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Evangelist Billy James Hargis Dies; Spread Anti-Communist Message

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2004; Page B06

The Rev. Billy James Hargis, 79, who died Nov. 27 at a nursing home in Tulsa, was a "bawl and jump" broadcast evangelist whose anti-communist message helped him flourish during the Cold War.

Mr. Hargis -- an enormous man with a recent history of heart attacks -- was a wailing, wheezing, impassioned presence on more than 500 radio stations and 250 television stations at his apex. With his Church of the Christian Crusade, he was perhaps second only to Carl McIntire in spreading an ultraconservative fundamentalist message to millions.

Billy James Hargis preached on hundreds of radio and TV stations.

Not least of all, he was a stunt master in his all-consuming battle against communism. Guaranteeing international attention, he released 100,000 balloons with biblical quotations across the Iron Curtain into Soviet-controlled states in 1953.

His mission, he said, was "to succor the spiritually starved captives of communism."

Billy James Hargis was born in Texarkana, Tex., on Aug. 3, 1925. He was adopted by a railroad employee and a sickly woman whose crippling pain brought her close to death when he was 10. By that time, he had been baptized by immersion and found the family's daily Bible readings his only source of pleasure. The family was too poor to own a radio.

As his mother lay in a hospital bed, he promised to devote himself to God if she recovered. She did.

He was ordained at 17 in the Disciples of Christ denomination, studied at an unaccredited Bible college in Bentonville, Ark., and later received a theology degree from Burton College and Seminary in Colorado.

Increasingly, he politicized his pulpit and in 1962 urged attendees of the Anti-Communist Leadership School in Tulsa -- which charged $100 admission -- to work for conservative candidates and against those he deemed "soft" on communism. He said he once wrote a speech for red-baiting Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).

He spoke to a largely rural audience -- "lonely patriots," he called them -- who saw communist conspiracies in government, the media and popular culture. He argued for the return of prayer and Bible reading to public school. He wrote several books, among them "Communist America -- Must It Be?" (1960), and recorded "Songs and Sayings of Billy James Hargis." He sold them at his conferences.

In his speeches, he was insistent on action. "Write your congressman and your senator," he told one assembly in 1962. "Don't ask them to outlaw the Communist Party. Demand that they outlaw the Communist Party in the U.S.A. Don't ask them to reconsider our affiliation with the United Nations. Demand that they get this country out of the United Nations to reorganize the United Nations against godless anti-Christ communism. You are not working for them. You have nothing to fear. They represent you, and you should make your wishes known."

His most prominent followers made all manner of allegations. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Edwin A. Walker claimed that President Richard M. Nixon "appointed revolutionists to Cabinet posts." The Rev. David Noebel championed the idea that rock music was a communist plot to brainwash America's youth.

Mr. Hargis told attendees of his leadership school to watch their language -- "one wild, unfounded, bigoted statement could submarine our whole program," he once said -- but some of his followers ignored his advice, sometimes to loud applause.

The Internal Revenue Service revoked his tax-exempt status in the early 1960s because of his alleged "political activities." The ministry was reportedly taking in more than $1 million a year (having grown from $63,000 in 1957).

Mr. Hargis argued that he was being "persecuted" for his religious beliefs, adding: "This action doesn't affect our corporation, only the contributors to our cause. And even so, our average contribution is $4. Now what would tax-exempt status mean to these 250,000 people? They are not big-money."

During radio remarks in 1964, Mr. Hargis provided a false work history about a journalist who had been critical of conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. When the broadcast outlet in Red Lion, Pa., refused to give the author equal time to reply, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court upheld the equal-time allowance in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969), codifying what became known as the "fairness doctrine" in American broadcasting.

The rise of the counterculture brought him more followers, who found in his national television appearances a fighting voice against liberal forces they saw working nefariously around them. Mr. Hargis made speaking tours that he called "midnight rides."

Inspired by Oral Roberts University, he founded the American Christian College in Tulsa in 1971 to teach "God, government and Christian action." The college attracted enough interest for Mr. Hargis to form a touring musical, "An Evening With Billy James Hargis and His Kids."

He was pushed from the college presidency after Time magazine reported that students of both sexes said Mr. Hargis had had sexual relations with them. Faltering financially after that, the college shut down in the late 1970s.

Diminished after the sex scandal, Mr. Hargis continued working on the revival circuit and in recent years had a ministry in Neosho, Mo. He wrote an autobiography, "My Great Mistake" (1985), and repeatedly denied charges of his sexual misconduct, sometimes coyly.

"I was guilty of sin," he told a Tulsa reporter in 1985, "but not the sin I was accused of."

Survivors include his wife, the former Betty Jane Secrest; four children; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company