Jimmy Swaggart, who by his count ministers to some 10 million souls on his weekly evangelistic television program, has never been one to mince words. And so, having already excoriated his opponent for various sins, he wound up his opening statement at yesterday's debate on "Religion and Politics" at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention by attacking the name of his opponent's organization.
"The title, People for the American Way," he said, "that's the same play on words the Communists use."
People for the American Way President John Buchanan, a tall, gregarious former Republican congressman from Alabama and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, had taken the position that church and state are best kept separate, and that people who do not agree with the fundamentalists' views should not be listed "on Satan's side." Buchanan's rolling southern tones and booming preacher's cadences sounded comfortably familiar, and indeed he got one person's applause when he said "He [God] leaves us free and governments should as well." But it was clear that he was lucky to escape the debate without being singed by Swaggart's fire and brimstone. (He said after the meeting that he did not respond to Swaggart's comment about the group's name because he had limited time to end the debate, which was scheduled to be broadcast by the Cable News Network, the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Public Broadcasting Service.)
There is only one way of interpreting the Bible, Swaggart said. The views of the "liberals" whom Buchanan "associates with" are those of the secular humanists, who, Swaggart claimed, do not believe in God and "reject all moral codes." Furthermore, he said, their control of the media and the government has "come within a hairsbreadth of destroying this nation," by allowing abortion, divorce, pornography and homosexuality.
"Homosexuality . . . came out of the bathroom, into the bathhouse and now into the blood bank, and we have AIDS," Swaggart said.
Buchanan's plea for appreciation of public school teachers left Swaggart untouched. "I don't have any good words about the public school system," the evangelist said. "If it weren't for the Christian school system, this country would have gone to hell in a hand basket."
When he finished his turn, Swaggart got a standing ovation.
BAT10 The National Religious Broadcasters have been meeting for 43 years, and in that time have expanded enormously. According to NRB President Ben Armstrong, the first religious program was broadcast in Pittsburgh in 1921; the organization now lists 1,134 religious radio stations and 200 television stations, and there is no sign the growth rates are slowing. A study commissioned by the Christian Broadcasting Network (which is headed by Pat Robertson, tonight's speaker) and performed by the A.C. Nielsen Co. found that 34 million people watched one of the top 10 tele-evangelists during the month studied. Robertson had the highest ranking, followed by Robert Schuller ("Hour of Power") and Oral Roberts.
The explosion of electronic evangelism coincided with -- and influenced -- the development of the conservative political movement that put Ronald Reagan in the presidency, and both groups are conscious of needing the other. This year, however, neither the president nor Vice President Bush made an appearance at the convention (usually at least one of them does), although Reagan sent a videotaped message.
White House Director of Communications Patrick J. Buchanan spoke to the gathering yesterday, and more than two dozen congressmen and senators were introduced at yesterday's "Congressional Breakfast," including Sens. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Paul Simon (D-Ill.).
There have been numerous other people visiting the convention, which attracted delegates from all over the country -- ranging from Miss National Teenager, who wore her tiara and sash to all events, to one-time auto magnate John DeLorean, who was giving away copies of his book in the "personality booth" in the exhibit hall.
Pat Boone, wearing white boots, white pants and a black blazer with a circle of shiny buttons, looked as healthy and handsome as a former heartthrob should. Boone has made a career in religious music, and for the first time, he said, has a song that has been nominated for a Grammy award.
The song has not been recorded "on a label" but is available on cassette. He wrote it after reading about a case in California where, he said, 16,000 fetuses were found in a trash can after an abortion clinic closed down. A lawsuit involving the American Civil Liberties Union, which was objecting to a public burial an antiabortion group wanted to make of the fetuses, went to the Supreme Court and the court found in the ACLU's favor.
The first lines of the song, which Boone sang to the group Monday, go like this:
poetry 16,000 faces
64,000 arms and legs,
. . . at least a million cries.
Oh Mama, tell me where did you go?
Oh Daddy, tell me that you didn't know.
* Boone has played the song on his weekly radio show. He is also planning a weekly radio show for children, called "Uncle Pat's Treehouse," on which he will play music with a moral message.
bat10 For most of the 2,500 delegates (an estimated 2,000 more have attended selected events), the convention was as much for business as for entertainment and a chance to meet some of the big names in evangelism. There were numerous workshops on subjects like "capturing a mass audience," or "how to get big billing in religious radio."
"We're doing a 'Donahue'-type show, we'll put four in the can at one time so it won't be too much work," one young woman was overheard saying to a man from another organization. "I've got a lot of ideas for programs that I'd like to talk to you about."
Downstairs in the exhibit hall there were hundreds of wares on display, from transmitters and microphones to plexiglass lecterns and business card holders. One company, BAC Associates Inc. (the initials stand for Born Again Christian), offers everything from key chains and mugs to a calendar organizer that includes a section called "excerpts from sermons."
"King Solomon says in Ecclesiastes that there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak," reads one of BAC's brochures. "During those times to keep silence, though, there are other ways to be testifying to our faith or to be witnessing to the truth of God's word.
The Heritage School of Evangelism and Communication, an unaccredited training program run by evangelist Jim Bakker near Charlotte, N.C., had a large display, along with the Heritage U.S.A. inspiration theme park. These 2,200 acres include Billy Graham's boyhood home, restaurants, recreational and camping facilities, housing developments, and -- soon -- a convention center.
* For women, there was a special series of workshops on the theme of the "handmaiden," (as in "handmaiden of Christ," a term referring to a woman who devotes her life to Christian precepts). One of the meetings, on the subject of obedience, was led by Joni Eareckson Tada, a 37-year-old handicapped woman.
Tada was 17 when she broke her neck in a diving accident in 1967 and soon learned that she would not walk or be able to use her hands again. During her convalescence, she decided she could either drown in a "torrent of bitterness" or dedicate her life to Christ. Now she makes her living painting, using a brush held in her mouth, and runs an organization dedicated to helping other handicapped people through churches. She has also recorded several albums of songs but doesn't consider singing her "main gift."
Blond, blue-eyed and pretty, Tada had the room's attention as she told them "obedience is the badge that should be worn on the heart of every handmaiden." Several times in her talk she appeared near tears, which, she said later, was because she felt unworthy to talk about obedience.
"Struggling is just a nice word for postponed obedience," she said. "All of us must learn obedience in the school of suffering."
She spoke of her own suffering -- concluding, "It's a sad thing to have to break your neck to learn obedience" -- and about her marriage to a high school teacher. At the end she told them that the workshop "begins when you walk out that door."
After she finished, women lined up to talk to her, some with wet eyes.
* The press corps -- at 200, slightly smaller this year than in the past -- can be a little different at the NRB. For one thing, when someone like Billy Graham has a press conference, as he did Monday, the audience applauded him before and after he spoke, something a secular group would not do.
One television interviewer said a prayer before he began an interview of Joni Tada; another was heard to ask a colleague, "But is he a real Believer?" According to a convention spokeswoman, only about 50 people were from religious media outlets, but there seemed to be more.
Nearly every event was videotaped for future use, and some of the major speeches were replayed continuously in the lobby. For the first time the Federal Communications Commission had a booth, staffed all day. Both blacks and Hispanics were well represented and caucused for special workshops on their own. Luis Palau, a Spanish-speaking evangelist from Portland, Ore., was the featured speaker at last night's banquet; Jesse Jackson is scheduled to speak this morning.
Activities began with the 6:30 a.m. prayer meeting and ended after the late-night movies and concerts. Late yesterday afternoon, one tired-looking man was patted on the back by a companion and told: "Just remember, friend, there are no committee meetings in Heaven."