Swaggart scandal casts another dark shadow on TV ministries

Television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart's highly emotional and tear-filled confession this week of moral misconduct could give his worldwide ministry a short-lived boost of sympathy and revenue, some religious and academic observers across the country say. But following as it does within less than a year the downfall of fellow TV Pentacostal Jim Bakker - whom Mr. Swaggart had described as a ``cancer [on] the body of Christ'' for his sexual and financial transgressions - the latest scandal is likely in the longer run to haunt the billion-dollar televangelist industry.

Donors' purse strings, already pulled in following the Bakker revelations, are likely to be cinched still tighter. In 1987, the year the Bakker scandal came to light, tax-deductible donations to PTL Ministries declined to $29 million from $34 million in 1986. Mr. Bakker had headed PTL before being removed in the wake of the scandal.

Greater scrutiny of religious leaders from both within and without the evangelical movement is another likely result, observers say. And it may also dampen enthusiasm for what one religious scholar calls ``sofa Christianity,'' in favor of local church activities and leaders.

The national governing body of the Assemblies of God has yet to render a final decision on Swaggart's case. On Monday the Louisiana presbytery recommended that he undergo a two-year rehabilitation program, including a three-month absence from the pulpit. The national body met yesterday afternoon to discuss the matter, but was not expected to reach a decision that day.

Swaggart last year raised more than $140 million through his worldwide ministries. About $12 million of that was sent on to the national Assemblies of God, headquartered in Springfield, Mo.

Evangelical leaders credited the relatively lenient recommendation, which could still be modified by the national presbytery, to Swaggart's remorseful admission of misconduct, plus his willingness to submit to the church's prescribed rehabilitation plan. While Swaggart has admitted publicly to sexual misconduct, no specifics have been released.

At least one evangelical leader, Billy A. Melvin, says he is ``absolutely certain'' that the recommended three-month banning from the pulpit indicates Swaggart had not committed adultery, a sin which he said would have resulted in removal for at least one year.

Dr. Melvin, executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, says that the indications of a quick resolution of Swaggart's case contrast noticeably with the Bakker affair, which turned into a tawdry media event and resulted in Bakker's being defrocked. That does not mean it will not have its own repercussions, Melvin and others say.

``The general public will see [Swaggart] as a fallen leader, but that won't matter a bit to his core followers,'' says Don Lomangino, a Tulsa, Okla., consultant and fund-raiser for televangelists and other nonprofit groups. ``Many will say, `I need to support him more than ever.'''

Others agree the greatest damage will be done among those not within the flock - no small matter for those who take ``evangelizing'' as a zealous mission. The Assemblies of God count more than 2 million followers in the United States, and more than 14 million overseas.

``It's like concentric circles getting bigger in a pond - the damage is greater as you go out,'' says Jeffrey Hadden, a leading scholar of TV evangelism. ``As you move into the broader secular culture,'' adds the University of Virginia sociologist, ``the references will be to all these guys as crooks and scoundrels.''

The broader community will probably put renewed pressure on the lucrative religious broadcasting business, observers say. But if any reform has taken place, it is probably the result of internal demand for it.

Although there is no suggestion of financial wrongdoing in Swaggart's case, ``The stage is now set for a much more careful scrutiny of [Swaggart's] personal finances, life, and organization,'' Mr. Hadden says. ``In a sense, it doesn't matter what the outcome of the investigation is - it's the specter of scandal hanging over the whole industry'' that matters.

The PTL Ministries scandal involving Jim and Tammy Bakker prompted a one-day congressional hearing in October on the tax-exempt status of religious organizations and Internal Revenue Service oversight of their activities.

The IRS was criticized at the hearing for not pursuing its role more aggressively with such organizations, according to Dave Mason, press secretary to US Rep. Jake Pickle (D) of Texas, who chaired the hearing.

But the consensus, according to Mr. Mason, was that many of the biggest religious organizations had already implemented guidelines ``more restrictive than the government could impose.''

Some say the PTL scandal has already altered how the electronic ministries operate, in part because falling revenues indicated a public desire for reform.

``There's a new openness,'' says Russell Spittler, a professor at the multi-denominational Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and himself a member of the Assemblies of God. ``There's more voluntary disclosure of finances, more accountability to the giving public.'' He says the National Religious Broadcasters group has beefed up its ethical standards.

Yet just how deeply any new sense of accountability has taken root remains in doubt. Mr. Lomangino, the Tulsa fund-raiser, notes that in January televangelist Oral Roberts canceled the widely publicized $8 million medical-scholarship program he established last year. Mr. Roberts had said he would be ``called home'' by God if the money for the program wasn't forthcoming.

``In a moral sense, it's a breach of contract,'' says Lomangino, who helped raise the money. ``Where did it go, why are those doctors suddenly not so essential in the third world? I know I feel betrayed, but no one's saying anything.''

Hadden says it often takes time for public attention to focus on specific indiscretions. ``Look for [the media] to cycle back to [Roberts],'' he says, ``as well I think they should.''

Some religious scholars also speculate that the Swaggart scandal could deepen an already widening rift between the charismatic Pentacostals, exemplified by the blood, sweat, and tears preaching of Swaggart, and the less emotional fundamentalists, characterized by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. There is some feeling among fundamentalists that the unbridled emotionalism of the Pentacostals leads to the kind of moral weakness that brought down Swaggart and Bakker. But according to Dr. Spittler, the back-to-back scandals are ``an accident of history.'' Pentacostals ``certainly have no franchise on moral failure,'' he says.

In a bizarre twist, Republican presidential candidate and former televangelist Pat Robertson on Tuesday said he thought the revelation of Swaggart's misconduct was timed to discredit his campaign. He suggested the campaign of Vice-President George Bush might be responsible for the ``dirty tricks.''

Mr. Bush denied the implied allegation and challenged Mr. Robertson to produce any evidence in support of it.

Most observers said they thought Robertson's comments, more than the Swaggart scandal itself, were likely to hurt his campaign.

The Swaggart incident and Robertson's comments have once again thrust TV evangelists into the public spotlight. `It's showtime again,'' Hadden says. ``I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bakkers back on Nightline.''

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