Yes, it’s me. I did leave the show, but as I said at the time, I’m not cutting all ties.
From the earliest days of my involvement with AXP, I watched Trinity Broadcasting Network as often as I could, for the sheer bizarre spectacle of it. The shamelessness. The utter lack of taste in its Vegas-y approach to Christian worship, and the way in which it worked so well for the Crouches as a machine to print money. Even my memories of my own church-going days as an adolescent held nothing of this weird world of massive pink fright wigs and gaudy suits. I was struck by the pocket universe TBN created, in which it seemed you weren’t just merely watching a channel but being drawn into a world that you yourself could share in… if only you sow your seed of faith right now.
Right around the turn of the century, before blogs were really a thing, I started up one o’ them Geocities sites and wrote about six or seven snarky columns I called Martin’s TBN Watch. As they can be a bit of a pain to find after 15 years, I’ve decided to reprint one here for your amusement, to commemorate the passing of one of America’s great Christian grifters. Enjoy.
May 2001. Sometimes Trinity makes it so easy for me I almost feel guilty. Most of the time the network is just plain goofy, but every once in a while the crassness that is fundamentalist televangelism comes roaring to the front of the stage, basking in the glow of the studio spots with a big grin on its face, gleefully indifferent to just how offensive it is. I’m talking, of course, about TBN’s fundraising Praise-a-Thons.
In $$$ we trust
The Praise-a-Thons are a serious production for TBN, played out over a week in eight-hour blocks of broadcast time. Paul dusts off his glitteriest suits and lovable Jan fluffs up her biggest, pinkest wig, and it’s showtime, folks!
Now right away, TBN defenders (assuming there actually are any who read this column) will say, hey, what’s wrong with TBN’s trying to raise money through donations? After all, they aren’t commercial television; they don’t run ads for toothpaste and SUVs and diet soda for 15 minutes out of every hour. And let’s face it, if you want to talk crassness, let’s talk TV advertising, which knows no limits to how low it will stoop to sell the hard-working and cash-strapped people of this fine nation all sorts of trivial crap they don’t need. Come to think of it, even folks who aren’t TBN defenders might make this point. And they would be dead right on all counts.
What is so gauche (I love that word; I should use it more often on the air) about TBN’s Praise-a-Thons, of course, isn’t the simple fact they rely on viewer pledges to raise the staggering amounts of money they need to run all of their stations worldwide, reportedly 2,406 of them. Heck, PBS does that, and PBS plays Bill Nye the Science Guy, which means PBS Good. It’s the style, shall we say. It would be one thing to run a telethon every few months and have Paul Crouch come on the air and say, “Okay folks, these are our projected operating costs. If X number of regular viewers donate X dollars, we’ll reach them. So hit those phones!” Then have a bunch of gospel songs to entertain folks and make it fun, at least, by fundie standards. Now, in truth, Paul does in fact start the telethons this way, spelling out monthly satellite fees (a breathtaking $322,000) and what TBN’s needs are to expand service. But of course, this is TBN, and so the sales pitch doesn’t stop here. No, believers are told in no uncertain terms that pledging to TBN is nothing less than their Christian duty. They don’t need the money, Gawd needs the money, and Gawd is the one who needs you to call, right now, with your pledge! Never mind that Gawd is supposed to be, like, omnipotent and stuff, and if he needed a dozen more satellites to send Carman and Benny Hinn TV shows to Papua New Guinea, you’d think He could poof them into existence. No, this omnipotent Gawd needs you to send money to TBN, because omnipotence is nearly as expensive as running a network.
Crouch and Co. repeatedly drum upon this theme in their Praise-a-Thons. The money isn’t really going to them, it’s going to the Big G. So what you get–in addition to the songs, which there are a ton of, meaning I do a lot of flipping back and forth to Animal Planet and Discovery Science for cortical relief–is this plea for money that plays upon the same kinds of guilt, fear, and gullibility that Christianity uses to win new converts in the first place. The pledge drive that played in April featured a stellar cast of TBN superstars (he said, rolling his eyes) who seemed in a contest to outdo one another in employing all kinds of whacked out supernatural reasons, as opposed to simple prosaic financial ones, why viewers need to pledge.
Jan Crouch, who never ceases to astound me with her capacity to weep and sniffle on cue at the slightest provocation (you get the impression she’s so emotionally fragile that any real life tragedy more severe than a broken nail would have her physically incapacitated with grief), made a point of quoting from Psalms 20: “The LORD hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee; Send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion; Remember all thy offerings, and accept thy burnt sacrifice.” So God will happily help you out in hard times, you see, if you’ve paid in advance. If TBNers are self-absorbed enough to think this is a sign from scripture that people need to flood them with checks, they’re being awfully creative in their interpretations, as it is clearly a Psalm written to celebrate a brutal military victory over God’s enemies, the sort of event over which Old Testament scribes drooled and which is made clear in the last part of the Psalm, verses 7-8, that Jan didn’t read from: “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God. They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright.”
