Pastor Dr. Gene Scott made Christianity wacky and fun while evangelical bully D. James Kennedy was bad to the bone.
While the God that I hardly believe in may have created all human beings equally, He (or She, or It) certainly did not create all televangelists that way. Some possess the gift of flamboyant performance, while others induce snoozing, while yet others are magnetic in that infuriating, pseudo-fascistic way.
Christian broadcasting personalities have such differing agendas these days that the single term “televangelist” hardly does justice. You've got the slick, upbeat and modernist “prosperity ministers” like Joel O'Steen and his black counterpart, the tremendously successful T.D. Jakes, who wrote the most awesomely titled book ever -- Women, Thou Art Loosed!. What, was she chained to the radiator?
There's not a lot of in-your-face menace with these guys. While they are certainly Christian, and do preach from The Bible, they seem to have made a secure peace with the temporal world of beautiful cars, big houses and cold, hard bling. In fact, their cosmology dictates that inward spiritual success goes hand in hand with outward material success. It all comes from God anyway, so what's the difference? Imagine Anthony Robbins with some “Jesus” and “Lord” thrown in, or The Secret, but a little less cheesy and fantastical.
Benny Hinn gets a pretty good grade for his likable personality, Entertainment Tonight-style looks and hair, and his insanely peppy wardrobe. This guy can rock a white sport coat like nobody since Crockett and Tubbs. Hinn's approach is a charismatic healing ministry with laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. Rather than emphasizing a cold, harsh legalistic Creator who hates various of Man's activities, this sect of Christianity highlights a very active, hands-on God who removes people's ailments and drives out their demons. This Jesus is too busy doing physical and spiritual triage to chastise or threaten.
Hinn plays arenas and stadiums, where the ambiguously Eastern-Mediterranean man with the oozingly ingratiating Greek waiter accent causes believers to literally pass out and fall backwards into the hands of specially trained believer-catchers, just by touching them on the forehead and muttering something cryptical yet intense. It's sort of like a “trust fall” -- a “faith fall,” if you will. If Hinn were more overtly spiritual and his fans even more ecstatic with adoration, he'd be the band U2.
Jesse Duplantis is a particularly lizardy, oily, dangerous-eyed preacher who plays his Lousiana pseudo-cajun background to the hilt. His regional, simple-salt-of-the-Earth schtick, with its rednecky French lilt -- so peculiar to that strange region of the United States -- gives him license to shout, yell, holler and carry on in every sort of obnoxious way. Rather than the folksy, feel-good message of some of the aforementioned televangelists, however, good ol' Jesse pours out some angry, wrathful piss n' vinegar, in his preaching, albeit with a tinge of spicy, Louisiana flavoring.
Joyce Meyer has sensible Midwestern-wife hair and outfits and packs huge venues and sells millions of books with her firm but very practical guidelines for modern Christian living. Well-coiffed Rod Parsley is a somewhat motivational preacher who looks and sounds like he could be Car Salesman Of The Year, but is in fact a a few shades tougher and more judgmental in the old-school style than many of his popular counterparts.
James Dobson is a rather staid, professorial or managerial looking man who, were he a Hollywood actor, would be continually cast as the sensible, moderately intelligent WASPy doctor, business executive, airline pilot or any other type you'd find on the golf course in a light sweater and slacks. He delivers strong, serious opinions about most moral issues facing society, in the calming, somewhat calculatedly disarming voice of the trained psychologist that he is.
Perhaps the most famous of any of these is Pat Robertson -- a conservative Christian icon and former presidential candidate. Like Dobson, he uses a friendly, charming facade to communicate what are often powerful, uncompromising positions. The difference is, Robertson is folksier and has more of a twang than Dobson. Whereas Dobson's countenance is light and courteous, Robertson's is sweetened almost to the point of syrupy. The other difference is whereas Dobson has his own syndicated show, Robertson has his own cable TV network and university, among other things.
Robertson -- who possesses as much smiley Southern boy credibility as you'll find on God's green Earth -- likes to joke that before he found Christ, he did his “Drinkin', whorin' and brawlin'.” Yet today, he owns a very organized, efficiently run empire that is worth millions and millions. In this way, one could call Pat Robertson the born again Christian Larry Flynt.
For the purposes of this piece, I will limit my ultimate choices of best/worst to televangelists who are deceased. This column will serve as a timeless memorial to those titans of the Christian airwaves who no longer walk among us. Their ministries will certainly be timeless, first because these men are no doubt continuing their hard work in the afterlife, and second because their television and radio empires will continue to rebroadcast their programs until Kingdom come, or at least the next ice age.
BEST: GENE SCOTT
Pastor Gene Scott was a genuine, certified Los Angeles institution. Some thought he belonged in an institution, but he was crazy in the absolute best sense of the word. A hyper-intense, razor-sharp man with the handsomely grizzled face of a Wild West doctor or card shark, I don't think there's ever been another televangelist even close to Scott in passion or originality.
A true man of learning with advanced academic degrees from Stanford, Scott's whole approach to the Gospels -- and the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments -- was a hyper-logical, complexly analytical dissection of every paragraph, sentence and word. He would teach more than preach, often standing before a chalkboard and scrawling arcane notes, arrows and Greek symbols over the bits of Biblical text. Rather than a Bible-believing Christian preacher, one might think they'd tuned into a cantankerous, bombastic philosophy professor delivering a lecture on advanced epistemology.
