When I was about ten years old my paternal Grandparents sent me a check for $25 and for my sins I signed it over to Jimmy Lee Swaggart. In return I got myself a bunch of pamphlets in the mail and nice plastic membership card too which is as gone-gone-gone as my childhood. Good riddance to both I suppose. In those halcyon days though I did like Jimmy Lee. That old pumping piano conman cried and shook like a strip mall preacher and thrilled me straight through to the bone. He was of the kind that would raise up his arms and speak in tongues on a Wednesday night after work. This is the suburb version of old-time religion. Snake handling and daughter offering for the modernists.
Jimmy Swaggart, 1972
Sweat would roll from his brow and the worry and heated sorrow in his voice would remind me, years later, of the energy of his devilish hillbilly cousin, Jerry Lee, who he learned to pound the piano with in Ferriday, Lousiana on their Uncle Lee’s upright. His sermons where closer kin to Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Great Balls of Fire then the tepid gospel fare heard on his Sunday morning T.V. show. I never quite knew what he was talking about, but I knew it was bad and I had done it. Penance was mine though for $25, so sayeth Jimmy Lee. I don’t remember if that card made me feel better or not. I do remember my Grandmother was displeased. Perhaps she knew, that regardless of his sermons, his life was more Your Cheatin’ Heart than I Saw the Light. She never gave me $25 again.
In his numbing essay about hypocrisy and depravity, The Short-Shorts of Satan, Nick Tosches writes about the infamous Swaggart scandal of 1987. As the lurid details trickled out about the sex and prostitutes it came to light that the man who caught him, almost literally with his jogging pants down, was himself a disgraced Assemblies of God preacher. A man who had gone to Swaggart a year earlier to confess a liaison with a member of his Church from years earlier. Swaggart immediately ratted him out to the Assembly of God elders and the man was defrocked. He did have a competing television ministry after all.
I was reminded of this dirty little tale, and believe me I left the nasty parts out, while watching the seemingly endless Republican debates over the soul of our country. These men, who’ve made fortunes while using the constitution to wipe their asses on, have the self-aggrandizing audacity to claim moral superiority to right the wrongs of this country. In their faces I do not see even the vaguest trace of reflection. I look out my window and think we’ve been infected by a plague that’s made us all forget how we got here and made us crazy to boot. Stockholm syndrome is a phenomenon in which victims of trauma or kidnapping sympathize with their captors.
In case you’re wondering old Jimmy Lee is doing just fine. He’s still broadcasting all over the world, streams his message live on the internet, has an easy to find donate now button with a live chat representative standing by for guidance and he even has his own iPad app. It really doesn’t matter how many prostitutes he visited, whether or not that business about the nine year old girl is true or how many people he stepped on and discarded over the years, because he’s been washed in the blood. If we believe anything in this country it’s that a successful man is a righteous man.
The only Christ-like behavior I see around our political, religious and social systems and the men and women who rise and fall in them is our ability as a people to forgive. It seems almost bottomless. That would be inspiring if it weren’t for the peculiar tick that only allows us to forgive and lift back up those of our same party, our same race, our same creed.
If I had any tears left to cry I’d shed them for that long gone child who thought sending $25 to Jimmy Lee Swaggart was the right thing to do.
To cleanse the palette:
The Old Rugged Cross, Jerry Lee Lewis