T-Bone Burnett wasn’t on firm constitutional ground, but his proposal had appeal. Noted for his shrewd observations, Burnett made several on his ’92 album, The Criminal Under My Own Hat.  Some of his best points are in the song, “I Can Explain Everything.”

I have a suggestion in answer to the question

How can we make the world easier to bear

We could go on a mission to get all politicians

And preachers off of the air

Cause when you’re talking to that many people at one time

You’re bound to be lying to someone at some time

So let’s band together and cause a collision

And throw all of these liars off television

The Criminal Under My Own Hat has two versions of “I Can Explain Everything.”  On the second, a rocker’s fire and brimstone,  Burnett repeats his idea concerning the TV preachers and politicians. Then he observes their deceit and blurred motives. Televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, brought down by scandals in the late ’80s, come to mind. Their deceptions required serious creativity, and ruined a  lot of lives. Burnett, in his disgust, closes with an acerbic thought.

The genius of France can be seen at a glance

And it’s not in their fabled fashion scene

It’s not that their mean or their wine or cuisine

I refer of course to the guillotine

It’s an appealing notion considering the personalities involved, but with no guillotines handy, turning off the TV was the only recourse.

Nearly two decades after Burnett’s caustic reflections, the world is no easier to bear. Many of today’s politicians defy clarity (see Palin, Sarah), even as they’ve convinced millions of their ability to lead. Also, we still have the televangelists. And there are more of them. Swaggart and Bakker now work the low-minors of the fringes. In their heyday, they were run-of-the-mill fringe characters, always around, cheap and repulsive, but with a following that engendered both scorn and sympathy. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker did all they could to fit the bill, epitomizing a breed of evangelists few thinking people could abide. The Bakkers represented a shameful and low-life America: rubes evolving into hucksters.

But “hucksterism” has gained a bit of sophistication. Over the last 20-25 years, the emerging televangelists have not acted as provincial boors. They’re polished. The new breed of preachers built their mega-churches and maintained a steady presence on TV. In a metro area like Atlanta’s, they’re ubiquitous. Even as they bleat, cajole and charm their way into peoples’ pockets, they’re deemed respectable. They’re successful! They have lots of mega-plans! Politicians and business leaders seek them out. The Mega-Preachers do and say enough of the right things so that neither ardent followers or casual observers perceive their shallowness.

Flowers of Indulgence … Just as the Lotto games prey on the lower classes, so do the people stealing in the name of the Lord. The Mega-Preachers aren’t working the people over with messages of a deep-fried eternity. No, they’re promising them wealth and the comforts of material possessions as rewards for their faithfulness. The gospel according to Mega-Preachers such as Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen and the Bishop Eddie Long is that God wants you to have that Mercedes, have a big home, fly in first class and have a shiny Rolex on your wrist. It’s called the Prosperity Gospel and it first emerged in the US after the Second World War. Oral Roberts was its first major proponent. While struggling as a part-time preacher in Oklahoma, he stumbled upon verse 2 in The Third Letter of John, which reads,”Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in health; I know that it is well with your soul.” Now that’s the ticket, Roberts thought.  God was saying it was okay to be rich. To celebrate the blessings of the scripture, Roberts bought a Buick the very next day. It was then Roberts said God appeared to him and told him to heal the sick. So began an ill-spirited movement.

Roberts, an Oklahoma boy, was more in manner like one of the Joads rather than today’s slick Mega-Preachers. They dress to the nines, adorn bling jewelry and are friendly with the camera. They’ve also attained status and top-drawer compensation. Bishop Eddie Long, so much in the news lately, hasn’t worried over a place to lay his head, or park his car. According to a 2005 report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he earned over 3 million dollars in salary and other benefits between 1997 and 2000 from charities established by his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. The compensation includes Long’s use of a $350,000 Bentley, as he would not, like Roberts, settle for a Buick.

The money has continued to pour in and Long is going to need lots of it. Big legal bills are on the way. Lawsuits have been filed against him by four young men, accusing him of sexual exploitation. The charges have been intensely covered by the American media. Some reporters have gone the extra mile, detailing earlier actions of Bishop Long, revealing that the Mega-Preacher might confuse himself with who he claims to serve.

Don’t follow leaders … John Blake of CNN wrote recently of an experience Jerome Walton, an Assistant Professor at Harvard Divinity School, had when walking into Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Walton looked up and saw a 30-foot banner behind the pulpit. On the banner was a profile of Long with the caption “What is God up to?” “Everywhere you went in the church,” Walton said,”his name and face was there. His image has replaced the cross.” Maybe the Bishop has forgotten what he read in Matthew 7:15. Strange, as it’s from the Sermon on the Mount, must-reading from the New Testament. Jesus told those gathered, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. In Second Peter 2:1, the warning continues, “In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up.” Nearly 2000 years later, George Harrison conveyed a similar message in his song “Beware of Darkness.”

Watch out take care

Beware of greedy leaders

They’ll take you where you should not go

Sadly, the 25,000 members of Eddie Long’s suburban Atlanta church overlooked the meaning of the scriptures and it’s unlikely they’ve listened much to George Harrison. After all, Bishop Long has shown a preference for Contemporary Gospel and Hip-Hop, even appearing on the Ludacris recording, “Freedom of Preach,” a song more about the self than “My Sweet Lord.”

The Disease of Conceit … The Bishop Eddie Long is hubris personified. In 2005, he informed The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of how important he and his church were. “We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation.” Long said, just warming up, “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion dollar congregation. You’ve got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that’s supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering.” Actually, the people really suffering are those in his “multimillion dollar congregation.”

On September 26, the first Sunday after the sexual allegations were made against Long, his church was packed with the deluded who gave him a standing ovation. Some shouted, “We love you.” The prevailing mood was broken in the second service when one man yelled out, “We want to know the truth, man!” For his trouble, he was shown the door. The ejected worshipper must have felt alone in his sentiments. The New York Times reported the 10,000 seat church was “nearly overflowing ” for both services.

20,000 Puppets? … The congregants are perplexing, but deserving of pity. Who knows what’s going on in their lives when they support a man whose holy trinity is I, Me, Mine? (apologies to George Harrison)

Followers of the Bishop are not alone. People have donated their hearts, minds and money to false prophets and greedy leaders for thousands of years. The pattern is well-established, especially so in the land of the free. On “Slow Train,” Bob Dylan sang of distress over his “loved ones turning into puppets.” Two years later, with “Trouble,” he lamented “Drought and starvation, packaging of the soul.” Sadly, the puppets in mega-churches like Bishop Long’s believe their faith will bring a harvest of material wealth. Civil Rights leader Julian Bond told AOL News recently that Long “preaches that if you follow his teachings, then you will become rich. So it’s not so much about salvation as it is about putting cash in your pockets. And he puts cash in his pockets too. He’s extravagantly paid.” Bond recognizes the “packaging of the soul” is a Long specialty. And what about the “drought and starvation?” Why are comfortable middle-class church members rewarded with earthly possessions when the poor in Haiti struggle to make it through another day? Do the prayers of the poor fall back to earth since they weren’t sent with cash for some Mega-Preacher? Don’t look for a straight answer from the 20,000 “puppets.” And keep this in mind: don’t follow leaders.

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.