Whenever I walk out and thousands clap their hands, I get butterflies down inside. And quickly I tell Him, 'Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! God will not glory in the flesh!'
-- The Rev. Jimmy Swaggart
The time is near.
All is in readiness.
The giant television screen hangs in the firmament of the Capital Centre. The three mobile and five stationary cameras are in their places. Dozens of ushers, wearing lapel pins with the sign of the cross and dove, float between the rows.
"How great Thou art," the choir begins. Off to one side, in an Edenic thicket of ferns, Frances Swaggart sits with her son Donnie. They join the hymn. And it comes to pass that Donnie takes the stage.
"Let me present to you," he shouts in a reedy tenor, "your evangelist, my dad, JIMMY SWAGGART!"
The man is well christened. A solid six-footer with a sweep of honey hair and a handsome, open face, he swaggers to the front of the stage. He wears a slate gray suit graced by a white handkerchief. At his appearance there is cheering, weeping, and speaking in tongues.
He grabs the microphone. He holds it to his mouth. And his sweet-smoky voice, with its Louisiana lilt, cuts the holy din like a shining sword.
"Giver of eternal life! Baptizer of the Holy Ghost! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!"
Then his voice becomes nearly a whisper, gently caressing the air.
"I desperately needed a touch of God in my life. Frances and I were just married. I was just starting to preach. It was just a little church. It didn't have the beautiful chandeliers ..."
The eye wanders heavenward, to a grid of bald lights. The brain rocks in the cradle of country rhythms, honed by 30 years of preaching, sweating and dancing before the Lord. When attention finally fixes, the voice is rising in a crescendo of ecstasy. "Jesus -- He's mine! He's mine! He's mine! He's mine!"
Then Swaggart breaks into song. "Jesus is the sweetest name I'll ever know," he sings in a voice like warm molasses. The hands of the faithful spring up like antennae to receive the Holy Spirit.
"Yes," he sings, "He's just the same as His holy holy holy name ..."
Jimmy Swaggart, who yesterday completed a three-day crusade in Washington, is the world's most popular "televangelist," a term he uses liberally. He has a nationwide viewing audience of 8 million and worldwide, according to his publicity, "in excess of 500 million people." The numbers tumble out in multiplied thousands: 400,000 needy children, 2,000 stations, 2,000 cable outlets, 1,400 employes, 564 missionaries, 145 countries, 13 languages, 11 buildings.
He has preached, by his own reckoning, at least 7,300 sermons since 1969, when the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries launched "The Camp Meeting Hour" on radio. He has a new syndicated newspaper column. His ministry takes in close to $ 12 million a month in donations and sales of gospel albums -- more than $ 140 million last year, according to Donnie Swaggart, vice president of the ministries. With booklets about everything from "That Thing," a discourse on lust, to "When God Fights Russia," a meditation on Armageddon, it's the largest mail order business in Louisiana.
Swaggart, 51, is the only major televangelist to have formally endorsed Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson for president, after first saying he preferred him not to run. He predicted Robertson will get "the Pentecostal and charismatic vote," which he claimed is 30 million. "Politics is ugly because good Christians have not gotten involved like they ought to," he said. "The scuffling will be clean. Won't be lying and cheating and bribes and kickbacks and payoffs involved." Should Robertson ascend to the White House, "the First Amendment will be guaranteed," Swaggart promised, "because true Christians believe in the freedom of others that are outside our faith more than anyone else."
Swaggart is no stranger to the White House, having visited to receive briefings from high-level officials and to advise President Reagan. Recently he had an audience with Vice President Bush and came away well pleased. "I like Bush, and if Robertson doesn't make it -- we pray he will, but if he doesn't -- we would still be in favor of Bush. As of the moment."
Dan Rather has called him -- in a statement now written down in glory, or at least on one of Swaggart's press releases -- "the most effective speaker in the country." But People for the American Way, the group founded by Norman Lear to counter the evangelical right, calls him "Pat Robertson's Farrakhan."
