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The Human Comedy

February 23, 1988

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.

This seems to have been something less than a spontaneous outburst of repentance. Apparently Swaggart was nailed by another ministerial adversary, the Rev. Marvin Gorman, who is reported to have got hold of--in some unexplained way--pictures of Swaggart entering and leaving a New Orleans motel room with a reputed lady of easy virtue. Gorman, also defrocked with Swaggart's help after admitting to unsanctioned sexual encounters, says that--whatever role he may have played in Swaggart's exposure--his heart for now is deeply saddened by the affair.

It is a sad business certainly for all who may find comfort and consolation in the preachings of a Swaggart, a Bakker, a Gorman or any of the other evangelists who reach millions and who reap millions through their television ministries.

Repentance, no matter how lachrymose, cannot easily wash away the dark stain of hypocrisy. Others, though, are likely to appreciate the matter more for its unambiguous but certainly not unfamiliar irony. The guy who scared the hell out of a lot of people crusading against sin got caught Doing It. The human comedy goes on, with the fallibility of others providing endless opportunity for moral instruction.

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