Marvin Gorman would go on to sue Jimmy Swaggart. It would become the biggest event in Evangelicalism in the Nineties – eclipsed only by the “downfall” of fellow Assemblies of God minister Jim Bakker.
Many Swaggart loyalists denounced Gorman, pointing to the lawsuit as proof that he had only become a minister for money. The accusation stuck – after all, Bakker and Gorman were good friends and hadn’t Bakker gone to prison for unethical use of ministry funds? Although Swaggart’s ministry was exceptionally lucrative, this was because of his bestselling records, teaching ministry, numerous books, and the incidental inventory – bumper stickers, t-shirts, tie clips, cufflinks, necklaces, and gold stamped Bibles – that his ministry sold on his behalf. Swaggart’s family – his wife, Frances, and son, Donnie – made up the executive board of a ministry that received so many handwritten letters and mailed checks each day that the U.S. Postal Service awarded Jimmy Swaggart Ministries their own zip code. When Gorman sued Swaggart for defamation and loss of income, he was going after a ministry second only to the Vatican in wealth.
The jury determined that Jimmy Swaggart, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, and Michael Indest (the minister who “could get Swaggart on the phone in three minutes”) had defamed Marvin Gorman and Marvin Gorman Ministries. The jury went on to determine that Jimmy Swaggart, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, Michael Indest, the First Assembly of God, and Bill Treeby had committed intentional infliction of emotional distress against Gorman. Then, the jury also determined that a conspiracy existed among Jimmy Swaggart, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries and Michael Indest to defame Marvin Gorman and Marvin Gorman Ministries. Underneath it all and connecting these charges, the jury also determined that there was a conspiracy among First Assembly of God of New Orleans, Jimmy Swaggart, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, Michael Indest, and Bill Treeby to intentionally inflict emotional distress on Marvin Gorman.
On the issue of defamation of Marvin Gorman personally, the jury concluded that damages totaled six hundred thousand dollars ($600,000) plus four hundred thousand dollars ($400,000) for intentional infliction of emotional distress; as to the question of damages to Marvin Gorman Ministries, they found that the conspirators were liable for nine million ($9 million). The jury came back with a ten million ($10 million) verdict.
The conspiracy was easy to prove – Swaggart was riding high on the downfall of Jim Bakker, who he had targeted for criticism on his daily radio program, daily television program, monthly crusades, and a nationally televised “revival.” Bakker, in terms of ratings, was Swaggart’s nearest rival. The PTL Club’s daily broadcast was a mixture of folksy Americana, gospel singing, and biblical inspiration. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker had divested themselves from business partner Pat Robertson after a personal fallout. The Bakkers foresaw an opportunity for financial gain, while Robertson desired professional respectability and political clout for Evangelicals. With their divestment, the Bakkers used those funds to expand their ministry, buy a television station and satellite, and begin PTL (later to be broken up and become religious networks TBN, EWTN, and Daystar). Unquestionably, the Bakkers were a powerhouse couple on television. Jim was an advisor to the Carter and Reagan administrations and was seeking to become a powerbroker for Evangelicals who wanted a voice in public policy. But it was the opening of a theme park that would be his undoing. Bakker figured that, with the success of Disney just a few hours south of him in Florida, Christians should have a themed resort as well. Indeed, the park Heritage USA was a combination of waterpark, themed exhibits recreating Jerusalem, hosting daily passion plays, and nightly communion services together with daily tapings of The PTL Club and luxurious hotel, retirement, and assisted living facilities. Taken together, PTL was worth $172 million in 1987.
It was this that Swaggart took umbrage with. And so, as he had done with smaller competitors, Swaggart now went after Bakker, seeking to discredit and defame him to capture his share of ratings and sizable donor base. As he had shown repeatedly throughout his earlier years, Swaggart was a brawler and always would be. He privately reported to the Executive Presbytery of the Assemblies of God that he had information Bakker was involved in a “sexual indiscretion” and that the denomination needed to distance themselves from their star. But, he insisted, this information had nothing to do with a rumored rivalry between the ministers or their ratings.
