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Jimmy Swaggart lives!


You know how you sometimes channel surf, flipping the remote through T.V. channels until you find something worth pausing for? I did that the other day, enduring the shopping networks, commercials, cartoons, sports channels and Spanish language shows, until I came across a familiar face hosting a religious show: Jimmy Swaggart.

What? I thought to myself. Is that old bastard still alive? Indeed. At the age of 85, he has something called the Sonlife Broadcasting Network, and there he was in the flesh, withered and halting, his voice creaking, but still discernibly the same Jimmy Swaggart we remember from the 1970s and 1980s, when he was one of the most famous—perhaps the most famous—televangelist in America. And still peddling the same shtick.

Readers of my blog know I have zero patience with evangelicism, that I believe evangelical believers are under-educated bigots, and that as the main part of Trump’s base they pose a clear and present danger to America and to everything America stands for. So I paused to watch the Jimmy Swaggart T.V. show for a while, as a sort of anthropological descent into the jungle lives of these people, so as to try and understand them a little better. Nothing I saw surprised me: the attack on other religions, not just Islam (which is to be expected) but all other forms of Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Mormons, and so on); the extortion of money from Swaggart’s pitiful flock, who probably don’t have much money to begin with; the ruthless peddling of religious tchotkes—junk such as bibles and videotapes; Swaggart’s Madison Avenue-style hucksterism; and, most troubling of all, how this particular subculture has become the nexus of Trumpism and religious fanaticism.

Jimmy Swaggart (whose most famous claim may be that he was Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin) is indeed a fraud, but a delightful one. It’s fun to watch him do his shtick. After 70 or 80 years practicing it, he’s damned good, and to tell the truth, when he sits down at the piano and accompanies himself to his slow, mournful ballads, he’s pretty entertaining. He’s got a rich basso voice, breaking up in the middle, but tailing off into a remarkably pure vibrato. Remembering the way his mid-career was derailed after he was caught paying a female prostitute made watching him even more enjoyable; like rubber-necking a hideous traffic accident on the freeway, you know you’re not supposed to be fascinated, but you just can’t help yourself.

But then I started paying attention to the audience. Swaggart didn’t have a megachurch like some of the other televangelists. His church seemed fairly small, maybe four hundred people. But just like in any other megachurch, they were transfixed by their pastor’s words. Hands swaying in the air, eyes closed, lips frequently flapping up and down as they spoke in tongues, they were enraptured—there’s no other word—and I had to think to myself, Steve, for all your putdowns of them, they are human beings like you: struggling, frustrated, trying to live decent lives, looking for meaning wherever they can find it. If you lived near them, you might even find yourself liking them.

That was a good thought. It’s healthy to be reminded that, while these people may be objects of scorn, they’re nonetheless my American brothers and sisters. I admit to being of two minds concerning them: I loathe them, on the one hand, for their intense, irrational and hateful homophobia, for their mistrust of scientific fact and mindless belief in ridiculous superstitions, and for the tyrannical way they’re trying to seize power (though Trump) to turn America into a Christian Taliban theocracy. On the other hand, they break my heart, because they’re so close to being good secular humanists (which is what America was founded upon). They could be decent, all-encompassing human beings, welcoming all other human beings into a world-family of acceptance and support, if only they didn’t subscribe to this dreadful cult, which robs them of their common sense and humanity.

Well, I think Democrats are going to win in November, and win big. I think we’ll win not only the presidency but the Senate as well, while holding onto the House. And I think we’ll do well on the State and local levels, winning back statehouses and Mayoralties. When that happens, religious programs like Jimmy Swaggart’s are going to have nervous breakdowns. It’s hard to predict exactly what they’ll urge their followers to do, because that will depend on how their messiah, Trump, reacts; and we don’t know if he’ll resist the outcome of the election, or accept it and go away. But either way, there are tens of millions of these religious extremists in our country, and we’re going to have to try to reach a modus operandi and get along with them.

I blogged the other day that I want vengeance when we take power. But I meant vengeance against the leaders of this religious conspiracy against our democratic government: Trump and his regime, certain religious leaders who dabble more in politics than in philosophy (Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr.), those political leaders (McConnell, Ted Cruz) who enable Trump to get away with treason. There’s no reason to let any of them off the hook. They know full well what they do, and it must have crossed their minds, at some point, that they might someday have to pay for their crimes and misdemeanors.

But I don’t want to extract vengeance on the “little people,” the ones who sway deliriously in Jimmy Swaggart’s church. They’re going to be crushed when Republicans go down in flames, and it will be our duty to reassure them and let them know that, even though their side lost, we still welcome them as our fellow Americans, as long as they’re willing to put aside their hatreds and join the Big Tent of democracy. Of course, we’re going to have to un-do a lot of what Trump, at their prompting, did: his dismantling of LGBT laws, his science denial, his weakening of environmental protections, his undermining of women’s rights, his clampdown on immigration. That will piss off and annoy the evangelicals, especially since they’ll still be glued to their Jimmy Swaggart T.V. shows and to propaganda outlets like Fox “News,” which I’m sure will whip up every conspiracy theory in the book and keep evangelicals angry. But I’m hopeful we, the majority, can behave decently enough to the evangelicals to cause at least some of them to think, “Hey, President Biden’s not that bad. He’s a man of faith.”

There will always be millions of evangelicals with whom we can’t work, because their minds are gone. That’s okay, too. As long as they’re not in a position to cause harm to America, then leave them alone, I say. Eventually, they’ll die off, and we have reason to hope their children will decide to live in the 21st century, with its enlightened values, not the eleventh, with its cult of death.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    ” I’m hopeful we, the majority, can behave decently enough to the evangelicals to cause at least some of them to think, “Hey, President Biden’s not that bad. He’s a man of faith.””
    Or more likely: “Hey, President Biden’s not that bad. He’s white.”

  2. Well, either way, it will take a swing of 3-4 points in Penn., Michigan and Wisconsin to swing the election to Biden.

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