“…He’ll kill you graveyard dead!”
Some of the rhetoric was outright dazzling in its naked sleaze. “If something in you resists giving,” John Hagee, the scowling, Goering-esque San Antonio minister told the crowd, “that something is not of God.” Hagee then went on to compare TBN viewers who don’t send the network money to shoplifters, and wrapped up his spiel by announcing that pledging to TBN could directly hasten the Second Coming! So, simply put, if you aren’t donating to TBN, you just aren’t a real Christian. Those dusty old Nicene and Athenasian Creeds might say that all you need to be a Christian is to believe in God, Jesus, the Resurrection, and the any-millennium-now Second Coming, but darned if they didn’t leave out the part about pledging to TBN! Looks like millions of theologians are going to have to rethink their interpretations. As for the claim regarding Jesus’ return, well, my goodness me. Christianity has always been a religion that allows its adherents to engage in towering levels of self-aggrandizement, but TBN’s message that the only thing standing between the human race and eternal glory is its bank balance is enough to send even the most callous Gordon Gekkos of the world reeling in awe.
R.W. Schambach, from Tyler, TX, and one of TBN’s regular fixtures behind the electronic pulpit, went for the more direct approach and simply equated money with faith. Now viewers were being called upon to make a “faith” pledge, not a monetary one, and he encouraged viewers to ask God to “stretch their faith,” which means, of course, write a larger check. It sounds so much more tasteful to tell people they’re stretching their faith instead of spending their money. Schambach is the author of a book TBN is hawking called You Can’t Beat God Givin’, which also hammers on the theme that miracles must be paid for in advance. According to TBN’s hilariously breathless promotional text, the book relates “one of the greatest examples of God’s healing power…the story of a young child who was instantly healed of 26 diseases in Birmingham, Alabama at an A.A. Allen meeting. The mother had placed her last $20.00 in the offering that evening as an act of desperate FAITH! Brother Schambach has thrilled us on TV with his eyewitness account of this amazing miracle.”
I’m no doctor, Jim, but it seems to me as if anyone suffering from 26 simultaneous diseases was already in his coffin by the time the fifth one hit. Where the hell was this kid living? In a nuclear reactor core, eating mad cow burgers during the week an Ebola outbreak swept through town, killing his AIDS-infected pet monkey? Cripes. Just how stupid and gullible do you have to be to believe absurd tales like this? Enough to be a TBN partner, I suppose. And notice the incredibly cold-blooded message that even the poorest and most desperate people have a duty to give the very last penny they have to the church. You’ll hear testimonials like these given by Crouch and Co. all the time, stories about wonderful rewards that were heaped upon those who gave the very last dollar they had, which, I suppose, pushes God’s sympathy buttons and gives that person preferential miracle treatment over someone who gives almost everything but holds onto a buck or two for gas money. Truly, truly astonishing. When I pronounce Brother Schambach’s name in future, I think I’d better put the emphasis on the “Scham.”
As April’s Praise-a-Thon wound its way to a close, excitement in the TBN studio reached such a fever pitch that the spectacle was truly Barnum-esque. One oddly dressed (Mark Chironna in a canary yellow suit, for instance) evangelist after another grabbed a mike and launched into an award-worthy performance. A few of them would get so hopped up they didn’t care what they said, as in the case of one African-American minister whose name I didn’t catch, but who cut right to the chase and told us that anyone who didn’t get in on this great deal and help TBN out could expect to be killed. “Don’t stand in the way of the Holy Spirit,” he actually said, “’cause He’ll kill you graveyard dead!” Yowza. Later on, Paul Crouch demonstrated how far fundies are willing to go to spin scripture to further whatever particular agenda–in this case, raising money for satellite broadcasting–they are pursuing, by quoting from Revelation 14:6-7: “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” Paul has decided to interpret the “angels flying in the midst of heaven” as the actual satellites that are beaming TBN’s shows to “every nation, kindred, and tongue”! Angels are really telecommunications satellites! How about that? I wonder what Paul would say if he knew that the telecommunications satellite was a concept first imagined by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, a confirmed atheist? Probably some smug drivel about God using the Debbil to do His work. Anyway, when you get the time, read the rest of that chapter of Revelation, and see if Paul’s interpretation makes the least bit of sense in the chapter’s overall grisly and apocalyptic context. Perhaps Paul is just counting on the rest of it to scare people into sending in their pledges.
Rarely will you get a look into the colossally bizarre fantasy world that is Christian fundamentalism than the kind of look you get during one of these Praise-a-Thons. And never will you get as clear a window into the reality that religion is nothing more or less than Big Business, with holy writings that are supposed to be inerrant and literally true (to the fundie mindset) freely distorted to aid the corporation’s bottom line. In keeping with the monetary motif, TBN’s pledge drives give a lot of weight to Voltaire’s famous quote, that while God may have made man in His image, man has surely paid Him back in His own coin.