Higher Truth for $500

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

November 13, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Wall Street and the banking industry are keeping a nervous eye on the latest fund-raising pitch from Oral Roberts, who has a million God-fearing Americans rushing $500 checks to Tulsa to head off ''a satanic conspiracy'' that could endanger us all.

Actually, considering the recession, I'm not sure all the chosen million are responding immediately to the TV preacher's appeal. Though they are not by nature the skeptical type, it is possible that a few may stop and think before they mail their checks.

If they do, the good Rev. may not be as successful as he was the last time he said terrible things would happen unless his TV flock came through with the right amount on time. In 1987, he warned that God would spirit him away if he did not raise precisely $8 million. He said the money was for scholarships for medical missionaries.

The money came in. Whether the result has been a sharp upturn in the number of ministers healing the heathen, I cannot say. But with the support of the faithful, Mr. Roberts' Oklahoma empire has survived quite nicely, thank you -- until lately.

Lately, there has been a drop-off in contributions. Mr. Roberts' son, backup preacher and spokesman, Richard, blames that on the fact that one of Oral's competitors, Jimmy Swaggart, got caught with a hooker again last month.

Exactly how this cause-and-effect worked is not explained. To reporters in Tulsa, young Mr. Roberts said news of Mr. Swaggart's having a prostitute in his car when stopped by traffic police in California ''has broken our hearts. We continue to pray for our brother. And yet, our finances have dropped.''

That ''and yet'' conjunction is curious. Does he mean the mere act of praying for his brother should have brought the Roberts conglomerate enough favorable notice from on high to boost its cash flow? Did he offer double-barreled prayers, piggy-backing a fund appeal onto a kind word for Brother Jimmy?

From one viewpoint, it is easy to believe young Mr. Roberts' statement that Mr. Swaggart's latest embarrassment ''has broken our hearts.'' On the premise that whenever the bell tolls, it tolls for thee and me, any broadcast evangelist should be sorry when any other gets into public trouble. The Swaggart escapades, the conviction of Jim Bakker and the fishy odor about some other such business enterprises taints the credibility of them all.

On the other hand, in this recessionary year, the struggle is keen for contributions from a finite number of the gullible. With Mr. Swaggart twice caught, Mr. Bakker out of business and times tight, it would seem the swamis still out of jail would be glad of any development that shrank the competition.

The Tulsa World broke the story about the new Roberts fund-raising letter that says ''We've got to have a financial

breakthrough or all hell is going to break loose against this ministry.'' There is a ''satanic conspiracy to stop God's healing ministry in the earth,'' the letter warns.

Despite the apparent immensity of the threat, Mr. Roberts is not sounding the alarm via that most mass of media, his spiritual home, television. He can't issue the appeal by TV ''because of the enemies of this ministry,'' he explains. Interviewed, Richard admits that he is upset at talking about it ''with the secular media.'' It's a private matter, he says, involving the Roberts ''family'' of a million proven givers.

By ''the enemies of this ministry,'' he obviously means outfits like the conservative World, which keeps a close eye on the Roberts empire. Once such ''secular media'' get onto something like this appeal, they start asking questions, and it's all downhill from there.

This is a brilliant example of how the topsy-turvy illogic of the religious right promotes fears of a permanent conspiracy. The alleged conspiracy is not trying to raise half a billion dollars out of public sight, for purposes impossible to trace -- it is instead the rest of the world, which asks too many questions about such operations.

Why questions are so annoying is made clear in Richard Roberts' reluctant interview, in which the impending satanic disaster is reduced from planetary to local scale. The money, he concedes, is needed to pay the Roberts ministry's business debts and finance its television shows.

Any true believer will understand how the chance of failure in Tulsa equals, in the Roberts vocabulary, ''a satanic conspiracy to stop God's healing ministry in the earth.'' For the harsh facts, too scary for the general public, you may send a check to you-know-who. That will put you on the mailing list for higher truth, forevermore.

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