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Blow to TV Evangelism Described

February 04, 1988|BRAD HANSON | Times Staff Writer

Rocked by several embarrassing scandals, some prominent television evangelists are retreating from the limelight and quietly trying to rebuild the "electronic churches" that have been damaged by negative publicity, a Cal State Fullerton religious studies professor said Wednesday.

"There is now a certain disenchantment with this slick TV evangelism," said Benjamin J. Hubbard, who was participating in a forum series at the Santa Ana campus of Rancho Santiago College.

Hubbard said the scandal involving the Rev. Jim Bakker brought to the surface rivalries that had long been pent up among competing ministries. Bakker, head of the PTL Club (Praise the Lord), resigned his ministry in March, 1987, after admitting to an extramarital sexual encounter he had in 1980 with Jessica Hahn. Bakker charged that he had been blackmailed over the Hahn affair as part of a "diabolical plot" to gain control of his PTL enterprise, which reported $129 million in revenues in 1986.

"I think these people (television evangelists) have been dealt a blow, and I think it might be difficult for them to achieve the power and notoriety they once had," Hubbard said. "The scandals woke the country up to the absurdity and shallowness of what they were doing."

The PTL scandal heated up when Bakker's lawyer, Roy Grutman, identified rival television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart as the one behind the hostile takeover attempt, but not behind the blackmail effort. Swaggart denied the charges but delivered disparaging remarks about the Bakker operation, as well as about Oral Roberts' drive to raise $8 million by March 31, 1987, or be called home to heaven.

"I think the scandals have drained people's finances and drained people's spirit," he said. "Some people end up being disillusioned with unfulfilled promises."

Hubbard said television evangelists are "laying low" to avoid attracting bad publicity--not only for themselves, but for other televangelists as well.

"In the foreseeable future they will be on their best behavior," Hubbard said after the lecture. "But as long as they are competing for the same chunk of the financial evangelical market there will always be rivalry."

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