The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer broke news that summer that Bakker had, indeed, had an affair with a secretary at PTL. But as an investigation was being conducted, more rumors were collecting around Bakker. It was also insinuated that his wife, Tammy Faye, had had affairs with guests of their co-hosted television show. It was discovered that the couple had bought air-conditioned doghouses for their pets. That they were skimming money off their ministry. That they were double-booking timeshares at Heritage USA. And that Jim Bakker was not only gay, but had participated in orgies. Bakker, apprised of the allegations and rumors surrounding him, resigned from PTL and surrendered control of the ministry to neighbor minister, Jerry Falwell, a Southern Baptist preacher who had secured political clout with the formation of the Moral Majority, the challenging of Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s genuine “relationship” with “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” and by securing a Republican victory in elections – including that of Ronald Reagan.
If the incestuous relations between “rivals” seems odd, that is because it was. Competition for ratings, political power, and larger revenue from generous Christians (and, more frequently, the poor and needy seeking a miracle from those closest to God) became the hallmark of televangelism at the end of the 1980s.
Allegations of trying to take over Bakker’s network were untrue, Swaggart insisted. In an interview with The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer (who, remember, first broke the story of financial mismanagement and sexual indiscretion at PTL), Swaggart said that a takeover “would be the last thing in the world I would ever want.” Soon after, he repeated this in a videotaped appearance on The 700 Club, “I don’t appreciate a preacher who commits adultery and then goes out and blames me.” By now, Bakker had hired an attorney to represent him and charged Swaggart with trying to “orchestrate” his defamation. In the past, Swaggart had been critical of Bakker’s success-oriented gospel on the “Jim and Tammy” television program, his Heritage USA park and hotel complex in South Carolina and his openness to Christians of various stripes, including Roman Catholics. Pastor Jack Hayford of Van Nuys, the nationally influential Pentecostal pastor of the 7,000-member Church on the Way, said in an interview, “I know of cases where Jimmy Swaggart has influenced the bringing of charges against other ministers for far less significant causes than anything moral or financial. I feel very badly that he is apparently making a crusade to topple anything that’s unappealing to him when he is so gifted making a positive crusade in evangelism.” In an article for The Los Angeles Times in 1987, at the height of the mudslinging, John Dart reported
Bakker had dropped Swaggart’s television programs in 1986 from his PTL network after Swaggart began endorsing author David Hunt, whose book The Seduction of Christianity strongly criticized many of the big evangelistic ministries, including friends of Bakker’s. Bakker did not think he could tolerate the “narrowness” of Swaggart on his network, said Jamie Buckingham, an editor at large at Charisma magazine, the leading Pentecostal publication in the country.
Buckingham, who saw Bakker in Palm Springs on Tuesday, said he and other Christian leaders were working behind the scenes to “try to bring this thing to a peaceful conclusion.” At the same time, Buckingham said, he said he thinks God is saying to everyone who has become powerful in electronic ministries to scale down their ambitions, or as he put it, “that you can’t build your tower any higher.”
Bakker is in seclusion with his wife, Tammy Faye, in a Palm Springs home, and Swaggart is at an undisclosed location in Southern California. They have not made themselves generally available to the press and apparently are not in contact with each other.
Nevertheless, sharp volleys were exchanged by their lawyers Tuesday even as other evangelists were drawn into the edges of the fray.
[Norman Roy] Grutman, Bakker’s attorney, told a news conference at PTL’s Fort Mill, S.C., complex Tuesday that he has seen “clear-cut evidence that Swaggart was attempting to orchestrate the ouster of Jim Bakker.” Without mentioning Swaggart by name Monday night on ABC-TV’s “Nightline,” Grutman said that if the unidentified evangelist was going to take more steps to discredit Bakker, “then we’re going to be compelled to show that there’s a smellier laundry in his hamper than the laundry that he thought was in Reverend Bakker’s.”
Jerald Ogg, Swaggart’s attorney in the evangelist’s hometown of Baton Rouge, La., said before Grutman’s news conference that “when people start questioning a minister’s integrity, that’s just a classy way of robbing and stealing.” Ogg said lawyers were examining Grutman’s statements. “It’s no secret that Jimmy doesn’t see things the way they do, but this is ridiculous.”
Swaggart told the Charlotte Observer that he urged the executive presbytery of the Assemblies of God last July 30 to distance itself from the PTL so that it would not “be dragged through the mud” in any scandal, but that officials told him they needed evidence.
Indeed, Swaggart wasn’t innocent. His cousin, famous country singer Jerry Lee Lewis, has always insisted that Jimmy was deceitful, underhanded, manipulative, and vindictive.
