Jimmy Swaggart would often climb up into his pulpit or pick up his microphone and, with tears in his eyes and a cheek-to-cheek smile on his face, start a sermon with “Oh the Lord has been good to me“.
He would also speak in a fueled way about sin and damnation, about promiscuity and adultery, and the luring nature of what he called “demon lust”. If he ever said a word like “escort”, you can bet it was not in flattering terms.
But his lord has been good to him. Swaggart came from extremely humble roots, attending a small parish with his parents in his native Louisiana where he started preaching when he was a shy nine years old. Much like his Christ.
At seventeen he married Frances Anderson, and two years later their first and only child, Donnie, was born. The family spent those early years traveling in poverty, with father Jimmy preaching wherever he could, them sleeping in church basements and in parishioners’ homes, while Swaggart took official scriptural studies to bring him to proper ordainment in the Pentecostal church. In 1961 he was ordained by the Assemblies of God, and one year later began preaching over the radio.
Swaggart proved himself to be an incredible businessman as well as a fiery preacher. When preaching to his parish he would get so hot and excited that he would often carry his parishioners along in a religious frenzy with him, both in gratitude and fear of their god. Over the radio, he gave sermons along with bible studies and gospel music sessions. As his parish grew rapidly and his programs reached more and more people nationally (and internationally), Swaggart transitioned to television, where he would find a comfortable career that began in 1975 and still flourishes today.
By the mid 1980’s, Swaggart was making about $150 million annually, through donations to his church and from the time he spent on television and the books he was constantly publishing. His “parish” consisted of millions of viewers internationally as well as the hundreds and thousands who saw him at local services and regional speaking / preaching events. He had three homes, a private jet, and a California “retreat” center to relax at when the public spotlight got to be too much.
Yes, indeed, the lord had been good to Swaggart.
But what started to unfold was a period that in hindsight would prove to be shockingly ironic.
Swaggart titled a discourse “That Thing”, referring to the demon lust that leads to promiscuity and prostitution. He spoke against sex education in schools (claiming that it promoted incest) and obviously against sex before marriage. Then he started a cleaning out of the faith’s sinful preachers; those who had fallen to the lure of “demon lust”. He outted fellow Jim Bakker for having an affair with this secretary. A short time later he coerced his rival, Marvin Gorman (who was a promising televangelist with a 5000-strong community in New Orleans) to admit to an extramarital affair. With his report to the Assemblies of God, Swaggart implied that there was not only one affair on Gorman’s soul, and that he was a “cancer” on the faith. The reporting resulted in Gorman’s getting stripped of his ministry and obliterated him as a rival.
While the church saw Swaggart as a stalwart, it was this purging that would lead to his own exposure and eventually strip him of his own clerical robes.
Gorman did not take his demise lightly. And one night in 1988 he set up a few cameras outside a motel room that a notorious local escort would use to see clients. After a few hours, he had gotten plenty of pictures of Swaggart going into and coming out of the room. He confronted Swaggart and told him he would keep silent if Swaggart helped him restore his title within the Assemblies.
A year later Swaggart’s time was up, and Gorman went to the higher powers with what he knew.
It would later be confirmed, both by Swaggart and the prostitute, that they had never had sexual intercourse. What exactly they were doing during their repeated time together was never quite revealed and Swaggart never confessed to anything specifically. But time with a prostitute was time with a prostitute.
You might guess what followed: an incredibly teary apology on his television show to his wife of 35 years, his son, his Lord and his parishioners. He waxed poetically about his sin, and about how deeply he needed to be cleansed. While some of his parishioners were moved by his honesty and by the depth of his sorrow and stood on their feet, tears in their own eyes while he apologized, others weren’t as supportive: “How could he stand up there in the pulpit and preach against adultery and promiscuity when he was doing that kind of thing all this time? I think he ought to stay out of the pulpit” is how one woman articulated her feelings.
Many thought Swaggart’s apology lacked any real remorse or sorrow. He was, after all, a fine speaker and performer. And when his suspension was expanded to two years (the norm for “sexual immorality”) and he returned to the pulpit after three months anyway, he was stripped of his ordination.
Did this stop Swaggart?
Not one bit. He started preaching independently and retained many of his local and worldwide followers. He did lose many students studying in his bible college, but was able to continue with his mission as a spokesperson for the lord.
Another scandal came with another escort a few years later, when Swaggart was pulled over by a police officer for driving on the wrong side of the road. When questioned as to what she was doing in the car, the young woman replied candidly, “He asked me for sex. I mean, that’s why he stopped me. That’s what I do. I’m a prostitute.” This time instead of a huge public apology, Swaggart told his parish that the “lord told [him] it’s flat none of your business“. How convenient.
Not much was made of the illegality of the situation—Swaggart was charged with solicitation, but that didn’t seem to make much a difference to him or his church. It might have even been more salacious had he been caught spending time enjoying himself with a young lady, like his secretary. The situation didn’t seem to matter—sex outside of marriage was the sin, sex with a woman who he had to pay to get it, an even worse one. But in the grand scheme of things, the instances didn’t seem to make too much of a difference.
Decades later, Swaggart is still preaching, still making great money, still married and still generally respected as a teacher. He has published dozens of commentaries on the bible, a book about the first 1988 sexual scandal and several others on his faith. The lord has continued to be good to him.
So what does this say about Swaggart and religion’s part in shaping what is “good” and “righteous” in our country?
Obviously Swaggart is one of hundreds, maybe thousands of preachers from many denominations who have swayed from the “moral standards” of their faiths, outlined in ancient or modern scriptural texts and supported by millions of faithful world-wide. Some of the preachers fall when their duplicity is discovered, such as Swaggart’s business rivals. Others, like Swaggart himself, continue to preach and reach out to those looking for guidance and faith.
In the past 50 years, liberalism, education, sex and technology has radically changed religion and moral views on sexuality. In the 1960s the era of free love and peace brought the Hari Krishnas and many practices of meditation to public light. It also resulted in women’s lib and an increase of interest in women as independently sexual creatures and change the vocabulary around women and sex. While organized religion has currently seen a huge decline in numbers by young folk, many still call themselves “spiritual” and identify with some formalized belief system. Nowadays, the social rage to the discovery of a religious sexual scandal is usually because of abuse within the church or temple, or one of illegality, not because of an outside tryst.
And maybe, just maybe, this is because we see religious leaders, now more than ever, as mere mortals, just a bit more hypocritical than decent humans. Yes, there have been and will always be those who believe that sex outside of marriage or anything at all is wrong and that their leaders should lead by example. They promote abstinence before marriage and not rushing into marriage as a reason to have sex. And not be so outraged when we discover that, yes, preachers do have sex too.
We obviously don’t to see preachers like Swaggart out with, let’s say, Charlie Sheen, spending donations on beautiful escorts and bottle service. And sex is never going to be promoted in religion, at least not in American Christianity.
But maybe the knowledge that some religious leaders do express themselves with sex relieves us from the truth that, hell, we really love it too.