Human nature being what it is, there are probably two prevailing responses to the news that the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, a highly successful television evangelist, has been compelled to confess publicly to unspecified but almost certainly spicy moral transgressions. Some, warmly remembering Swaggart's past ministerial services, will probably react to his tearful confessional candor with a generous readiness to forgive his slip from grace. Others are more likely to find the revelations of his alleged trysts with prostitutes utterly hilarious.
There is no way to measure which of these responses may be dominant across the land. Our guess is that the laughers likely have the edge, for nearly everyone is cheered by seeing hypocrisy exposed and--the other side of the coin--by perceiving that moral justice has to some extent been done. Is there something cruel in this? Of course, as there always is whenever we take pleasure from the misfortunes of others. But there is also something perfectly understandable.
Swaggart has made what from all accounts is a lucrative career preaching about the wages of sin to millions of followers in 142 countries. He was also instrumental in leading the charge that unseated and defrocked the Rev. Jim Bakker, formerly the well-paid and rich-living head of the PTL television ministry. Swaggart could feel no charity for Bakker; he called his confessed sexual lapses "a cancer on the body of Christ." Now Swaggart himself has been forced to ask his wife, his congregation and his church to pardon his own weakness of the flesh.