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Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Saints and Sinners: Walker Railey, Jimmy Swaggart, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Anton LaVey, Will Campbell , Matthew Fox by Lawrence Wright

Wright has written a very personal examination of some religious trends in the United States. Fundamentalism, or Primitivism as some would call it, is certainly on the rise, a new "Great Awakening", if you will. Lack of an established religion, many have argued, creates the perfect medium for the development of cults and other fringe beliefs. It has also become " a patchwork of mysticism, hypocrisy, hucksterism, and violence, with an occasional dash of sexual perversity."

This book is not written from the perspective of a non-believer, rather as one who believes in the power of faith. “ I have seen it in prisons and ghettos as well as in boardrooms and chambers of power. I have often found myself admiring people who held views I strongly disagreed with—for instance, the Black Muslims, who believe that I am a devil because of my race but who have generated the moral power to bring order and dignity to prison life. Where addiction rules or where social values have collapsed, it is usually only those rare persons of faith who can survive and sometimes even transform their seemingly hopeless environments.”

Nevertheless, he takes a rather perverse look at the symbols of both religious and non-religious icons such as Jimmy Swaggart and Madolyn Murray O’Hair.

Wright first examines the tragic case of Walker Railey, his minister in the large Methodist Church in Dallas, a man who engaged in an affair with a member of his congregation and then probably killed his wife. Transformative faith?

None of these people is particularly nice even as they held considerable power over their faithful but each was engaged in his own kind of spiritual struggle and the author’s personal struggle. “The lesson I had drawn from Walker Railey’s life so far was that good and evil are not so far apart either. They were both inside Railey, warring for control—as they were in me as well. Whether or not Railey was guilty, he had caused me to look into myself and see the lurking dangers of my own personality.”

I must admit to being one of the gleeful watching the downfall of Jimmy Swaggart. I had watched his TV show on several occasions, mesmerized by his excessive sanctimony while attempting to strip his viewers of their bank accounts. I’ve always speculated that people specialize in their deficiencies so having him self-destruct in the arms of a cheap hooker virtually in plain sight suggesting his perverse desire to be caught was gratifying. “Sex is the great leveler, the shadowy companion of the transcendent spirit.” Swaggart had equally gleefully brought about the collapse of Martin Gorman, pastor of one of those mammoth churches. “Swaggart accused Gorman of having had numerous adulterous affairs. Although Jim Bakker [who was to have his own spectacular fall] took Gorman’s side and actually pleaded for his forgiveness, Swaggart muscled Gorman’s show off the PTL Network. The Gorman empire, such as it was, quickly collapsed. His church, his television stations, and especially his reputation were lost to him. He was reduced to preaching in a drafty warehouse in Metairie to a congregation of folding chairs. There he began to consider his revenge.” Sordid

Moving along to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who sued the author, interestingly. She the most accomplished of the self-promoting, she made a fetish out of trying to protect everyone from every hint of religiosity. In the end she became nothing but an embarrassing spectacle, in my view, although one has to credit her with some important victories like that of O’Hair v Hill which prevented Texas (of course) from trying to institute a religious test for office contrary to the Constitution.

Ironically, the least interesting of the characterizations is that of Anton LaVey, the supposed father of Satanism. He just tried too hard to be something he clearly was not: “the evilest man in the world.” Having been a circus performer and carnival barker, his career in satanism seemed just a continuation of that former self. On the other hand, as he noted, Satan is probably religion’s best friend; without it religion would not have survived so many centuries. His connection to Jayne Mansfield was rather titillating.

Will Campbell is surely the most interesting of the bunch. A Baptist minister, reviled by the leadership of his church, he was a vigorous supporter of civil rights and good friend of Martin Luther King who ministered to James Earl Ray and other Ku Klux Klan members. He was one of only four whites who held hands with the little black girls in their attempts to integrate schools in Little Rock. His uncompromising positions earned him hate letters from both the Right and Left.

The book is easily read as separate essays and the only element that ties them together is the author’s personal journey and reactions to the individuals he interviewed. As such it’s of perhaps more interest for its historical value than a memoir. Wright’s more recent books: The Looming Tower and Going Clear are more important. If this review seems to ramble, blame it on the book.
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