"Actually, that's an insult to Louis Farrakhan," said Anthony Podesta, president of the Lear group. "Farrakhan only hates some people. Swaggart at various times has said similar kinds of hateful things about Catholics, Jews, Baptists ... He's an equal-opportunity bigot."
Last week at his headquarters in Baton Rouge, La., while preaching to about 500 students and faculty of the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, the evangelist gave his detractors further ammunition.
"I'm gonna let you in on a little secret now," he confided to his flock in his cavernous Family Worship Center, an eight-sided building that seats 7,000. "This will be one of the greatest things you ever heard in all your life." The worshipers leaned forward. "Whenever the Lord tells you something, whenever it happens in your life -- it won't happen often, but if it does, even one time -- you're at the very zenith of the presence of God." He paused, surveying the room. "Take advantage of it. Always ask for something. I'm serious. Right at that moment, ask Him for something ... Big! He can't turn you down. He's asking you to do something."
Swaggart illustrated with the story of an experience he had in the Philippines several years ago. It seems that early one morning in Manila, he was walking and praying outside his hotel -- "you never have to worry about muggers at 4 o'clock in the morning" -- when the Lord suddenly came upon him and said, "I want you to increase your mission's giving from $ 600,000 a month to $ 1 million a month." Swaggart replied, "All right, Lord, I am gonna do it. But I want You to do something for me. I want you to increase the organization's income as if that million was a tithe." And so the Lord said, "What you ask me to do I have done. You asked me to bring in $ 10 million a month. Go check the books -- I've done it!" At this point in the sermon the chapel erupted in shouts of "Praise God!" and "Hallelujah!" but the preacher hurried on, grinning and quoting the Lord. "And now I want you ..."
The applause turned to laughter, Swaggart throwing back his head to emit a veritable cachinnation.
"I've learned something else," he said once he regained his composure. "Don't ever bargain with Jesus. He's a Jew."
The remark brought down the house.
"I've given as good as I've gotten," Swaggart said, "so I have no complaints."
He has identified the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress as "institutions damned by God." He regularly condemns Catholicism as "a false cult" ("doctrines of devils, doctrines of devils," he once called the Catholic traditions). On television and in his widely sold booklets, he has been equally harsh with Mormonism ("contrary to the Word of God"), Christian Science ("neither 'Christian' nor 'scientific' ") Seventh-Day Adventism ("if they trust in [the doctrine of keeping the Sabbath on Saturday] as their salvation, they will die lost").
"I love the Jewish people," he said in his office after his speech at the Family Worship Center. "When you have true love for a people, and you wouldn't do anything in the world to hurt them, and would do anything in the world to help them, then it comes as an abrupt shock when they don't reciprocate ...
"I think that we really did not understand the Jewish people. I know I didn't ... I thought I understood everything about them and I didn't. And that's really the worst ignorance of all, is when you don't know you don't know."
Swaggart exuded an agreeable aura of schoolboy innocence and roguish charm. Yet in almost the same breath he added, "Norman Lear, I'm told, is an atheistic Jew. There's nothing in the world any greater than to be a Jew, and nothing in the world any worse than being an atheistic Jew. That's what you call the paradox of all paradoxes."
"He can really be very charming," said Baton Rouge businessman Murray Horowitz, a pawnbroker who was Swaggart's neighbor for many years. As cochairman of the Israel Bonds drive, he threw a reception for Swaggart after the evangelist bought a $ 100,000 bond. "I have noticed that he is almost like two different people -- the person preaching I find very different from the person you see one-on-one."
At the Capital Centre over the weekend, Swaggart fixed a reporter for Israel's largest circulation daily, Yediot Ahronot, with his crystal blue eyes.
"One day the nation of Israel will accept the Lord Jesus Christ," he told her. "Several things are going to happen in the future that are cataclysmic, and most of it involves the State of Israel, to be frank with you ...
