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by William H. Benson

May 31, 2007

     Americans have always paid homage to their religious leaders. Indeed, the persuasive influence of the religious leader has remained one of the few constants of America’s heritage. Americans from every generation seem to want to follow that person with a resonating voice who offers a new slant on the Christian faith.

     At Plymouth Rock in 1620, there was the Pilgrim Separatist William Bradford. At Massachusetts Bay in 1630, there were the Anglican preachers Jonathan Winthrop, Thomas Hooker, Richard Mather, and John Cotton. Although not separated from the Church, they wished to purify it of anything that remained from the Catholic Church.

     The deepest thinker among those early English colonists was Roger Williams, but his intellect led him to two startling conclusions: that politics should not have any bearing upon a religious service, and that religion should not ever enter into politics. Thus, he argued that it was wrong for England to have a cross emblazoned on the English flag, and that it was wrong to say an oath upon a Bible in a court of law. Winthrop thought Williams mad and gave him a choice: leave Massachusetts or live in a jail cell. He left.

     In the nineteenth century, others with their own ideas stepped forward: Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers; Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons; Mary Baker Eddy, the head of the Christian Scientists; and Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

     Then, in the final decades of the twentieth century, a new generation of evangelists appeared. These were men such as Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Rex Humbard, Norman Vincent Peale, Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller, James Dobson, and Jimmy Swaggert. They each wanted to lead Americans back to the Bible, to their own notion of salvation, and to an unwavering belief in ourselves as Americans and in the Christian faith. For sixty years, one after another they have stood for a moment tall as giants of the American Christian faith.

     All those men understood the power of the media. They wrote books; Billy Graham’s Peace with God (1953) and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) led the way to a river of books, a few of more lasting quality than others.

     Some built exotic churches: Rex Humbard’s in Akron, Ohio was circular, and Robert Schuller’s in Garden Grove, California is made of glass. They published magazines. They built colleges. They bought businesses. They went on the radio, and they all went on the television, for they clearly understood its power.

     Some, such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert, failed in their attempts to build ever-bigger media empires; both were brought down and defrocked by their own scandalous actions—Jim Bakker in 1987 and Jimmy Swaggert a year later, and neither have been seen much since. Some, such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, were without scandals. 

     But this old guard of religious leaders must pass, like those before them, to others, to a new generation. One can only wonder what brand of cleric will appear in the twenty-first century. Ted Hager of Colorado Springs offered much promise, but he fizzled out in a spectacular scandal last fall before he had achieved national fame.

     Norman Vincent Peale died in 1993. Had he lived he would be 109 today, for his birthday was May 31, 1898. Billy Graham is retired to his home in Montreat, North Carolina, content to end his former globe-trotting days at home with his wife Ruth beside him, and two weeks ago, Rev. Jerry Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia passed away, due to heart failure.

     One conclusion. Roger Williams would never have approved of James Dobson’s lobbying group—the Family Research Council, nor of Pat Robertson’s feeble attempts to run for President, nor of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Roger Williams insisted upon the absolute separation of the church and the clergy away from the state’s “wicked” political processes. Williams was most concerned about ensuring the purity of the church, and that, he believed, was achieved by avoiding the corrupting influence of the state.

     Politics and religion do not mix easily, something that Roger Williams instinctively believed. Would that all future American religious leaders so believe.