In the eyes of millions of the faithful, the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart always had God on his side. Ranked in the mid-1980s as one of the top five evangelists in the country by Neilsen and Arbitron rating standards, Swaggart began with a humble Assembly of God church and built it into one of the largest and most successful media supported ministries in the world.
From his Baton Rouge headquarters, Swaggart was guided and aided by his wife, Frances, and son, Donnie, advised by the best attorneys and accountants money could buy, and surrounded by a tightly knit and loyal group of associates, all enhanced by the top technical consultants in the business. By 1986, Swaggart pastored an enormous and loyal flock of the faithful, most of whom were eager to open their hearts – and their pocketbooks – in response to his flamboyant, emotional preaching style, to his simple, fundamental, yet stridently unyielding interpretation of the Gospel.
Swaggart had taken advantage of the technological revolution in every possible way. His rapidly growing Assembly of God congregation hd burst the bounds of its regional base and by now extended throughout the country. He was moving up the ladder of popularity with almost lightening speed. Like Billy Graham and Oral Roberts before him, his name became a household word, his face as familiar as any celebrity’s in his country. He was on top of the world.
As was the case with many televangelists, Jimmy Lee Swaggart had humble origins, a poor educational background, and a sound proletarian image. Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, on March 15, 1935, just across the Mississippi River from Natchez, he was reared in the Assemblies of god churches that his father built. Swaggart dropped out of school in the ninth grade to go to work; and in 1952, at the age of seventeen, he married Frances Orelia Anderson, who was then but fifteen, from the nearby community of Wisner.
From childhood, Swaggart was a fine vocalist and was often in demand as a church soloist. It was a talent that ran in the family: He was first cousin to both country music recording artist Mickey Gilley and “The Killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, possibly one of the most sensational (and scandalous) crossover recording artists of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Swaggart was close to both singing-star relatives and was publicly involved with Lewis when his May-December marriage to a 13-year-old child became a matter of international concern.
In the early 1960’s, Swaggart moved from eastern Louisiana to Baton Rouge. He attended a small church there and began building a reputation as a fine singer of hymns. Soon, he was working as a singing evangelist, hitting the revival circuit, visiting churches all over the region, being well paid for his efforts. Soon, he added preaching to his repertoire, developing a popular “hellfire and damnation” style of oratory that suited his Assembly of God brothers and sisters perfectly. Swagger was much in demand as a visiting evangelist; his popularity and income increased. In 1970, Swaggart met Bill Treeby, an attorney practicing with the Stone, Pigman firm in New Orleans and, not incidentally, an Assembly of God minister himself. Immediately, Treeby recognized Swaggart’s potential as a force in the denomination and began assisting him in several legal endeavors connected to Swaggart’s growing evangelistic activities. Shortly, with Treeby’s help, Swaggart created the Jimmy Swaggart Evangelist Association and began expanding his roadshow. By 1980, Swaggart decided he needed a home base. He started his own church, the Family Worship Center in Baton Rouge. It was originally a small, suburban congregation but one with enormous potential for growth. He changed the name of the Jimmy Swaggart Evangelist Association to Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, put most of his family on the payroll, and began solidifying his financial position. As Swaggart predicted, the small church grew rapidly, in part because Swaggart’s popularity had made him a regional celebrity, and in part because his suburban location brought him a large and prosperous congregation. (Lundy 49-50)
When he went on the air in 1973, Swaggart was 38 years old, tall and solid, good-looking and “full of sauce.” Initially, his sermons demanded personal response – salvation and donation. But as the years went on and his evangelistic work became more experienced, Swaggart took on a teaching attitude in his daily broadcasts. Later, he used his platform to make “biting comments about wimpy, vain, blow-dried preachers who thought they could somehow get around God’s wrath with their carry-on about psychology and prosperity” (Seaman 14). He became a one man act, continually demanding more stage to out-showman his cousins. This was Jimmy Lee Swaggart: prowling across the stage, shouting, whimpering, strutting, whispering, whipping out his handkerchief and mopping his face, then slapping it downward as he leaned forward from the waist, legs stuff, heels together like a Russian officer bowing to the Czar, bearing down on his audience.