"There will be a man who will rise in the Middle East not too many years from now that will project himself as the Messiah. He will say, 'I am God.' And the Jewish nation will accept him ... He will make a seven-year pact with Israel. In the middle of that seven-year pact -- 3 1/2 years -- he will break that nonaggression treaty with Israel and he will set himself up as God in Jerusalem and attack Israel, and Israel for the first time in her history will be defeated and will go to a place that you now know as Petra."
The reporter listened open-mouthed.
"It's called The Time of Jacob's Trouble. And the Bible also tells us -- Zechariah does -- that two-thirds of the nation of Israel will be slaughtered during that time ...
"They're going to cry, the people of Israel, for the Messiah to come. They're going to cry. As the Bible describes it, at that hour, America will not be able to help Israel, no other nation will be able to help this little, tiny, tiny people -- and they're going to cry, 'Lord! You are our only hope and if you don't come now there's no more Israel!' And that moment He's coming back ... He'll split the skies asunder ... He'll set his feet on Mount Olivet ... And the entire nation of Israel -- those that are left -- will accept the Lord. And then the Jewish people are going to become the most evangelizing, the premier nation on the face of the earth.
"That's quite a story, isn't it?"
"It sounds scary," the reporter agreed.
There's a little house in Ferriday, Louisiana, a little town that means nothing to you. It must be 60 years old. It's a little small frame house. And I'm probably gonna try and buy it and bring it and put it out there somewhere ... What in the world would you do that for, Jimmy Swaggart? Well, it's really only the sentimental value, and I'll tell you why ... -- Jimmy Swaggart, preaching to his Bible College students
The house was the site of a prayer meeting he attended at age 9. His grandmother was there. His Aunt Rene was there. His mother and father may have been there, he can't remember. The church pastor may have been there.
"I still see myself sitting on the floor," he said, "leaning on the couch with my back up against it. And there was an utterance in tongues that was given. I don't remember who gave it. There was an interpretation to those tongues and I don't remember who gave that. But it said something that had been dealing with my little 9-year-old heart for months.
" 'You will preach my gospel all over the world. You will take it even to Africa' -- I remember that distinctly. And I knew the Holy Spirit was talking about this poor, pitiful, now preacher, then child. I knew it. I had no doubt about it."
Swaggart grew up in the Assemblies of God, a Protestant sect founded in 1914 as part of "a vast evangelical movement that swept most of the South and Midwest during the Roaring Twenties and Depression thirties," he writes in his autobiography "To Cross a River." It recounts his life as an erstwhile honky-tonk piano player and Louisiana swamper, high school dropout and partner in mischief with his cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, a pillar of rock 'n' roll, and Mickey Gilley, a tower of country. Yet one of the books sold here at the crusade admonishes: "Any Christian who would allow any type of rock or country recording in his home is inviting in the powers of darkness."
The Assemblies of God also believe in direct communication with the Lord. In Swaggart's autobiography, Jesus intercedes to help the author build his first house, buy a radio station, even pick out a new Oldsmobile.
"It's very simple," Swaggart explained in his office. "I was a young evangelist. We had no money. I think our income was $ 30 a week maybe, and I think the Lord was concerned about an automobile that would do the job for what He'd asked me to do. He knew what I was going to need. I didn't know at the time that I would need something that would pull a trailer and would have to have the weight ...
"So to answer the question, what difference does it make to Him whether you drive an Oldsmobile or a rick-a-shaw or a ricochet in China, the only answer to that would be, sometimes He's not interested. And other times He may do it. He loves us. He loves us."
Jerry Lee had told me about a new leather recliner he had recently bought. It was covered in green leather and cost $ 300. I headed for his den and sure enough there sat the rich-looking chair. Gloomy thoughts seemed to fill my mind as I stood looking at that chair and running my hand over its finish ... My head grew dizzy. For a few moments I felt weaker than I had in a long time.
