The Elmer Gantry exception

THE continuing TV evangelist scandal reminds me of the days of my youth when nationally known evangelist preachers would come to my relatively small midwestern community. Meetings would be held in a large tent or in front of a church. I would stand with other lads at the back of the audience, and was bemused by the preachers' emotionalism and the response they evoked. This was an expression of religion new to me and nothing I wanted for myself. But the sincerity of those who came to worship, and often to make a commitment, was to be respected.

If there were Elmer Gantrys in our midst, I did not see them. If there was greed in the pulpit, it scarcely could have been perceived. This was the Great Depression. My neighbors could give no more than nickels, dimes, and quarters.

The Random House Encyclopedia defines ``evangelicalism'' as a ``Popular movement within Protestantism, emphasizing the God-given directive to preach the Word. Scripture is central to faith and gives direction to men's lives. Evangelists stress the basic evil nature of man. Influenced by Martin Luther, they believe that justification is through faith alone.''

Evangelicalism was very much a part of America's frontier society and is still a powerful religious force. Indeed, when Jimmy Carter was running for president, one study showed that many potential voters would be attracted to Mr. Carter if he identified himself as ``born-again.''

The obvious excesses of some TV evangelists today - the greed and corruption - are abhorrent. But the evangelical movement itself should not be the target.

The gleeful criticism of TV evangelists who have strayed from what they preach is directed at the evangelical movement in general and at what are often described as the ``Christian values'' it espouses.

Some cynical critics see not only the evangelical movement but all religions as ``phony'' and hypocritical. Thus, they are elated to strike at the Christian undergirding of this nation.

The Gallup Poll shows a growing distrust of the televangelist movement. The public overwhelmingly (92 percent) thinks that religious organizations should make full disclosure of the funds they receive and spend.

In 1980 Gallup found that the public disagreed, by a 3-to-2 margin, with the proposition that Washington should regulate the fund-raising activities of religious organizations.'' That margin has now shrunk to just six percentage points.

Other Gallup findings show how much TV evangelists and the evangelical movement have been hurt by recent events: In a current survey, perceptions of TV evangelists as ``untrustworthy'' outweigh ``trustworthy'' perceptions by 63 percent to 23 percent. Today, TV ministers are characterized as ``honest'' by 34 percent of the public and as ``dishonest'' by 53 percent. In 1980, honest outnumbered dishonest by two to one. 48 percent believe TV evangelists ``care about people''; 38 percent feel they do not. In 1980, ``caring'' outweighed ``not caring'' by almost a 3-to-1 ratio.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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