I think I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating.
During the time that I was a student at ORU, the Oral Roberts TV ministry offered a particular leather-bound Bible as a premium for people who donated a particular amount to the ministry. The Bible included a section with photos of the Oral Roberts ministry. I guess it takes a peculiar kind of hubris to think that your own activities are worthy of being bound into, and distributed with, the words of holy scripture, but let’s put that aside for a second.
I did not own this Bible — being a college student, I couldn’t have afforded to give quite that much to the ministry — but I recall looking through someone else’s copy one day. One of the photos in the ministry section of the Bible was of the groundbreaking for the City of Faith hospital. The City of Faith, which never turned out as planned, was supposed to be a sort of evangelical Mayo Clinic — a research hospital combining top-flight medicine and science with a holistic, prayerful outlook.
Anyway, the groundbreaking took place on a beautiful, sunny day, and there was bright blue sky at the top of the picture. Through that bright blue sky, I detected a faint vertical line. I followed the line down through the photo and realized it ended up right next to Richard Roberts.
This was long before the days of Photoshop; if you wanted to doctor a photo, you had to do it by hand. And that’s what had been done with this photo. Richard’s first wife, Patti, had apparently been made a “1984”-style non-entity, and conveniently excised from the photo. The ministry, no doubt, wanted to put the divorce in the past. The divorce was none of my business, and I was not one of the ORU students (and there reportedly were some) who resented Richard because of it. But this photo was, as I saw it, a visual lie — bound into a Bible. If they didn’t want to include Patti in the photo, I reckoned, they should have found some other photo, taken from another angle, with another group of people.
I often think back on that moment as a key to my loss of faith in the Oral Roberts television ministry. A few years later, after I had graduated and moved back to Tennessee, Oral made his famous pronouncement that if his viewers didn’t raise such-and-such amount of money, then God had told Oral he would call him home. I am not so blasè that I discount the possibility of God giving someone an unexpected and disturbing message, but I honestly did not think this was God talking.
I don’t see most televangelists as Elmer Gantrys, cackling privately about the stupid people of whom they are taking advantage. I think most of them start out with the best of intentions.
In theory, television is a powerful medium for cultural change, and it’s tempting to think that television can be a powerful tool for evangelization. But television is also expensive — incredibly expensive. And that means you must have a source of revenue. The normal model for televangelism is that you ask your viewers for money. This requires that you convince your viewers that what you are doing is special, unique, potentially world-changing. It requires that you convince your viewers that you are specially qualified to wield this tool. What happens at this point is that you begin tailoring your message towards the people who are most likely to give you money. You resist anything that would offend them. So, instead of changing the world, televangelism becomes the ultimate form of preaching to the choir. And it’s usually the ultimate in non-challenging preaching. If there is righteous anger, it’s directed, not at the viewers, but at some supposed enemy — secular humanism, or depraved Hollywood, or Kathy Griffin acceptance speeches. So you’re not really changing the world because your whole message is directed towards the people who are already within the circle.
Along the way, the self-aggrandizement required to beg for money becomes a tempting narcotic. You begin to believe your own publicity. If you have bought into the prosperity doctrine — an obsession on material possessions as an aspect of God’s provision and blessing — you may think that your increasing wealth is a sign of your approval in the eyes of God.
When I was at ORU, we heard stories at one point that gold plumbing fixtures had been placed in the bathroom of Oral Roberts’ office in the top of the Graduate Center. But defenders of the ministry said the fixtures had been paid for, not from the general contributions sent in by little old ladies, but by wealthy patrons of the ministry who gave money for that specific purpose. (“President Roberts, I believe you need a nicer office. Let me get my checkbook.”) Looking back, I think that’s a likely scenario, at least in some cases. I think there are probably plenty of wealthy prosperity-gospel Christians who like the idea of ingratiating themselves with someone of the stature that Oral Roberts held at that time.
But no matter who the gold fixtures came from (if there were gold fixtures), that doesn’t mean they were a good idea.
Some of the new allegations against Richard Roberts which I linked to earlier are specific charges which I, sitting here in Tennessee, have no specific knowledge about and no business commenting on. But the common theme of so many of these televangelist scandals seems to be an insular lifestyle, the idea that you deserve God’s blessing and that anyone who opposes you is obviously a tool of the devil. I honestly think the very process of TV ministry leads to this. I interviewed the Rev. Larry Rice a few years ago for The Wittenburg Door. He ran a Christian broadcasting operation, and (prompted in part by revelations about the extravagant lifestyle of televangelist Joyce Meyer) he finally decided to pull all of the prosperity preachers off his stations. That was a hard thing to do, because the air time being purchased by all of those televangelists was helping to fund Rice’s homeless ministries.
When Jimmy Swaggart first ran into trouble, he was a member of a denomination, and that denomination prescribed sanctions on him. But then, he declared that God had forgiven him and tried to return to the airwaves anyway. That’s exactly the insularity that I’m talking about — lack of accountability.
It will be interesting to see whether ORU’s trustees, who have promised a full investigation, will follow through on that promise, or whether they, too, have been caught up in the insular, us-vs-them mentality.