-- From "To Cross a River"
The grounds of the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries are lush, 240 acres tended by gardeners in straw hats astride mowers. New buildings sprout up everywhere. The parsonage, several miles away on multiplied acres of lawnscape, is a mansion surrounded by a brick wall, with heat sensors and cameras in the trees for security. "No Trespassing" signs are abundant. The house -- worth an estimated $ 2 million -- sprawls over 9,337 square feet and features in the master suite, according to the local magazine Gris Gris, "a four-columned, step-up Jacuzzi with a gold-colored swan faucet."
"The world has somehow gotten asceticism and serving God kind of mixed up," Swaggart said. "And they've gotten it in their mind -- I think from some of the Catholic orders, vows of poverty and so on -- and they've kind of gotten mixed up and confused with reality. In the first place, we believe that God blesses people. If you live for Him, He'll bless you."
In 1981, a year when the ministry took in $ 38 million, Swaggart paid himself $ 19,142, while Donnie took $ 58,500 and Frances took $ 50,526, according to published reports.
"Mine's not 19 now," Swaggart said. "It's more than that. The CPAs came in and said, 'You've got to take more than that.' "
"We take the position," Donnie, 31, broke in, "ask any question you want to ask, and if we don't want to answer it, we'll just tell you."
"For instance, I wouldn't tell you what my salary was," his father went on. "You won't believe this, but I don't know, I honestly don't know. It's under $ 100,000. And I could find out what it was in about 20 seconds if I wanted to."
Earlier this month a California court ruled against Swaggart over the payment of state sales tax on items sold by the ministries, a case now on appeal. Would Jesus have hired a tax lawyer?
"He wouldn't have had any choice," Swaggart said. "He paid taxes. He even performed a miracle for a coin to be found in a fish's mouth and told Peter to go get it. So yes, He would have had a tax lawyer or whatever the case may be. He paid taxes, so somebody computed His tax. Ever thought about that? And He had Matthew along, who was a tax collector before he became an apostle. So He pretty well had the same thing I have." Here Swaggart burst out laughing.
"Can we go back to the office?" his wife Frances chimed in, a disapproving edge to her voice. (This month's Baton Rouge Magazine describes her this way: "Her features are soft, her manner quiet and pleasant. She is totally feminine. Her accent remains northern Louisiana. She does the hiring and firing.") "Why do you all feel this way?" she demanded. "Because it takes money to operate, just like any other business or organization? What is the problem you all have with that? I've asked several people and they can never give me an answer. Why is that looked at as something that's so wrong?"
The handkerchief is out, mopping his glistening brow.
"We've come for but one purpose. That's to lift up Jesus and kick the Devil to kingdom come!"
Swaggart is a yielded vessel for the Holy Ghost. The ushers float through Capital Centre with plastic buckets.
"Your gift tonight in the offering will go totally for television in foreign countries," he says. "We need $ 200,000 a week more than last year. It costs $ 800,000 a week for the raw television time. With production costs, it's basically $ 2.5 million a week. That's to reach, we believe, 500 million people a week -- but I have lowered it to 200 million a week just to be conservative -- with that old-fashioned gospel Holy Ghost message ..."
He takes to the grand piano and plays gospel riffs, his style at once fluid and muscular. The ushers continue their floating.
At length he begins his message, "Shields of Gold and Shields of Brass," preaching from the first book of Kings, 14th chapter -- wherein Shishak, king of Egypt, plunders the house of the Lord. It is a message of deterioration and redemption, of "Israel's iniquity! Homosexuality! Lesbianism! So terrible that words could not adequately describe the wickedness, the debauchery of the heathenism!"
He holds his gold-leaf Bible aloft, strutting back and forth across the stage. "Preach it!" some among the faithful holler up to him.
"Which will it be?" he demands. "Shishak" -- he spits out the name, something vicious in his voice -- "or the Lord? ... Satan always comes to steal and to kill. And he comes to take the virginity away from the girl! Bind with drugs! With alcohol! With lust! With every power of Hell! And you can't beat that game. You listening to me? You can't beat that game!"
And then Swaggart notes in passing, "If the temple were constructed today, it would cost over $ 1 trillion ..."