Our Lady of the Country Club

RELIGION

SOLICITING MONEY and prayer at ungodly hours, Jim Bakker, star of PTL, "Praise the Lord" Club, preaches a country-club Christianity: "When you get married, you're starting out in your new Chris-Craft, your yacht, your boat, on the sea of life." Soon after he announced in a direct mail letter that "Tammy and I are giving every penny of our life's savings to PTL." Bakker bought a $24,000 Drifter houseboat with white shag carpeting, two wood paneled bedrooms, TV, gas grill, and refrigerator. One can almost see Bakker revving up his powerboat on the Sea of Galilee, bypassing the fishermen to visit the cannery owner. But then, a rising tide lifts all boats, even if not all are Chris-Crafts.

When God speaks to Jim's wife, Tammy, He speaks not with fiery tongues, but from chrome exhaust pipes. Tammy compares life to driving a car up a hill. You got to stay on the right side of the road and the right side of life. No wonder the British have problems.

It is their 21st anniversary, an occasion for nautical metaphors. He gives her roses. She gives him a 14K miniature gold anchor. As the chorus breaks into "Anchored in Jesus," the camera pans over the Homes and Gardens living room set and shows an audience landscaped in suede and polyester. Happy people stare attentively into space as the hymn, a tune of dental office piety alloyed to the metal harmonies of Muzak, bounces off the upholstery. They come to hear Jim's message, "You can make it too," and to have God heal their ills Bakker grasps a sheaf of prayer requests, closes his Teddy bear eyes, and allows a tear to trickle down his cheek: "And tumors and cancers and growths were literally dropping off your bodies."

Lest views be tempted into backsliding, atheism, or switching channels, Bakker observes that "freethinkers" invariably die, usually from cancer, disease, or drug overdose. Though more prosaic than being struck by lightning, such fates are equally effective. In a 1979 interview. Bakker traced India's problems to a rejection of Christian principles. In Africa, he insisted, the Christians live in better houses. As a couple from Canton, Ohio, announced on PTL. "Belief in God blessed us financially and then spiritually."

But Bakker's faith in God and man, though reduced to the proportions of cars and boats, is not based on greed. Like the cargo cults, the South Sea islanders who worshipped the army transport planes that bought unimaginable riches of K-rations and surplus hardware, the Bakkers grasp best the material manifestations of the divine. Welfare checks number not among such miracles: "Why can't man throw money at his problems? Because God wants things to be in accord with His will... We're tired of all the hype. We want to go back to old foundations." When God speaks to Jim Bakker. He reads from George Gilder and tells Bakker to build a $100 million Heritage Total Living Center. Asked to reconcile his weaker commitment to the poor in India to his devotion to spas and hotel facilities. Bakker replied that God's generosity could accommodate both.

On the "Oh, What a Fellowship Hour," another minister preaches a religion engaged in life rather than in the electronic propagation of plastic virtue. The service is outdoors, in a Chicago park. In the background, a chain-link fence rises as though to shield the playground and the worshippers from the graffiti scrawled on the buildings across the street. As the preacher hums and sways, a police car cruises slowly through the camera's field of view, like a large blue and white fish swimming in a bowl. Most of the crowd is submerged in the music.

Some are dressed in their Sunday best; others, in their work clothes. A group of nurses stands out in white. A boy, oblivious to the music washing around him, tilts a can of pop to his lips, his mother's arm on his shoulder. The minister thanks several local companies for giving food to his congregation. He clambers down from the wooden platform to talk to two elderly women. Richard Daley, the late mayor's son, says a few words but looks uncomfortable speaking on this side of the fence and disappears soon after. The minister is grateful anyway. In the background, the police car is parked, the tennis courts are full, and the people are enjoying a potluck dinner.

ON ANOTHER CHANNEL, a blue cross rises against a carefully arranged background of metal streaks meant to represent light. Three adorable blond children clad in Lacoste shirts stand in front of it. The program is ending, and after a short pitch for contributions, it is back to the Nabisco Dinah Shore Golf Tournament.

Both the Baptist minister in Chicago and PTL's Bakker feel concern for their congregations. But PTL traps its audience in a Pavlovian circle of wealth coupled to religion, a ritual of cash register bell-ringing. Like commercial television, it inflames material appetites and arouses expectations, rather than hopes. Facing no adversity as persistent as graffiti blackly spattered, its viewers can have faith that God provides for believers. As a result, there is no reason to care for the truly needy beyond one's small circle of friends. To clutch a phonebook and express passionate concern for those listed is enough. If, God forbid, evolution accounts for changes in ideas as well as species, Jerry Falwell's fractured vision of a human community originated here. Individuals, the PTL people see their bank accounts filling in the sight of the Lord and rejoice. They can afford expectations.

The people in the park have hope, at least while they are singing. The hopes lies in their fellowship, a solidarity among devout elderly ladies and their irreverent grandchildren not choreographed for 700,000 living rooms. The food that the minister has located probably will not feed all the hungry listening in the park. But its presence shows that he feels that the church must provide for the community. Though strangers perhaps to each other, the people are together, behind the chain-link fence.