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Megachurch Mess

Billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey helped create a four-season television series – “Greenleaf” – about a black megachurch where worshipers whoop, sway, dance, wave arms, squeal, shout and shell out truckloads of money.

Some commentators say the series “shows the best and worst of Christianity,” but I can’t find much best, only worst.

The founder-preacher endlessly connives for money, and burned a previous church for insurance (accidentally killing a custodian). He trades his private jet for a sleeker one. He slept with his sister-in-law (played by Oprah), which angered his wife, who slept with a different man.

A middle-aged church manager rapes 15-year-old girls at the church’s camp.

The star singer’s husband is secretly gay and undergoes grotesque religious “conversion therapy” (through which God supposedly will make him “straight”) but it doesn’t work.

A married sub-preacher grabs one of the cast’s few whites, a female secretary, for sex in anterooms.

A rival preacher gambles away church money.

All the while, episodes reverberate with “God is good!” and “Hallelujah!” and “Praise God!” and “Amen! Amen!” at almost every breath. It’s a carnival of sanctimony and sin.

I suspect that Oprah and other producers deliberately hatched this series to make megachurches look like zoos of absurdity – places more laughable than laudable.

My wife and I are watching the whole tale. Since one-fourth of all the world’s Christians now “speak in tongues,” we wonder if any Greenleaf worshipers will burst into glossalalia. They engage in all the rest of holy hoopla. Teen-age gospel singers leap like kangaroos. Worship services are Show Biz extravaganzas.

Actually, the series has plenty of intriguing romance, human struggles, teen puppy-love and other staples of fiction. But there’s an underlying current: megachurches – supposedly symbolizing successful Christianity – are frauds.

Lots of real-life evidence supports this claim. Here are some notorious examples:

Evangelist Bill Hybels was forced to leave his 24,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois after several women accused him of sex abuses.

Evangelist Ted Haggard ranted against all sorts of sex at his 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado – and became president of the National Association of Evangelicals, visiting President George W. Bush in the White House. Then he was caught in gay sex and driven out.

Evangelist Bill Gothard of the Gothard Institute of Basic Life Principles drew up to 10,000 at weeklong “religious right” seminars – but he was dethroned when 34 women accused him of crude sexual affronts.

Evangelist Tony Alamo toured in giant revivals – until he was sentenced to 175 years in prison for child rape and other sex crimes.

Evangelist Bob Coy led a huge Fort Lauderdale church with 25,000 members – visited by President George W. Bush – but he resigned in disgrace after admitting numerous sex messes.

Evangelist Jim Bakker ruled the enormous PTL Club in the Carolinas – until he was accused of rape and sentenced to 45 years in prison for accounting fraud.

Evangelist Dave Reynolds of the large Cornerstone Bible Fellowship in Arkansas was wiped out by 70 counts of child pornography.

Evangelist Jon Petersen of World Ambassadors pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly all of his church’s money “to pay for a sex addiction.”

Evangelist Mario Leyva toured in southern revivals – then was sent to prison for sodomizing multitudes of underage boys.

On and on it goes. Literally hundreds of megachurch scandals fill the news. Jay Michaelson of The Daily Beast once counted many culprits, including: Josh Duggar, Bishop Eddie Long, George Rekers, John Paulk, Jimmy Swaggart, Marvin Gorman, Jack Schaap, David Loveless, Grant Storms, Isaac Hunter, Larry Durant, Sam Hinn, Paul Barnes, Lonnie Latham, Earl Paulk, Paul Barnes, Joe Barron, Michael Hintz and Todd Bentley.

Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention identified 400 ministers and church leaders convicted of sex crimes in the past decade. A “Black-Collar Crimes” registry maintained by the Freedom From Religion Foundation contains thousands of entries.

Not all these scandals involve megachurches. However, the big spectacle houses of worship – supposedly representing a triumph of religion – especially constitute a cesspool.

More articles by:

James Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

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