Saturday, October 06, 2007

Roosting Chickens, Part I

It's not really a chicken. It's a golden eagle!

-- by Sara

Watching televangelists and other righteous public worthies spectacularly self-destruct hasn't been news since Sister Aimee wandered out of the Sonoran desert with lurid tales of kidnap and torture (she'd actually been off on holiday with her lover) all the way back in 1926. In fact, in the decades since, it's grown into an enduringly popular national sport, which really took off with the 1980s glory days of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, and has really come into its own with the emergence of modern morality all-stars like Ted Haggard and Kent Hovind.

But, surprising as it may seem, there's always been a quieter handful of the breed who actually did manage to keep their houses in order and their noses reasonably clean -- whose consistent behavior through the years at least inspired confidence that they were guys who actually tried to walk their impossible talk. Jerry Falwell. Rex Humbard. And, before any of them, Oral Roberts -- who, arguably, was also the first national evangelist to exploit the TV medium, paving the way for Falwell, Robertson, and all the others who followed.

Others came and went in their various blazes of ignominy; but Roberts went on the TV air in 1952, and soldiered on through the decades. What his outfit lacked in flash, it made up for in sheer consistency. He didn't go in for politics in a big way; and his donors had the satisfaction of seeing the (sometimes literally) concrete results of their donations: new missions, new ministers, and over-the-top futuristic new buildings at Oral Roberts University campus (the aesthetic of which suggested that the Jetsons were expected to settle on the Oklahoma prairie). The Tulsa university got a sterling reputation for training capable pastors, many of whom (like Joel Osteen, Ron Luce, Ted Haggard, and Carleton Pearson) went on to lead some of the country's biggest megachurches and fundamentalist organizations.

Mindful of their working-class audience, the Roberts carefully avoided the ostentation that characterized the Bakkers and the more recent Prosperity Gospel preachers. Roberts had his moments of deliciously delirious promotional excess (God allegedly commissioned him to cure cancer in 1983; and returned in 1987 to hold him for $8 million in ransom money, which he raised with some to spare); but in the bizarro world of televangelism, he was actually a bit more down-to-earth than most.

One of Roberts' unique attributes was that he laid out plan for his own succession -- and then actually carried it off. His handsome and charismatic son, Richard, had grown up before the faithful's eyes singing as a teenager on Dad's TV show. It seemed comfortable and easy (as these things go) when Richard began stepping up in the early 90s to take over pieces of the empire. Now, Dad's retired to California, and Richard runs the whole show.

Given all that history, it's kind of sad, in a twisted schadenfreude sort of way, to note this item from the AP's Justin Juozapavicius:
Richard Roberts is accused of illegal involvement in a local political campaign and lavish spending at donors' expense, including numerous home remodeling projects, use of the university jet for his daughter's senior trip to the Bahamas, and a red Mercedes convertible and a Lexus SUV for his wife, Lindsay.

She is accused of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on clothes, awarding nonacademic scholarships to friends of her children and sending scores of text messages on university-issued cell phones to people described in the lawsuit as "underage males."....San Antonio televangelist John Hagee, a member of the ORU board of regents, said the university's executive board "is conducting a full and thorough investigation."

...The allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by three former professors. They sued ORU and Roberts, alleging they were wrongfully dismissed after reporting the school's involvement in a local political race.

Richard Roberts, according to the suit, asked a professor in 2005 to use his students and university resources to aid a county commissioner's bid for Tulsa mayor. Such involvement would violate state and federal law because of the university's nonprofit status. Up to 50 students are alleged to have worked on the campaign.

The professors also said their dismissals came after they turned over to the board of regents a copy of a report documenting moral and ethical lapses on the part of Roberts and his family. The internal document was prepared by Stephanie Cantese, Richard Roberts' sister-in-law, according to the lawsuit.

An ORU student repairing Cantese's laptop discovered the document and later provided a copy to one of the professors.

It details dozens of alleged instances of misconduct. Among them:

• Mrs. Roberts — who is a member of the board of regents and is referred to as ORU's "first lady" on the university's Web site — frequently had cell-phone bills of more than $800 per month, with hundreds of text messages sent between 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. to "underage males who had been provided phones at university expense."

• The university jet was used to take one daughter and several friends on a senior trip to Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas. The $29,411 trip was billed to the ministry as an "evangelistic function of the president."

• Mrs. Roberts spent more than $39,000 at one Chico's clothing store alone in less than a year, and had other accounts in Texas and California. She also repeatedly said, "As long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off." The document cites inconsistencies in clothing purchases and actual usage on TV.

• Mrs. Roberts was given a white Lexus SUV and a red Mercedes convertible by ministry donors.

• University and ministry employees are regularly summoned to the Roberts' home to do the daughters' homework.

• The Roberts' home has been remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years.
This story's got it all. The corruption charge is almost small potatoes, when you consider the ways mega-churches all over the country routinely dance all over lines of the IRS's no-politicking rules. But Mrs. Roberts' extravagance (you have to wonder why she didn't just cut a promo deal with Chico's to provide her with a show wardrobe, like almost everybody else in TV does), plus that oh-so-discreet hint of improper behavior with male students (ORU's mascot is the golden eagle, not the cougar), plus the fact that this laundry list of sins against the family business was compiled by a family member, all point to a pile of tantalizing hints that the old man may soon live to see his empire go down in the biggest blaze of money, sex, and greed since Heritage USA. In the meantime, sports fans, stock up on popcorn.

As with the Bakkers' empire, the real tragedy here is that those eleven remodels and $30,000 vacations and fabulous shopping bills are financed by the Roberts clan's donors -- most of them working-class or retired people who live on macaroni and peanut butter and nick bits out of their retirement accounts so they can scrape together an extra $20 a month to help the good reverend in his Great Work. The Roberts family's entire fortune is built on the mites of widows who sent the money gladly, trusting in their stewardship and believing it would be used to reach loftier goals than private jet vacations and ponies for the kids.

These people, like the victims of televangelists all the way back to Aimee, were cheated, lied to, and swindled. Somewhere along the line, the Roberts clan apparently lost sight of the calluses on the hands that fed their sweet lives, and came to regard their supporters as simple marks to be taken for whatever they were worth. The only thing that wasn't contemptible about these people, it seems, was their money.

And maybe that was inevitable. As John Dean's been forcefully arguing lately, whenever you put conservatives in charge of government, you will very soon find your government mired in corruption and scandal. As the long history of imploding televangelists shows, there's probably a corollary to Dean's Law of Corruption that applies to the inevitable corruption of conservative-run religious enterprises as well.

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