I remember doing some reading about the Pearlygates scandal when I was doing research in graduate school. During the mid-1980s four prominent televangelists were embroiled in lurid scandals:
- Jimmy Swaggart, cousin to two country western stars, and founder of an Assemblies of God mega church in Baton Rouge, Louisianna, and who liked to preach against adultery and against Jim Bakker’s greed, was exposed for engaging a prostitute on numerous occasions.
- Oral Roberts, elderly pentecostal preacher, and founder of a college, said that God had ordered him to ask for 6 million dollars for his medical school at Oral Roberts University or God would “take him home”. He was successful in raising the money.
- Jim Bakker and to a lesser extent, his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, who together had hosted the PTL Club, were exposed by the press and then by Jerry Falwell, Sr. (a Baptist mega-church preacher and founder of Liberty University). The Bakkers were accused of greed, illegal sales of time shares, drug addiction and sexual misconduct with employees.
Recently the late Jerry Falwell Sr’s son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his daughter-in-law, Becki Falwell, and grandson, Trey Falwell have been reported to have engaged in greedy practices at Liberty University, favoring friends and relatives instead of putting jobs out for bids, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. They have also been reported to have been engaged in helping one of their employees, John Gauger, Chief Information Officer of Liberty U, to start an IT business, Redfinch, LLC, by giving them $120,000 per year of business to recruit students, in addition to Gauger’s salary as the CIO of Liberty. Gauger’s Redfinch company was hired by Michael Cohen to rig a CNBC online poll to encourage Trump to enter the presidential race. Gauger programmed a computer to vote repeatedly for Trump in the online poll. Cohen testified that he hired Redfinch to rig the poll at the instruction of Trump.
Jerry Falwell, Jr and his son, Trey, have also been reported to be engaged in covering up relatively innocent photos from a nightclub. The coverup became necessary because students at Liberty U can be expelled for drinking alcohol or visiting a nightclub or a dance.
I remember Jerry Falwell, Sr. in the 1980s on television reading aloud the requests of the Bakkers for their retirement severance package after the scandals broke. Fallwell, with a smile, pronounced their requests “unmitigated greed”. The Bakkers responded in a televised interview that they had been responsible for bringing in a million dollars a day in donations to the PTL Club, and their severance requests were in line with that kind of fund raising history. Bakker went on to spend time in prison, sentenced to 45 years for the illegal and impossible promises he made to purchasers of time shares in his Christian retreat center.
Now coming almost full circle, the late Jerry Falwell Sr. has his own son being accused of similar greed at Liberty U. Jerry Falwell, Jr’s wife, Becki, was instrumental in having an employee fired within a few hours after she posted a comment on a social media site that the University did not have enough parking.
The Liberty University Board members complain that they are not consulted when huge money favors are extended to friends of Jerry Falwell, Jr., or to Trey, his son. They are simply told in emails what the decision already is.
Some Christians have lamented that these are not typical of evangelical Christianity, just anomalies. But my theory is that these kinds of abuses are part of evangelical Christianity, inseparable from the way evangelicals construct their world view:
- Stage One: Literal and direct agency of God. Elders in the religion are the carriers of the faith. I project onto God what is in my head.
- Stage Two: Pre-Conventional Faith: The stories of the religious tradition are of utmost importance and they are taken literally. A feeling that God will scratch my back if I scratch his back. The elders of the tradition hold the faith.
- Stage Three: Conventional Faith: Of utmost concern is that I look reputable to those above me and to my peers. Obedience to those in authority, and loyalty to my religion. My church holds my faith. I am not concerned about figuring it out for myself, I want my church to do that for me. I am fiercely loyal to my in-group and fiercely hostile to any out-groups.
- Stage Four: Unconventional Faith: I want my faith to make sense to me. Inconsistency will make me argue and argue with those in authority. I cannot let go of my church, but I cannot let them stay inconsistent and hypocritical. I confront the community like a teenager.
- Stage Five: Post-conventional Faith: I want everyone to be treated equally regardless of whether they are in my group or not. I have my own faith that lives inside me. I do not need others to agree with me. I follow my own conscience. I love the old symbols of my faith: Baptism, hymns, ceremonies. I am curious about others’ faith. I have less and less answers and more and more questions.
- Stage Six: I think only of those in need. I have no thoughts about my own needs, only those who are downtrodden.
Most people are in Stage 3, regardless of whether they are religious or not, and regardless of what religion they belong to. This is why when you get into a political debate with someone they don’t listen to logic. They are in Stage 3, they are fiercely loyal to their in-group, and fiercely hostile to their out-group. This is necessary for the psychological stage of development they have reached. They do not have a clear identity inside themselves, so they latch onto a particular group to hold their identity secure. They are equivalent to a 10 year old, who is loyal to his friends and his school and his scout troop.
So of course any leader in this group that is the least bit narcissistic is going to slip into abusive practices that favor him- or herself. This is endemic to evangelical Christianity, with its hierarchical view of authority. Evangelical Christianity attracts Stage 3 believers, and ejects Stage 4 believers. So these scandals are destined to repeat themselves ad nauseum.