Falwell's move to PTL seen as attempt to protect TV preachers. Alliance bridges two movements, baffles some theologians
The unlikely alliance of Jerry Falwell and the PTL Club forms a bridge - however fragile - between two popular Protestant traditions fiercely at odds since early this century. If Mr. Falwell can build on the alliance, it could expand his personal influence into a vast new constituency, as well as mobilize conservative Protestants behind the Religious Right's political agenda.
The stern doctrine of the fundamentalists, like Falwell, has little tolerance for the mysterious healings and speaking in tongues experienced by the Pentecostals, like PTL mogul Jim Bakker. So Falwell's move to rescue PTL from the scandal-ridden departure of Mr. Bakker two weeks ago still baffles theologians.
Pentecostals dominate the electronic church. The most popular TV evangelists - Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Oral Roberts - are rooted in the Pentecostal tradition. All have larger audiences than Falwell, the most widely broadcast fundamentalist.
Falwell leads a loose coalition of major TV evangelists - both fundamentalist and Pentecostal - with a grand design, according to Glenn Hinson, a church historian from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Hinson calls it ``getting America back to God,'' saying it includes Religious Right's conservative goals.
``It's a little strange to see this sort of thing,'' Hinson says of the Falwell-PTL link - ``how unlikes can be united in this way. ... It attests to the political astuteness of Jerry Falwell.''
Pentecostal Pat Robertson, a possible Republican presidential candidate, provides a close match to Falwell's politics, even though Falwell aligned himself early with the George Bush candidacy. Both evangelists reportedly aided the fundamentalist rise to power in the Southern Baptist Convention, but few other signs of cooperation have surfaced.
Fundamentalists have noted the Pentecostal successes on television, however. Some fundamentalist evangelists, like Jim Robison of Texas, have converted to Pentecostalism. Others just adopt a more Pentecostal style. The switch is not taken lightly, however: Fundamentalist churches regularly banish Pentecostal converts, at times dividing congregations.
Even if Falwell gains an entree to the Pentecostal audience through PTL, he is still on one side of a sectarian divide, says G.Hugh Wamble, a professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The most popular Pentecostal evangelist, Mr. Swaggart, is of the hard-headed old Pentecostal school that views all other varieties with uninhibited loathing. Swaggart and his followers are not prone to alliances, Dr. Wamble says.
Wamble is skeptical that Falwell is even attempting any reconciliation with the Pentecostals. Rather, he says, Falwell is simply trying to protect the reputation of the whole electronic church.
When Jim Bakker resigned from the PTL Club, most assumed that he would have replaced himself with another Pentecostal evangelist of sufficient stature to repair the operation's credibility.
But Robertson, with whom Bakker began his television career, is engaged in his pursuit of the presidency and is keeping his distance. Swaggart is openly hostile to the soft, entertaining, health-and-wealth style of the Bakkers.
In Falwell, Bakker found a fairly benign fundamentalist who has made no move to sweep Pentecostalism out of the PTL ministry or put his own stamp on it. Should the Bakkers eventually return to their media pulpit, some observers speculate that Falwell would return their ministry to them.
The Bakkers have never had a political slant to their ministry. How Falwell will enhance his prestige with the PTL faithful, or whether he will mobilize the extensive PTL mailing list for political or social causes, is not clear.
Once derided even by poor country fundamentalists as ``holy rollers,'' the Pentecostals believe in ``gifts,'' or ``charisma'' in the Greek of the early Christians. The gifts include speaking in tongues, physical healing through laying on of hands, and prophecy - gifts that fundamentalists believe belong only to the Biblical era.
Fundamentalist preaching is rigidly doctrinaire and absolute, and it traditionally derives much of its force from denouncing enemies. The Pentecostal evangelists are more concerned with mystical Christian experience than with doctrine. The tone is of healing, tolerance, and - in the Bakkers' case - tearful emotion. While Falwell preaches against secular humanism, the Bakkers shed tears over a guest's past.
Worldwide, Pentecostals of all kinds number roughly 160 million and make up the fastest growing segment of Christianity, according to David Barrett, a research consultant with the Baptist Foreign Missions Board.
In the US, Dr. Barrett puts fundamentalists at about 40 million in 1980. Other estimates put American Pentecostal denominations, which overlap the fundamentalists, at between 6 million and 10 million members.
In the Charismatic movement of recent decades, the Pentecostal experience has been embraced outside of traditional Pentecostal denominations, including many Episcopalians and 10 million Roman Catholics in the US.
Unlike Swaggart, the Bakker ministry appealed to this ecumenical audience. Bakker, says New Testament scholar Russell Spittler, himself a Pentecostal, ``doesn't have a pint of doctrine in his body.''
Defining some religious movements
Evangelical: Theologically conservative Protestant who emphasizes the absolute authority of the Bible, being born again, and bringing converts into Christianity. Includes Charismatics, Fundamentalists, and Pentecostals.
Fundamentalist: An Evangelical who practices a high degree of separation from other Evangelicals, including Pentecostals. Stresses personal salvation and literal Bible interpretation. The movement formed in early 20th century. Until recently, shunned involvement in worldly affairs, such as politics.
Pentecostal: One who stresses Christian experiences more than doctrine. Believes in Christian gifts, such as faith healing, speaking in tongues, and prophesy. Movement formed about the same time as Fundamentalists, who have long been at odds with Pentecostals.
Charismatic: The movement adapts the Pentecostal experience to non-Pentecostal denominations, such as Roman Catholicism, Episcopalianism, and other mainline Protestant denominations. Term arose in the mid-20th century.