Still life with madman: Jimmy Swaggart on TV

Ministry of Love (Jimmy Swaggart), 1983

Ministry of Love (Jimmy Swaggart), 1983

Sandwiched between dire financial reports, romantic disasters and admissions of depression, my journal of Monday, May 9, 1983 referred to the previous afternoon’s “disconcerting view of religious-political propaganda.”

“I watched a man named Jimmy Swaggart on television. A brilliant orator and actor (or perhaps fanatic) calling down the Armageddon and agitating anti-Soviet sentiment. I have never seen anything quite like it: A demagogue who controls the emotions of his audience  — in this case a stadium full of people — at the drop of a hat … or should we say the shedding of a tear, as he cried to be united with his mother on the other side. The man is a patent lunatic, working for the devil he’d have us believe … resides in the collective beast that is the USSR. Not one person in that crowd before him rose … to inform him that Jesus preached love — not hatred and destruction.”

The image above, made in the shared kitchen of my Vancouver apartment,  is one of nine exposures on the roll of 12 that I finished by making the photograph Don and his Norton, Vancouver, 1983. The other 5 exposures show Swaggart making various theatrical gestures, members of the congregation swooning and weeping and, of course, the toll-free number to call in donations and purchase various tracts and trinkets.

Contained within the fire and brimstone sermons, tears and anti-Soviet propaganda, Swaggart’s core message emerged: the Second Coming, as predicted in the Book of Revelations, could not be realized until Christ’s message had reached the world — send money.

This was critical to supporting Swaggarts’s megachurch developments and lavish lifestyle. He had established the highest-rated weekly syndicated Christian broadcast in the United States, pulling in a half-million dollars a week.

In Swaggart’s World, brutal dictators like his friend Augusto Pinochet were also part of Jesus’ (and the CIA’s) Master Plan to rid the world of communists/the Devil and unleash the holy manna of the free market.

Just 5-years after I made this image, Jesus’ business rep was caught in a sting operation arranged by fellow preachers he’d branded sinners. Evidently, Swaggart’s consecrated Caddy  transported him to liaisons with prostitutes in seedy motels.

“I have sinned,” he famously confessed to the Assembles of God, who subsequently pulled his licence to market for the Messiah. No problem. The holy roller from Baton Rouge started his own church, Swaggart Ministries.

But his predilection for the sins of the flesh persisted. In 1991 he was caught again, by police who pulled him over for driving on the wrong side of Redemption Road, in the company of another well-known hooker.

Now the high priest of his own cult, Swaggart swaggered in front of his flock, “The Lord told me flat it’s none of your business.”

The (black and white) television in the photo is set to Channel 8, a broadcaster that has changed hands more than once in the interim, but still assumes, perhaps correctly, that its  popular mandate is to provide its Canadian audience with a diet of American cultural products.

Not that Canada doesn’t harbour its own brand of intolerant fanatics. 100 Huntley Street, an evangelical program hosted by the same channel, has featured our brand of ultra-right politicians in a united (religious/political) campaign against what they see as godless homosexuals and communist demons.

In 2016 the market for nihilistic religion persists, from Louisiana to London, to Maalbeek and Damascus. Swaggart, for his part, aided by a kind of cultural Alzheimer’s, has returned to collect the wages of sin.

My photograph captures a moment from the most powerful medium of the time (since superseded by the immediacy of the Internet), trading in the End of Days.

Technical details: Camera: Mamiyaflex C; Film: Ilford FP4 @125ASA, Developed in Peceptol 1:1, 15 min.

In the same year I made Ministry of Love, Channel 2 in Baton Rouge aired a special report by John Camp exposing Swaggart’s questionable financial practices.

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