liberation. He called for a religious revival:

“What has gone wrong? What has happened to this great republic? We have forsaken the God of our fathers. The prophet Isaiah said that our sins separate us from God. ... Our country needs healing. Will you be one of a consecrated few who will bear the burden for revival and pray, "O, God, save our nation. O, God, give us a revival." The destiny of our nation awaits your answer.

I was convinced that there was a moral majority out there among those more than 200 million Americans sufficient in number to turn back the flood tide of moral permissiveness, family breakdown and general capitulation to evil and to foreign policies such as Marxism-Leninism “( God in America, PBS)

If this were not enough we must suffer the sanctimony of the likes of Joel Osteen, who like his fellow televangelists runs a huge media empire.  Unlike Graham, Falwell, and Robertson, however, Osteen presides over a mega-church, and his Lakeside Church, formerly the Compaq Center.  Here he is showing the Bible to his 16,000 faithful.


Rick Warren has tried to be the Billy Graham of his generation – that is, minister to Presidents.  In 2008 he invited Barack Obama and John McCain to a forum to discuss their Christian beliefs.  It was a degrading, humiliating performance.  Here are Obama and Warren enjoying a joke (“Have you heard the one about Jesus and Mary Magdalene?”)

Neither Obama nor Romney have accepted his invitation this year, preferring to discuss their beliefs in a less theatrical setting.  Warren, miffed, said that he cancelled the forum because he was concerned about the lack of civility in the presidential campaign.  He didn’t expand on this, but must have thought that Obama and Romney would start fighting on his show.

In an ‘OK, I’ll take my marbles and play somewhere else’ moment, he said that instead of hosting Romney and Obama he would organize a forum on religious freedom.  When queried on his thoughts about the two presidential candidates and their views on religious freedom, Warren chose sides:

“President Obama’s policies clearly show what he values, and I have told him that I adamantly disagree with those particular policies,” said Warren. “I have not talked about this issue with Governor Romney, but I would imagine that as a Mormon he’d obviously understand the importance of protecting all religions against persecution and ensuring people’s rights to practice their conscience without government intervention. (Interview with Orange County Register)

So much for religious freedom.

There will be more.  America is not only the world’s most religious country – or at least a close second to India – it is the world’s wackiest.  The hucksterism, crass materialism, and shameless self-promotion on full view on the nation’s TV screens is played out a hundred thousand times every Sunday in churches everywhere.  Not only mega-churches, but in regular-sized churches, store-front churches, and tent churches.  One one of my trips through the Deep South, I was amazed at the number of churches.  They were lined up on both sides of the street in even the smallest towns.  Usually they were the most expensive, modern, and showy buildings.  “Tithing makes for tall steeples” said my companion who also wondered how, with traditional steeple-and-spire churches everywhere, there could be so many store-fronts. 

No matter how unconventional the traditional church (I attended a mini-mega-church in Mississippi, and it was about as far as you can imagine from the Protestant churches of my New England youth), people are apparently searching for something even more thrilling.  In one Alabama town, with the mainline evangelical churches filled to the gills, there were people standing outside the former barber shop store-front church just to catch a bit of the hollering and shouting inside.  It was impressive.

I am glad that Pastor Warren got his comeuppance.  Enough is enough.  This one refusal by our presidential candidates will not alone turn the tide back from media hype and the corrupting influence of religion in politics, but it is a small step towards sanity. 

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