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The Shock Jock of Televangelism : With Savvy Philanthropy and an In-Your-Face Style, Dr. Gene Scott Has Generated a Lavish Lifestyle, Powerful Friends in Los Angeles and a Fiercely Loyal Global Following

July 10, 1994|Glenn F. Bunting | Glenn F. Bunting is a staff writer for The Times' Washington Bureau. His last article for the magazine was a profile of former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley

ON ANY GIVEN NIGHT, MILLIONS OF weary souls plop down on the family-room couch, pick up the remote and scan the airwaves in search of infotainment. They skip past snapshots of Roseanne raiding the refrigerator and the Bundys swapping insults until a close-up of The Face flashes on the screen.

Partially obscured by cigar smoke, the face appears puffed with rage and ready to explode. Piercing blue eyes stare through half-framed reading specs and gold-rimmed shades, worn one on top of the other. A mouthful of perfectly aligned, pearl-white teeth sneers behind a wispy beard. Shocking white hair stands out each night from under assorted head wear--a Stetson, a Stanford cap, a crown, even a sombrero.

This bizarre visage lures television viewers to Dr. Gene Scott, pastor and supreme leader of the Los Angeles University Cathedral. But it is his provocative, profanity-laced monologues that keep them tuning in. Scott's eclectic broadcast mixes high-voltage Scripture and obnoxious solicitations (for money, naturally) with taped footage of his church's world-champion American saddlebred show horses prancing to the tunes of Sinatra and Springsteen. Toss in heavy doses of call-in hero worship from South Africa to Santa Barbara along with amusing commentary on current events and the result is a sort of religious Rush Limbaugh.

"Nuke 'em in the name of Jesus!" Scott ranted during the Gulf War, boasting that he was the only minister urging President Bush to bomb Iraq. Recently, after three years of extensive dental work, Scott joked to his congregation that "there'll be fewer weeks in 1994 that I come here wanting to kill. So, get on the telephone!"

"Get on the telephone!" is Scott's favorite bark. It's his way of ordering the faithful to send cash. And send they do, more than $1 million a month, according to some estimates. Through the years, the collections have helped support Scott's lavish lifestyle--chauffeured limousines, Lear jet travel, a Pasadena mansion, 'round-the-clock bodyguard protection and scenic horse ranches in Kentucky and the San Gabriel Valley.

At first blush, w. euGene Scott, as he spells his name, seems miscast as God's renegade salesman. The 64-year-old preacher's son holds a Stanford Ph.D., fancies himself an intellectual, a philosopher, an avid bibliophile and philanthropist. But a closer look reveals a fascinatingly complex character: Scott has no formal education in theology, an enormous ego, eccentric personality and extraordinarily diverse interests. He is a world-renowned stamp collector, an equestrian, painter and hunter, and a saxophonist who pokes fun at "honkers" like President Clinton. He has been lampooned on "Saturday Night Live" by comic Robin Williams, profiled in the documentary "God's Angry Man" and feted by some of California's prominent personalities.

Scott is hailed by some community leaders for reviving the Christian spirit in the City of Angels. While crime, homelessness, graffiti and the stench of the inner city have pushed other congregations to the outer suburbs, Scott relocated his Glendale church Downtown in 1986. Every Sunday he attracts hundreds of worshipers from all over Southern California to hear his message in the historic United Artists Theater at Broadway and Olympic. His church spent $2 million to renovate the classic Spanish Gothic theater, established in 1927 by Hollywood luminaries Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, and today, the cathedral rooftop carries the same neon red "Jesus Saves" signs that for decades towered over the city's skyline a few blocks away on Hope Street.

For all his achievements, Scott remains misunderstood and the subject of much ridicule. His wealth and notoriety, coupled with his spirited defense of the Resurrection lead skeptics to dismiss him as just another greedy, Bible-thumping televangelist. But nothing infuriates Scott more than to be lumped with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

"In every way possible within the boundaries of God's word, I have tried to separate from the television evangelists' image," Scott tells his congregation. Television evangelist "has become a word that can only become analogized to nigger, kike, beaner and other epithets designed to demean and create a perceptual set of a lesser-quality being."

Few quarrel with Scott's insistence that he occupies a planet all his own in the universe of electronic ministry. Within the mainstream of religious broadcasters, largely made up of conservative evangelicals like the Rev. Billy Graham, Scott is regarded as unique. Indeed, he is unusual even among the many zany characters who operate on the fringe of televangelism. Who else spreads God's word so fervently while smoking a fat cigar and cursing his rivals? Or advises his followers that they don't have to go to church on Sunday to be a Christian? Now that his church's broadcasting enterprise--the University Network--spans the globe, Scott claims the world as his parish.

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