The enterprise prospered. By 1985, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries occupied close to 200 acres of prime property on Bluebonnet Drive in Baton Rouge and employed more than 2,000 people. More than 500 young men and women attended the recently opened Jimmy Swaggart Bible College and Jimmy Swaggart’s television ministry was touted – inaccurately – as the only worldwide television ministry. Swagger also publicly held himself out to be the only evangelist “called by God” to deliver the message to the whole world… Swaggart’s credibility and national status were bolstered by the fact that his organization ran operations in Canada, Europe, and Costa Rica. He and his entourage visited these far-flung ministries in a 727 jet provided by his company. By 1985, Swaggart was one of the most powerful and wealthiest televangelists in the country (Lundy 50).
His crusades were packed even in Catholic countries, into whose economies he pumped millions of dollars with church schools and outreach programs. As the Soviet Union collapsed, he immediately bought television and radio stations to do his part in defeating Communism, reinstating some semblance of Western ideology, and spreading his own version of Evangelicalism. Part of his credibility in these countries, even when he denounced and mocked their political leaders, came from his fearlessness in the pulpit. His antagonistic attitude could alternatingly be directed at “pretty pompadoured ministers” and then Catholics, Jews, “New Age theology, Christian-Theme-Park theology, Feel-Good theology, [and] prosperity theology. In the fire-breathing tradition of the 19th Century circuit riders from which his denomination had sprung, he gave special attention to adultery and all its trappings, such as dancing and rock music” including going after his cousins by name (Seaman 14). Indeed, Swaggart allowed some of his sharpest examples of hypocrisy, sinfulness, and “downright licentiousness” to come from what he knew of Jerry Lee, to whom he always compared himself.
Accordingly, he had moved into a huge mansion, which many thought resembled a castle, complete with a moat, and presided over his holdings in an almost feudal manner, handing down decisions and mandates like a king, anticipating that personal loyalty (and fear) would keep his barons (neighboring Assembly of God ministers) in line… The success of Swaggart’s ministry was measurable and visible in many ways, but nowhere was it more in evidence than in his financial investments and real-estate holdings. The “nickels and dimes of the faithful,” so zealously sought by Swaggart during his evangelistic broadcasts, filled mailbags by the score on a daily basis; his headquarters received so much mail – more than 50,000 cards and letters per week – that it was given its own zip code by the United States Postal Service. Other donors came in person, and visitors had to have appointments months in advance. In 1985, the ministry was televised in more than 145 countries, supported 564 missionaries, paid more than 1,400 employees, and was involved with more than 2,000 television stations and a like number of cable TV outlets. His programs generated more than $145 million in revenue annually, which included tuition from more than 500 students at his Baton Rouge bible college. Every crusade with which he was involved reportedly cost more than $200,000. He was routinely watched and believed by millions, who also subscribed to The Evangelist, his personal magazine, and who regularly read his syndicated newspaper column in the national press. He boasted that he was taking in more than a half million dollars a day from the “nickel and dimes of the faithful.” His company owned eleven buildings and was taking in more than $12 million a month by 1986 (Lundy 49-51).
But when the jury awarded $10 million to Marvin Gorman in 1991, Swaggart and his ministry said they did not have access to even this comparatively small amount.
Gorman had, by then, exposed Swaggart as a frequent visitor of New Orleans prostitutes and, if prostitute Debbie Murphee or televangelists Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts are to be believed, a pedophile.
Swaggart, now exposed to the world as a fraud, would confess to sinning against God “only” on February 21, 1988. The Assemblies of God, Frances Swaggart, the Gorman family, and Christians worldwide held a different opinion. Gorman, outside of the courtroom, had been vindicated and shown Swaggart for who he really was. That vindication continued when the jury awarded Gorman the $10 million in September of 1991.
Barely a month later, desperate to rebuild his crumbling empire, Swaggart had returned to holding crusades – always a moneymaker for him – when he was stopped on October 11, 1991, by a police officer in Indio, California. With him in the car was yet another prostitute, Rosemary Garcia. “For sex, I mean that’s why he stopped me, that’s what I do, I’m a prostitute,” Garcia told KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. “He asked for sex,” she said. “He was shaking.” In an interview with KMIR-TV in Palm Springs, Garcia said Swaggart could avoided getting caught, but when he saw a police car behind him, he became agitated and began driving erratically, swerving his 1989 Jaguar as he tried to hide pornographic magazines that were all over the vehicle.