Vail Daily column: Die-hard evangelicals may favor fiction over fact | VailDaily.com
Jack Van Ens
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Vail Daily column: Die-hard evangelicals may favor fiction over fact

Jack Van Ens

Scouts are trained to spot sparks in smoke, warning of a flare-up.

This campfire rule applies to Americans whose gullibility is stretched. When politicians use smoky language to hide facts, look for the fire of what's really happening.

In the 1980s, Christian TV stars Tammy and Jim Bakker sounded like Prosperity Gospel hucksters. They promised viewers God's monetary blessings. The Bakkers bilked their ministry, yet denied clear evidence of their graft. Most die-hard fans sided with Tammy and Jim.

"In October 1989, Jim Bakker was convicted in a federal court of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy, the prosecutors having made their case that he had bilked followers out of $158 million and taken $3.5 million for himself out of ministry funds," reports Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Frances Fitzgerald ("The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America," p. 394, Simon & Schuster, 2017). With mascara running down her cheeks and huge weepy false eyelashes, Tammy confessed that a "shopping demon" enticed her soul.

Still, faith in the Bakkers didn't waver. Die-hard fans dismissed corruption charges as fake news. It felt good to go for rides in the Christian Disneyland the Bakkers built near Charlotte, North Carolina, called Heritage USA. The park's attractions were huge, showy and tacky, such as a 163-foot waterslide and a 14-foot high fiberglass moose. Fans loved the park's luxury new-car smell.

When confronted with evidence the Bakkers bilked contributors, a fan denied seeing sparks in this fake-news fire. Visiting Heritage USA made this die-hard supporter make-up a parallel universe built on falsehoods. After hearing the verdict against Jim, he blurted out, "They don't treat murderers like they treated him. I've been to Heritage USA, and felt like I was in heaven. You were on holy ground there" ("The Evangelicals," p. 401). This Bakker buddy rejected a "secular media's witch hunt" against the Bakkers.

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Reporters at the Charlotte Observer newspaper exposed Bakkers' lies. Fans, however, remained loyal to their spiritual idols. They dismissed mainline media reports as fabrications, hoaxes and plots to destroy Christian America.

"In 1986, the publisher of the Observer wrote an in-house memo, 'PTL (Praise the Lord) givers — the people our coverage is primarily intended to enlighten — have not shown us in any substantial way that they appreciate our revelations. Rather, they seem to endorse the show-biz lifestyles of the Bakkers and to admire the creation of Heritage USA'" ("The Evangelicals," p. 396).

Does history repeat itself? Our nation's show-biz president tells us Mexican immigrants are "criminals and rapists." Mexico will pay for a wall that blocks these crooks from crossing our borders. Moreover, investigations into Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election is a witch hunt, tweets our president.

Trump's supporters stand by him, as did fans during the Bakker scandal. "He (Trump) has a 65 percent approval rating among white evangelical Christians, though almost a quarter disapprove of the job he is doing," reports the June NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll.

Mark Galli, editor in chief of "Christianity Today" magazine, says the Church's biggest challenge in 2017 is to get Evangelicals to accept facts reported in the press and not rely on fiction stored in their mental silos ready to burst into flames. "… white evangelicals support Trump's exclusionary policy (against refugees and Muslim immigrants) by a whopping 75 percent," laments Galli. "Since Trump's election, social and political scientists in survey after survey have tried to unravel the mystery of the 81 percent of white evangelical Christians who voted for him."

The Bakkers built heavenly Heritage USA theme park. The president erected Manhattan's Trump Tower reaching to the stars. But his tweets fizzle like falling stars into dark holes of lies, which harm people, countries and the truth. Where there's smoke, there's fire.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.