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Televangelism and neighborhood churches: the gulf widens

THE sexual scandals that have brought down, for now, television evangelist Jim Bakker, will soon lose their power to titillate. The charges of blackmail and extortion involving his empire and competitor Jimmy Swaggart's will give place to other outrages. Public interest will eventually fade. Oral Roberts has come down from his tower alive. The God he pictured as the Greatest Extortioner acted in mercy, as did Roberts' fiscal backers who were making it necessary for God to take the evangelist's life because those followers failed to provide Oral enough money.

The longer legacy will be the vision of fissures within the televangelism movement, which a month ago still looked united and powerful. Never before had the public known, or needed to know, differences between Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism or within each.

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Last month the daily press featured arcane descriptions of doctrinal and behavioral rivalries that divided the conservative Protestant movement to its core. Jerry Falwell had to say that never during his forays into politics had he gotten so much hate mail as he did from both Fundamentalists and Pentecostalists when he took custody of Bakker's domain. Seldom had the heathen down the street heard of such infighting, backbiting, or outrage among ``brothers'' as they did from these religious confreres, now foes of each other.

The question most often asked of those who observe American religion, and televangelism in particular is this: What will be the long-term effect of the scandals on religious forces in America?

Opinions divide neatly. One set of observers argues that the disaster will hurt all religion, all works of charity, and moral endeavor that depend on public confidence. The other set sees the trauma among the televisers as a purgative act that will not hurt and might even enhance the efforts and image of other religious leaders and institutions. The latter camp has the better case.

Of course, there are reasons for everyone to be wary. Some sneerers and skeptics lump all religious leaders together as charlatans and money-grubbers. They have found new reasons to sneer with more enthusiasm. Again, of course, scandals like this one, dubbed Pearlygate, do threaten bonds of trust between leaders and supporters, donees and donors. If figures who are in public view, the way the Bakkers, Robertses, and Swaggarts are, take such chances, what might go on away from public glare? While the polls have consistently shown the clergy to be the most trusted profession, they might yet show a sag of public confidence.

On balance, however, the honest brokers in the world of the spirit stand a good change of making their own case more clear, their images more visible and attractive. The American people have given signs in recent years that they want to show confidence in religious institutions and leaders. They are now given a chance to be more selective than before. Individual priests and ministers have been involved with financial and sexual scandals through the ages, not excluding our own. Yet the larger institutions have survived on the basis of hard-won and long-term credibility.

The televangelism empire will not likely regain the place it had recently claimed. Politicians like ``Pat'' Robertson, even where they may not be agents of scandal, will find it harder to speak for a movement that is unified or morally plausible in the public realm. The market for the evangelists had not grown, while the expenses for equipment, setting, ventures, and ambitions had. If the leaders cannot risk being more sensational than Oral or more flamboyant than Bakker, they cannot all prosper, and there will be some losers. Expect great shows of reconciliation among the competitors, and great efforts at genuine reform among sympathizers who have long pleaded for accountability from these empire-holders.

Most of all, expect the already wide gulf between devotees of televangelism and everyone else to grow. The New York Times-CBS polls on March 31 found that while 37 percent of the viewers of TV's ``Big Seven'' still had favorable views of their efforts, only 6 percent of the general public did. Yet more than 10 times that latter figure express confidence in religion in general.

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This is likely to be the moment when the pastor down the block, the congregation at the corner, the long-disdained or neglected denomination, will have a new chance to show that they've never been ``about'' what the broadcasters and entrepreneurs were doing. These are days of sifting and sorting. Those who survive might well be those whose moral lights have recently been obscured by the glare of television spotlights. This could be a finer hour than they have enjoyed since the television towers of the electronic church first overshadowed the steeple of old First Church. Let the steeple bells ring once again.

Martin E. Marty is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, and associate editor of The Christian Century.

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