BOSTON -- When Jimmy Swaggart fell from grace, the event resounded as loudly as a golden idol hitting a marble temple floor. The fall, like the rise of this evangelical, made for high televised drama. At its peak, he cried out, ''I know that so many of you will ask, 'Why? Why?' I have asked myself that 10,000 times through 10,000 tears.''
Swaggart had preached mightily against sin, unforgivingly against weaknesses in his brother preachers and bitterly against pornography. ''Pornography titillates and captivates the sickest of the sick and makes them slaves to their own consuming lusts . . . ensnares its victims in a living hell,'' he once wrote. It appears now he knew a good deal about that living hell.
But it wasn't just Swaggart's flock that asked ''Why? Why?'' as they found out the details -- the motel strip he cruised regularly, the $13-an-hour motel room where he is said to have paid a prostitute to perform pornographic acts, all in the shadow of a billboard that reads, ''Your Eternity Is at Stake.'' The most cynical and secular people I know seemed somewhat bewildered. Listing the sex-scandal ministers alphabetically from Jim Bakker to Marvin Gorman to Jimmy Swaggart, many of them asked, ''What's with these guys?''
I watched two distinct sets of answers to that question emerge. They reveal a split in American society that runs deeper even than the split in Swaggart's life: a split between those who analyze human failings in the terms of psychology and those who analyze them in the terms of scripture.
To the millions who worship in Swaggart's church and through his televised ministry, the minister lost a round in the battle between God and the Devil. To the secular millions who've absorbed psychoanalytic terms into their everyday vocabulary, he lost in a battle between the superego and the id. To the first group, he was a sinner. To the second group, he was screwed up.
The fundamentalist and therapeutic cultures in this country are not always crisply divided. Confession has much in common with what Freud called the ''talking cure.'' One group's soul is the other's psyche. Most of us are at least somewhat bilingual. The therapeutic language has infiltrated fundamentalist speech; the words of a moral code are rampant in a secular world.
Fundamentalist Tammy Bakker described her use of contributions for personal shopping as ''therapy.'' More than one secular supporter judged Gary Hart's behavior as both a character and a moral flaw -- two parts stupid, one part wrong. At their edges, feel-good fundamentalism and feel-good therapy offer the same promises.
But between the hard-core groups, there are more than differences of vocabulary. There are conflicts as great as one's focus on the afterlife and the other's on the here-and-now. Swaggart railed against psychology as a modern devil. There are therapists, in turn, who accept everyone and everything except religious self-righteousness.
The gap is particularly great in regard to sex, the centerpiece for the Bakker-Gorman-Swaggart trilogy. Swaggart said more than once, ''Victory over flesh does not come easily.'' But no child of the Freudian era would speak of victory over flesh as if Eros were the enemy of Psyche. Indeed, Freud believed that trouble came when sexuality was in conflict with the spirit.
The Swaggart story is the essence of a larger melodrama played before two cultures, one that thinks the preacher has been led astray and another that thinks he's a neurotic mess. One thinks he can be saved, and the other thinks he could use a good shrink.