This week, the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, kicked off the 2016 Republican primary season at a university founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell. Liberty University’s students were mandated to attend Cruz’s announcement speech, so Senator Cruz enjoyed a packed house of attentive students accustomed to being preached at. “Imagine,” he asked, “a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel!”
The launch of the GOP’s bid for the White House was hosted—err hoisted—by the spoils of televangelism?
Sounds appropriate for the party of the Also-Ran Industrial Complex.
This recent phenomenon of “running for office” when really they’re sprinting for a book deal, TV show, or cinnamon-cure spokesman, has become its own commercial enterprise. If you’re a conservative public figure, the real money is in selling yourself as a presidential centerfold: Lots of airbrushing and shared pet peeves—all with a wink and a smile. It’s selling a promise that will never (ever) have to be delivered. Call it feign and gain!
It explains why the GOP field is congested. There’s lots of money to be made with little liability.
The 1980s saw the golden age of televangelists. The world always had preachers, but cable television made them stars. They were the staples of pop culture—crossword puzzle hints, SNL parodies, late-night monologue punch lines. Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were all well-coiffed and well-compensated celebrities.
For TV faith healers and health-to-wealth preachers the exchange was simple: Send them your money and things will be better. That’s how you increase your wealth—by giving it to the guy on TV. Everything will improve—your health, your faith, your home, your finances—if you just send that check or money order to the address on your screen. In 1986 Oral Roberts, famously claimed that if his ministry didn’t raise $8 million, the lord would “call him home.” Meaning, if he didn’t get the money, god was going to kill him. Reportedly, he raised $9.1 million and lived another 20 years. See? It works.
Televangelists were able to merge showbiz glitz with the modest nonprofit status of your average village chapel. It’s where missionaries got paid like mercenaries. Prophets raked in profits! It was a revolutionary hybrid marvel of mass media.
And in that vein, utilizing the language of hellfire and brimstone (Ted Cruz has been denying global warming while strangely saying the world is on fire. #headdesk), the GOP has evolved into a new wave of televangelists. They’ve managed to step into that vacuum and suck up money from the faithful. The mold was cast in the ‘80s and now we have a dozen Pat Robertson figurines trying to scare the same hyper-religious bloc of conservatives.
Let’s look at the list on what defines a televangelist: banking on personal faith, asking for donations and constant media presence. It’s the GOP in 2016: Check and running mate!
Much to her credit, Tammy Faye Bakker, a fundamentalist Christian, became a gay icon because of her outreach to the community in the throes of the AIDS epidemic. There’s not one GOP televangelist today with that kind of courage.
Instead, Republican candidates have managed to merge corporations-are-people politics with a personal-relationship-with-Jesus platform. Where Christ hates all the right people, Ayn Rand is the Virgin Mother and the Apostles are all CEOs. If you just send these sermonizers cash they can fight the holy war against the meek: undocumented immigrants, gays, poor people, American-Muslims, atheists, wage-earners, drug addicts and the others out of the fold. It’s a revival of revisionism.
This current bumper crop of candidates thrives on fleecing believers with the promise of a Conservative Christian Garden of Eden. Act now. Space is limited.
You know, imagine.
Image by Mike Licht