Sin and sickness

October 15, 1991

Amid the tumultuous events of the past weekend, a noteworthy story got buried: Jimmy Swaggart, who only five years ago was the unrivaled high priest of televangelism, was arrested on a minor traffic charge in California -- in the company of a prostitute. The story made just a few paragraphs inside most papers.

Only a hard-hearted cynic could find merriment in this development. After his downfall three years ago when he was caught with a prostitute in a motel, Swaggart made his tearful "I-have-sinned" confession which was so dramatic that he made the cover of Time magazine.

Although defrocked by his church, Swaggart weathered the storm and clung to a remnant of his once-huge flock. Two days after his latest arrest, he was still seen, prerecorded, on Sunday on several area TV stations. But we suspect this will be the last time Jimmy Swaggart will preach on TV, here or anywhere else.

There is great pathos in this story. After the 1988 episode Swaggart seemed to be genuinely repentant. Gone from his sermons were the savage, slashing attacks on other religions, on homosexuals and "perverts," on "liberals" and "secular humanists," even Alcoholics Anonymous, of all things, which he perceived to be a form of choose-your-own-God religion. Swaggart at last grasped that his real sin lay not in seeking the services of a prostitute but rather in his hubristic arrogance.

Yet, even though he seemed to expunge the sin of pride and arrogance from his troubled soul, he continued to maintain that aberrant human behavior could not possibly be a sickness, that it was always "sin" -- and could be treated only by God. At the time of his first disaster, psychologists quietly warned that Swaggart had better seek professional help, or he would inevitably get into trouble again. Alas, prophetic counsel.

One of Swaggart's church members, full of love and faith, greeted this latest news with a certain enviable serenity. Asked what she thought of Swaggart's arrest, she said simply, "You forgive, and forgive, and forgive." From the perspective of her religion, she was absolutely right: No one falls below redemption, no matter how many times he sins.

Even so, we truly hope that Swaggart realizes that what he needs now is not forgiveness, but treatment -- skilled medical psychiatric treatment in one of the many facilities that treat sexual disorders. But before he can avail himself of that treatment, he will first have to forthrightly recognize that sickness, or even difference, is not sin. And in so recognizing, he will no longer judge all those he has condemned in the past.

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