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Sympathy for the Evangelicals

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In 1971, my partner Howard Smith and I went on an indelible odyssey into Pentacostal America, at a time when the born-again faith was still marginal, seemingly a holdover from the Depression-era "old-time religion" revivals. New Yorkers clothed as Christian brethren, we were traveling in disguise in order to shoot our controversial documentary "Marjoe" (now in re-release on DVD).

Our guide and film subject was young Marjoe Gortner, a handsome, charismatic preacher whose career began at the age of four, when he was "called to God" (or so his parents had everyone believing). Marjoe talked behind the scenes about the tricks of his trade, the faking of miracles and glossalalia; raising money for the phony "ministries"; how to work up the crowd; his non-belief in God. He sold cheap red bandanas as "prayer cloths," hawked LP's of his childhood sermons, and split the "tithing" take with his host minister in front of our camera.

We filmed at four completely different churches in the West, South, and Midwest. We expected that one or two of the ministers besides Marjoe might turn out to be crooked, but to our surprise all four were conspicuous flimflammers. One actually delivered the immortal sermon "God Wants Me to Have a Cadillac." A fourth minister, the only one we thought might be sincere, was later arrested for running stolen cars across the Mexican border.

Marjoe shook his head in amazement at how eager congregations were to believe in him rather than coming to God on their own, eliminating the middleman so to speak. Marjoe knew the film would "out" him but he thought it was worth it. He said, "I'm hoping they'll see it's not necessary to have some person to get you off, to put your faith in." Because so often that person is in it for something else besides benign invocations of the Holy Spirit.

No evangelicals saw the film, of course, because their ministers banned it. And now, some 35 years later, they have grown stupendously: 4 out of 10 Americans define themselves as "born again." And they're still not getting the message. How many Jimmy Swaggarts, Jim Bakkers, and Ted Haggards have to crash and burn for them to see the pattern? Pentacostalism offers - besides salvation - fantastic entertainment, and thus it attracts entertainers. Among these, inevitably, are the showmen, hypocrites and con artists who build huge financial empires by exploiting people's earnest faith.

One sees a people who are repeatedly let down by their leaders. Which brings me to the Bush administration. How do evangelicals feel when they learn that Karl Rove's office refers to them as "nuts"? That Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives never got around to helping the poor? That their voting bloc was manipulated to advance the corporate lobby-driven agenda? Bush throws them a fish from time to time, but in the end, he is not one of them. Do they feel used...all over again?

I hope that, in the massive soul-searching to come in this country, those people whose souls are saved will do the most searching.

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