Bad Religion: Robert Tilton Vs. The Rev. Calvin Leach

BadReligion-ebook600I make no secret that the televangelists of old inspired much of Bad Religion. Indeed, yesterday, I brought back to this space an old gag where I would pray for God to smite Pat Robertson. Calvin, however, comes across as a little more forward thinking in the scene where Nick and Elaine visit a taping of his show, The Unbroken Circle. Listening to Leach, Nick gets the impression that Leach really is a halfway decent man of the cloth. His problem is that he wants to be a master showman as well. He’s got an elaborate television studio, the choir from a large Baptist church from one of the black neighborhoods, a rock band, and even a theme song that bastardizes a Todd Rundgren tune from 1988.

But ol’ Calvin did not emerge from a vacuum. I conjured him up from many parts. Some of it I talked about a few weeks ago, discussing how nearby Akron was a mecca for some of the lower-tier televangelists in the 1970’s and 1980’s. But there was more. You can’t have an outsized personality like Calvin Leach’s without an outsized TV show like I described above. Some of what I came up with had its roots in the old PTL Club and the inexplicably still-running 700 Club. Some of it simply came about with, “How would I do it?” But Calvin had one other inspiration, a bizarre carnival huckster out of Texas, now based in Miami, named Robert Tilton.

Who’s he?

Comedian Ron White mentioned him in his standup act. Ron explains about what happened one night while he was flipping channels as he sat naked in a beanbag chair eating Cheetos.

Pastor Tilton, seemingly looking right at Ron, says, “Are you lonely?”

Ron White says, “Yeah.”

“Have you wasted half your life in bars pursuing sins of the flesh?”

“This guy’s good…”

“Are you sitting in a beanbag chair naked eating Cheetos?”

“…Yes sir!”

“Do you feel the urge to get up and send me a thousand dollars?”

It takes Ron White a couple of seconds before he says, “Close! I thought he was talking about me there for a second. Apparently, I ain’t the only cat on the block who digs Cheetos!”

What Ron is referring to is Tilton’s signature bit, the thousand-dollar “Vow of Faith.” You give God a thousand dollars, he claims, and God will make it rain up in here. Of course, he makes it clear that, to give God that money means supporting his ministry. So how did this genius cross my radar?

The first time was in 1992. My girlfriend at the time and I were having money troubles, and I was depressed. My girlfriend was a good Catholic girl (except that she shacked up with me out of wedlock, where we did all sorts of things the priests at St. Gertrude’s did not approve of) and was interested in all things spiritual. She received an ad in the mail for a cross that was supposed to make things better. She knew it was bullshit, but she ordered two, one for me, one for her. That’s when Pastor Tilton first entered my life. I carried around this cheap, plastic cross like a good luck charm, and it had it’s intended effect. I felt better. I was still broke, but I felt better. Then the fun began.

I received a letter from Pastor Tilton with a “genuine cloth of St. Paul” enclosed. I was to sleep with the cloth under my pillow for a week, pray without ceasing, and send Pastor Tilton back the cloth with my “biggest bill.” I think Bobby meant the ones with Andy Jackson, U.S. Grant, or Ben Franklin on the front. I was thinking the Christ Hospital bill I couldn’t pay or the telephone bill from back in my Wayne County days that I still owed on. Nonetheless, it further lifted my depression as my girlfriend and I took the letter and the cloth of St. Paul to parties and showed our friends what an idiot Pastor Bob was.

Then, one night, we watched 20/20. Pastor Bob was on, getting raked over the coals by Diane Sawyer, columnist John Bloom (aka Joe Bob Briggs of TNT Drive-in and later Daily Show, fame), and the attorneys general of Texas and the United States. I’d never actually seen Robert Tilton preach, but it involved a lot of twitching, facial ticks, and “speaking in tongues.” I’d heard of speaking in tongues, even worked with a couple of Pentecostal holy rollers who talked openly about it. The thing is, whether you believe in that or not, I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit would not repeat “Hoo baba kanda” ever time Tilton lost his place and needed to fill dead air. The longer we watched the 20/20 story, the more it became apparent: Pastor Bob wanted to get down, down on the ground, cocaine.

Yep. Turned out Robert Tilton loved him the white powder. It wasn’t the Holy Spirit causing Tilton’s Tourette’s syndrome. It was Juan Valdez’s drug lord neighbors. Because even when it comes to illicit sustances, mountain grown is still the richest blend.

And that was it for Pastor Bob for about ten years. And then a coworker called me over to his desk. “Hey, Jim, have you seen this?”

It was Pastor Bob. And someone had dubbed in an explanation for his ticks and utterances.

Someone had decided Pastor Bob needed some special effects. There were about six or seven farting preacher videos (Some marketed as “Pastor Gas”) done over the years. I even found one done around the time Tilton was investigated for fraud. In a final airing of his show before he went underground, regrouped, and moved to Miami, Tilton addressed his television flock from an empty studio, whining that anyone could be investigated and that the devil wanted him out of business. But like a bad penny, Tilton popped up again in the late nineties and early 2000’s in a shiny new studio with a shiny new blonde wife who, like Tammy Faye, “sang” during each show. The later versions of Tilton’s Success N Life also treated people to their two dogs and Tilton frequently talking about his and the new Mrs. Tilton’s honeymoon in Paris where they had “French champagne, French bread, French fries.” That Bob. What a cut up. It also still featured Tilton’s infamous facial and verbal ticks, rich fodder for more Farting Preacher videos.

The sad thing is people support this guy even when he’s been caught red-handed time and time again. During the 20/20 story back in the 90’s, one of Tilton’s fraternity brothers explained how this all started. Tilton and his buddies got bored one night and found a Pentecostal tent revival nearby. They went in to watch, gleaned all the mannerisms and verbage, then proceeded to “have a religious experience” in front of the adoring crowds. One of Tilton’s buddies later said it wasn’t fair that Tilton got rich off the gag. “I’m better at it than he ever was.”

And yet Tilton started his ministry, making as much as $80 million one year in donations. While my former girlfriend and I had fun taking his stupid little trinkets to parties to make fun of him, the fact was that we lived in a Zip code targeted by Tilton for its low income bracket and high level of unemployment. If we had lived in, say, Hyde Park or even Brady Bunch-esque Madiera, we might never have heard of the guy. There are, of course, those who like the big, flashy show to get their message across. If your following is as large as, say, Joel Osteen’s, you kind of need a big production anyway. But if the only thing anyone sees is your expensive car and house and suits and dogs and wife’s boob job, dressing it up as “prosperity gospel” only works with the desperate and the gullible. That Robert Tilton keeps coming back time and time again shows that some men are simply unrepentant and irredeemable.

Next week: A contest!

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