The first time I saw Jimmy Swaggart was on TV in my kitchen at 8 o'clock Sunday morning. I was making porridge when this voice boomed out, "You are a sinner and you are damned to burn in Hell until you beg forgiveness and cleanse your soul" -- or words to that effect.
I was so amazed at how much Swaggart knew about me that I sent him a check for $50.
The next Sunday I got up and turned on the set. In truth, I was hoping he would announce the names of those who had sent him $50. But Swaggart had other fish to fry. He took off after people who bought or sold pornography and said the wrath of God would fall on us and we would be eaten by worms and slugs -- or words to that effect. Then he started crying and I sent him a check for $100.
I stopped watching "Saturday Night Live" so I would be fresh when I turned on Swaggart in the morning. I couldn't believe it, but I wanted him to punish me.
The reverend was unmerciful. He railed at me for my obsessive avarice. He said his God was better than my God. He marched up and down the stage and then stopped and pointed his finger directly at me, promising a plague of locusts in my washing machine -- or words to that effect. He gave me no choice so I sent him $500.
Did I feel better after I sent off the money? Of course I did. I had been engaging in immoral behavior ever since I attended the University of Southern California, but Swaggart was the first preacher to call attention to it. I now had someone to beg forgiveness from.
The winter went along as winters do. Swaggart called me a thief, a liar, a scurvy nonbeliever and words to that effect. I, in turn, wept as I sent him checks so he would forgive me.
Then the Jim and Tammy Bakker story broke, and I thought to myself, "Surely Jimmy Swaggart will forgive one of his own." But what makes Jimmy a great preacher is he doesn't discriminate. If you slip, you go right down into the cellar with those who have offended the Lord. Swaggart was not going to punch anyone's ticket who had committed adultery on church time. Nobody was as tough on Jimmy and Tammy as Swaggart.
I was so impressed with his stance I sent $500 to him and a supplementary $250 for bashing Jim Bakker.
Then it happened. I was watching the Olympics when the announcer said Jimmy Swaggart was being investigated by his church for having been caught with a prostitute in a pornographic situation that was too weird to be described on television.
I dropped to my knees and cried, "Say it isn't so, Jimmy."
But Jimmy came on TV a little later and said it was so, as buckets of tears flowed down his cheeks. My first idea was that it was a frame-up. Then I thought to myself, if it isn't a frame-up, Swaggart is going to need money. I sent him a check for $200.
The thing that bothered me was that all these months while Swaggart was accusing me of being a sinner, it turns out he was the meanest transgressor on the tube. Did this make him better or worse than me?
"The real sin," a fundamentalist taxi driver told me, "is not the atrocity Swaggart confessed to, but the outrage he committed against evangelical broadcasting. People who watch ministers on television want them squeaky clean. I can see the Lord forgiving Swaggart for his sexual misconduct, but I would not bet on the electronic preachers out there who depend on their checks every Monday morning."