When I wrote Bad Religion back in 2005, the golden age of televangelists had already passed. But if you came up in the 1980’s or were already an adult then, you could not have missed the freak show that was televangelism. Certainly, I couldn’t miss it, and that’s why my take on Christianity drives a lot of social conservatives batty. Doesn’t do much for the militant atheists, either, but most agnostics who’ve heard it are amused.
During the 1980’s, televangelists occupied a peculiar niche in American culture. They were part late-night talkshow host (at the time, there was only Johnny Carson, unless you wanted to stay up late, like me, and watch Letterman), part social commentator, and, to my growing horror as I went through high school, part fascist leader. Sometimes, I think Pink Floyd made The Wall five years too early. What Roger Waters could have done with Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggert. We’ll leave Pat Robertson out of the mix because he’s a very special kind of loopy, much more calculated than the others.
Televangelism grew out of a boom in traveling tent revivals in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Not surprisingly, many of these traveling preachers came out of the south. However, one city in the industrial Midwest found itself at the epicenter of this boom: Akron. Akron was once the rubber capital of the world, home to Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich (and later Michelin’s American operations), and General Tire. About half the size of Cleveland, it was always the scrawny little brother to the auto and steel-heavy behemoth to the north. If I were a little more honest about my background, I’d say I was from Akron instead of Cleveland. The trouble is, if you say Akron to anyone south of Columbus, east of Youngstown, or west of Toledo, and eyes just glaze over. “That’s somewhere in Ohio. Right?” So I say Cleveland. Everyone knows Cleveland. Rock and roll. Baseball, football, and basketball. The city called home by Dennis Kucinich, beloved by Drew Carey, and screwed over by LeBron James. What did Akron have besides rubber?
Two TV preachers who would be right at home on any used car lot and the flagship station of The PTL Club. You probably know the last one. PTL was the brainchild of Jim Bakker, originally the host of The 700 Club before Pat Robertson decided he wanted to be the face of his ministry. More than preaching the gospel, Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, wanted to be TV stars. Bakker even once said he wished he could host The Tonight Show. My mother, a religious woman if there ever was one, faithfully watched The PTL Club at least three times a week. My dad, also religious and very conservative, preferred sitcoms, the odd cop show, and the nightly news, originally John Chancellor, then Frank Reynolds on ABC when Chancellor retired. PTL made him roll his eyes. Dad might have been religious, but he was pragmatic, too.
Being a kid, I skipped most of that circus by playing outside. For those of you too young to remember, before video games and the Internet, we played in the outdoors. Yeah, our moms even let us get dirty and banged up. The few times I watched the show, though, I was confused. Church was where the kindly old (OK, 48 was old to me, says the 47-year-old) preacher gave a sermon about being a better person. You saw people you grew up with or around. Your parents and those of the kids in Sunday school were part of the church’s governing body. It was a community. It was also an interruption in my Sunday morning cartoons. Not PTL. I have vivid memories of Tammy Faye looking down at the floor screaming at the devil and stomping Old Scratch with her high heels. (Mind you, the camera didn’t seem to pick up the devil.) And she would sing. Well, she called it singing. As a teenager, when she would open her mouth within earshot of me, I would go down to my room and crank up Blondie and Pat Benatar. If I wanted to hear women scream to music, I wanted it on key with punk-based rock blaring in the background.
And then it happened, right about the time I went into a brief hair metal phase in the late 1980’s. Bakker got caught with one hand in the cookie jar and another up Jessica Hahn’s skirt. The Bakkers’ ministry imploded before a nationwide audience, and Hahn became every metal head’s favorite groupie. Before long, Jimmy Swaggert’s ministry imploded and after Swaggert himself denounced Bakker as a charlatan. He tearfully got on television and told the faithful “I have sinned against you!” A genuine act of contrition? No. Two years later, Jimmy got caught doing it again, trying to screw a street walker out of the ten bucks he offered her to put on a show for him. Somewhere, his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis, whose career stalled when he married his 13-year-old first cousin, was thinking, “Damn, I don’t look so bad now, do I?”
But that was PTL, which, despite its underpowered flagship station located in nearby Canton, actually came out of North Carolina. Working right in Akron was Rex Humbard. Humbard was not quite the freak of nature the Bakkers were. He started out as a Pentecostal preacher hailing from Arkansas. When he saw the potential of a television ministry, he realized the nature of a Pentecostal service, his outsized personality, and a ready audience for gospel music were all tailored perfectly for television. He began building what he called The Cathedral of Tomorrow in suburban Cuyahoga Falls. Humbard did not make my dad go diving for the dial (because we didn’t all have remotes back then. You had to get up and go over to the TV like some sort of animal. Primitive!). But then Humbard managed to gain an air of respectability that many of the other televangelists could not find beyond their own audiences. He even presided over Elvis Presley’s funeral. But Humbard, like a lot of television pastors over the years, ran into financial problems. His TV station was bought out and moved to Cleveland. The giant tower with rotating restaurant was never finished and now serves as a cell tower for part of Summit County. And his Cathedral of Tomorrow? Well, it was a comedy club when I left Northeast Ohio for good in 1991. Unlike a lot of other televanglists, Humbard survived, moved to Florida, and carried on a low-key mission.
But if Humbard eschewed the circus atmosphere favored by Swaggert, Bakker, and a whole host of wannabes (such as Robert Tilton, the infamous Farting Preacher), another local televangelist embraced it and took it all the way to 11. Ernest Angley (pronounced “ainj-lee”) was the show. Think of what Sam Kinnison must have been like as a preacher, although Angley, still working at age 91, didn’t scream. He does do miracles on stage. And that cliched extra syllable that some preachers tack onto the ends of sentences-uh! Yep. That’s Ernest. Even has a southern accent so thick that Foghorn Leghorn would need closed captioning to understand him. Most people considered Angley a joke. It’s a perception that he never fought. He even played it up, making numerous appearances on the Cleveland morning talkshow The Morning Exchange, where he would playfully irritate news anchor Joel Rose, Cleveland’s grumpiest news man, and flirt with cohost Liz Richards. Angley also bought out Humbard’s proposed TV station and moved it to downtown Cleveland (where it served as the model for Calvin Leach’s own TV station in Bad Religion.) The station became more secular in nature, currently Cleveland’s CW affiliate. But all that served so Angley could carry on his ministry and his TV show. You just have to bee-leeeeeve-uh!
All this served as a catalyst for Bad Religion. Calvin Leach was created as a response to Humbard, Bakker, and Angley. I will admit the name Leach was a bit of obvious humor on my part, but I originally envisioned him as playing a larger and more malevolent role in the story when I started sketching out ideas. I wanted someone who would be this larger-than-life personality who would save your soul just as easily as he might sell you a 2005 Hyundai with its odometer rolled back. In either case, dark forces tug at your wallet as he speaks. I needed someone to be overly dogmatic with a presence that reminds one of Oz, the Great and Powerful, complete with warnings to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. He would contrast with Roy Sutton, his assistant and a man of humble lifestyle and personality, a preacher who is more about the Sermon on the Mount than blaring Christian rock at millions of dazzled viewers. Of course, as the story grew more complex, both men evolved into pawns of something else happening. It’s just big enough to involve huge sums of money, but small enough to remind a local police chief of a real-life cult killing not far from some of the events of Bad Religion.