Sunday, November 05, 2006

Prophets for Profit

It was a bad week in American Christendom. First, a male prostitute in Colorado claimed that evangelical preacher and head of New Life Church Ted Haggard had paid him for a series of... um... appointments over the past several years. To add some fuel to the fire, it also surfaced - apparently from the same source - that Haggard had also purchased crystal meth. Just a few days later, another prominent evangelical, creationist Kent Hovind, was convicted of tax fraud in Florida after failing to pay about $850 000 in employee taxes at his creationist theme park, where, among other things, he provides evidence that dinosaurs and humans once walked the earth together. (Hovind's entertaining if scientifically dubious theory of creation is that Noah boarded his ark just before an ice meteor crashed into the earth, causing a shower of "super-cold snow" which buried the mammoths, shattered the canopy which protected the earth from the water beneath the crust, and resulted in an ice age lasting several hundred years.)

This isn't Hovind's first legal trouble, though presumably it is the most serious (we haven't heard what the sentences will be yet for either him or his wife, who was also convicted of 44 counts). In 2002, he was charged with assault by his former secretary, but the charges were dropped. The same year, he was charged with several local regulation violations at his Dinosaur Adventure Land (I'm sorry; I have to keep mentioning this park because it's just such an amusing concept). Hovind lost most of these cases and paid moderately small fines (but spent tens of thousands in legal expenses to protect his dinosaur-human propaganda center). In 1996, he tried to file for bankruptcy but was found to have lied about his possessions and income (he claimed that as a minister, everything he had belonged to God and therefore he was not subject to the American tax system). Two years later, he claimed to revoke all signatures he had ever written on government documents on the grounds they had been signed under duress. In 2002 he failed to pay his taxes again, and this time went on the offensive by suing the IRS for harassment. In 2004, they raided his home to confiscate financial records, eventually leading to his current difficulties. Apparently Hovind forgot about the "give to Caesar what is Caesar's" part when he was busy taking his Bible so literally that he convinced himself that mammoths were all buried standing up by a massive wave of cold, hard snow.

Haggard seems to have had a cleaner record, at least up to the present. He denied all of the allegations, and the prostitute subsequently failed a polygraph test he had volunteered for to verify the claims (although the administrator noted that the man was stressed and had not recently eaten or slept). However, Haggard resigned anyways, on the grounds that he would "seek both spiritual advice and guidance" while an "overseer process" could investigate the claims "with integrity." Senior officials from his mega-church promptly told the local TV that he had admitted to some of Jones's claims, and wrote to their parshioners that Haggard "confessed to the overseers that some of the accusations against him are true." The next day, Haggard admitted that he had purchased crystal meth but claimed he had only received a massage from Jones. To paraphrase Clinton, "I did not have sex with that man!" The overseer board concluded shortly afterwards that "our investigation... prove[s] without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conoduct," and they affirmed his removal from his job.

From our perspective outside the fishbowl, it seems almost inevitable that many major Christian leaders will be arrested for some sort of behaviour that they themselves have railed against as deviant. During the 1980s, there was a mass of televangelists exposed as in some way sinful - Swaggart screwed a prostitute, Bakker screwed his secretary, and Roberts, Whittington, and others ended up out of a job for various suspicions of fraud. Peter Popoff, distributor of miracle spring water (i.e. non-Catholic holy water) which apparently comes from Chernobyl (yum... radioactive water), was revealed to perform his miracles via planted audience members and an in-ear radio receiver through which he could hear prompts from his watchers in the crowd... I mean, from the Holy Spirit of God, of course.

I'm not really qualified to judge whether the entire Christian mass preaching industry is riddled with corruption or not, although certainly large sections of it are. I've just acquired an old documentary from the 1970s on the career of Marjoe Gortner, a travelling preacher of the time who spent six months preaching and the next six months smoking pot with his friends in San Francisco (he explained on his tours that he raised money for six months and then spent six months ministering to the youth and drug addicts of the inner city). He eventually decided he could no longer live with this tactic, but rather than just resign or come clean in a public press conference the way most would today, he decided to take a film crew along for his last revival tour. The documentary alternates between scenes of wild Christian merriment in revival tents and charismatic churches, and footage of Gortner back in the hotel explaining to the film crew the various aspects of his scam. (Among other things, Gortner explains how to prophecize, speak in tongues, and administer various other miracles.)

The fact that these individuals turn out to be grossly corrupt and in it for the money isn't really the part that disturbs me. People in the big church business are entrepeneurs, and like people in any other business, they're going where the money is. Issues of personal morality are not particularly relevant to this. Those who are genuinely honest, and there are probably at least a few, doubtless aren't having the same exciting sexual adventures, but because we never hear news like "Billy Graham did not have an affair this week" (for the simple fact that it's a non-event), we probably get a skewed picture of what's going on. Not every Republican congressman is attracted to his teen-aged interns, but occasionally one is, and the rest get tarred for it. (Of course, if they weren't so judgemental in the first place, it wouldn't be such big news that they were guilty of the same things they condemned others for. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Bible says we should not judge others.) The rush to condemn the particular individuals involved can be a little unseemly too sometimes. The church either rallies around people they think could be innocent, or shoves out someone they realize is guilty, as though they're worried that he'll contaminate them if he's not cast out fast enough. A former pastor of mine used to say that the Christian army was the only one to shoot its own wounded. A few months after I met him, we shot him, too. The pursuit of collective holiness apparently requires that individuals occasionally be sacrificed for the greater good.


Anonymous said...

I am always surprised to the see the shock and horror the public displays when they realize that priests are just like every other human being on this earth. They make mistakes! They are not perfect! And some of them are gay!

Imagine the headline..."Construction worker buys meth and solicits a prostitute". No one would care. But when a priest cheats the system, or worse; the world falls apart. We must understand that individuals choose to be priest because they like that career (or vocation if you will). It does not, however, raise them above the human condition.

PS. I want to clarify that I do not condone the actions of course, but I think the media coverage is sometimes overwhelming on these topics.