Witnesses to Swaggart

IT was a lovely warm evening in Baton Rouge, when I was sitting with two friends on the curb outside a frozen yogurt store. We were eating and talking about the basketball game our school had just lost. A young couple approached.

"Are you saved?"

"Yes," I said, answering on the assumption they thought we were stranded without a ride home. "Our car is right over there."

My friends giggled and looked at me with that look that meant I had said something incredibly stupid and indicative of my Yankee upbringing.

The young, very skinny woman's smile did not narrow a millimeter as she tried again. "Are you a member of the church?" she asked.

She pointed to a massive complex a little way down the road. It didn't look like much of a church to me. It looked more like a small city. Or a fort.

The woman and man told the three of us how they had suffered through the deaths of loved ones, or drug abuse, or poor health, or.... They told us how Jimmy Swaggart had brought them love. It was beautiful, they said. They had dropped out of college, quit their jobs, left their homes and moved from other states to study at Swaggart's Bible College and pray in his church.

My friend Heidi, a practicing Lutheran, glared at them. I stared in utter disbelief--incredulous that such people existed--and tried hard to stifle my laughter. My friend Christy sat meekly, not speaking. The couple, sensing prey, focused their efforts on her.

"Here, just take my hand," the woman said, stepping toward Christy and extending her hand for Christy to take. "It's easy. We've found love."

HOW divine that sex was the apple that lured Jimmy Swaggart from his cushy Eden atop the garbage heap of televangelists. After all, Swaggart not only called his fellow philanderer Jim Bakker a cancer, but he also led the battle to coerce convenience stores into removing Playboy and Penthouse from their shelves.

It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

As an inhabitant of Baton Rouge, home to Swaggart's multi-million dollar estate, church and Bible College, I derive particular amusement and satisfaction from his fall. Swaggart represented the hypocrisy and hatred that arises from militant organized religion. The moral of his fevered sermons--often laden with anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic overtones--was to give more money to his ministry.

In a sermon taped shortly before the scandal broke, Swaggart pleaded with his herd to send more money, claiming that Bakker's fall from grace was causing a drain on funds. He warned that Satan would find ways to thwart God's work. Obviously, Swaggart pays God's salary and He recently demanded a raise. But the Bakker sex scandal did not stop the flow of postal trucks arriving every day at Swaggart's complex, which has its very own zip code.

JIM Bakker's antics also did not have much of an effect on Swaggart's annual Thanksgiving revival. The long weekend of preaching and praying again drew thousands to Baton Rouge this year.

Waiting to return to Cambridge, I sat in the airport with dozens of his flock. Their conversations surrounded me.

"Did you get his cassette tapes?" one woman asked another.

"I sure did. I also bought his complete set of videotapes," the other replied. "I can't wait to get home and watch him."

"He's wonderful."

A family walked by. They wore matching Jimmy Swaggart Bible College sweatshirts. Go team.