Other times Dr. Scott would sit in a comfortable chair by the edge of the stage and address the crowd and camera with the gravity and severity of a spaceship's captain on Star Trek warning of his vessel's imminent destruction by a giant asteroid. In his older age, both his hair and scruffy beard went silvery white and he'd sometimes wear eccentrically large hats and multiple pairs of glasses at the same time and then light up and puff from an old fashioned tobacco pipe. His performance was surreal, absurd and playfully whimsical and to certain viewers -- like myself -- darkly hilarious.
I've heard this man -- ordained minister, follower of Christ, believer in the Gospel -- use swear words on his show. I vividly recall the time he uttered the word “bullshit” during one of his mini-tirades, in which he would blast off on his congregation and followers in an irritated but authoritative tone, scolding them for either a misinterpretation of a Biblical passage or a failure to show the Biblically and ethically mandated financial generosity in terms of contributing to his program. I loved his unapologetic, upfront approach as he disarmed potential critics by saying that there was absolutely nothing wrong with his needling, nagging and cajoling his flock to whip out their checkbooks and credit cards and send in the dollars. In fact, it was just as much their job to give as it was his to preach and teach.
Word has it that Dr. Scott was a generous donor to many public institutions around Los Angeles, including the Los Angeles Public Library and the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center. He also loved horses and was a noted owner and equestrian. Scott's main thrust, as far as I could tell, was that so much of modern Christianity was intellectually corrupted, illogical and just plain wrong, that it might as well be some foreign, alien religion to the one he himself knew after years of careful, contextual study and research.
Because he felt that the spiritual and intellectual were inseparable, Dr. Scott also felt that Christians had a responsibility to learn and understand the historical, linguistic and even Biblical contexts of the faith before they could just call themselves believers and wave the banner of Christ. One got the feeling that Dr. Gene Scott favored the company of a good horse over a dumb Christian. He also knew how to put on a pretty weirdly entertaining show. And for those things I name him the best deceased televangelist ever.
WORST: D. JAMES KENNEDY
Although he may not have been nearly as famous as some of his televangelist brethren, the recently deceased D. James Kennedy was in many ways even more influential and powerful and certainly more terrifying. Running his enormous and highly widely syndicated Coral Ridge Ministries from Florida, Kennedy was a noxious and potentially dangerous combination of polished, commanding speaker and psychotically extreme religio-political zealot.
As much as any broadcaster I've ever heard, the man had a naturally booming, stentorian voice and a ploddingly assured cadence that conveyed an innate sense of authority and unquestioned righteousness. Imagine a Harvard Law professor crossed with a basso-profundo 1970's documentary narrator. While his voice was smooth, low and somewhat soothing, his words were battering rams, weapons designed to smash away at the individuals and structures that represent secular civil society.
Kennedy was closely associated with what are called Dominionists. Unlike most evangelical Christians traditionally in the United States, the Dominionists feel that not only should evangelicals engage in the media, culture and politics of the nation, but that they should conquer, dominate and crush said institutions under their heel. In fact, in their minds this is a God-given right and mandate. What this would mean, if it were to ever actually come to fruition, is the obliteration of most of what we Godless big city types take for granted on a day-to-day basis: things like books, magazines, movies, TV shows, radio, sexual freedoms, the right to unrestricted speech, secular public education, freedom to associate, advanced scientific research, so on and so forth. If Kennedy could have snapped his fingers and had any wish, America would currently look like Iran, except with less beards or oil.
D. James Kennedy was a malevolent bully, a man whose speaking and organizational abilities I admired but whose human core I despised. He was an over-the-top, sociopathic control freak who was made respectable by the trappings of his ministry, his lofty evangelical associations and his comfortable, almost mesmerizing presentation.
Kennedy's was not the voice and persona of the hysterical Southern bumpkin yelling about fire and brimstone. This was the cultivated, corporate voice of America strapped over a stinking pit of viciously mean and nasty domination and torture fantasies that calls itself the rightest-most wing of Evangelical Christianity and which almost pornographically glories in the sickest bits of that classic misanthropic screed called the Book of Revelations.
Under the loud, domineering, schoolmarm-righteous voice, I could sense a bubbling, seething red-hot anger in Kennedy, an enormous frustration at how much secular-pagan-liberal culture actually has been successful in it's nefarious mission and has been adopted as the norm in this country.
What I despised about the man -- as I do with any inflammatory bigots -- is the safe, comfortable, convenient cowardice of his position -- proclaiming his peculiar, insular world view in a one way conversation from his broadcast studio, never being questioned or challenged, never having to adjust or even retract any of his statements because of resistance or counterargument from an intellectual opponent. I would have loved to have heard a Bill Maher or some similar sharp, loud-mouthed defender of temporal reality going toe-to-toe with Kennedy in his studio, but that would never have served his purpose.
The brazen stridency of Kennedy's absolutist, theocratic desires can be summed up in the name of his sub-organization and chief goal, “Reclaiming America For Christ.” I was never completely sure what this “reclaiming” would look like, but I was none too eager to see it happen in my lifetime -- or anybody else's for that matter.
I must say, on the entire planet, and even in this country, the man is hardly unique. There are hundreds, thousands, even millions of hardcore true believers who are chomping on the bit to shove their fantastical, oppressive beliefs down the throats of others who mainly wish to live a fulfilling, libertarian life. And one can be sure that after Kennedy's passing, his organization and all of his like-minded compatriots are pushing forward with their aims as diligently as ever, if not more so.
If there is a just God, then Kennedy resides far from Heaven, in a special place for intransigent, bullying hypocrites. It's too bad that this man of such God-given vocal and presentational abilities couldn't have used them for a more positive, productive social agenda. You know, sort of like those other Kennedys.