“When Jerry Falwell decides to be a pastor . . . he should be held to a higher standard of accountability than anyone else in society.” –Jerry Falwell, May 1987

“Every preacher of the Gospel is a successful salesman.” –Jerry Falwell, June 1981

Watching Jerry Falwell playing the cleanup man in the Jim Bakker-PTL Club melodrama was quite a spectacle–like seeing Mikhail Gorbachev running for the board of Amnesty International, or Ronald Reagan teaching a memory course.

Yet there Falwell was, carefully cultivating, on television at least, a statesmanlike, somewhat chastened image: shocked and saddened by the disclosures of a fellow-preacher’s personal and financial peccadillos, but grimly determined to get PTL right with the modern version of the Holy Trinity, namely the IRS, the banks, and (last but allegedly not least) the Lord. And so far, by golly, he seems to be pulling it off.

Of course, Falwell has had help, because on the tube at least he has come across as downright sensible compared to the buffoonery of Jim and Tammy Bakker, with their salvation through time-sharing and bulletproof Christian cosmetics, or of Oral Roberts and his $8 million do-or-die heavenly shakedown.

But irony was piled high around this new Falwell image, almost as high as file folders around Oliver North’s paper shredder. That’s because, while Falwell has not been caught indulging the lusts of the flesh, his own manner of raising money has many times left a good deal to be desired, to put it mildly.

I’m not talking just about the time in 1982 when somebody blew up his Old Time Gospel Hour’s radio tower near Lynchburg and Jerry sent out an emergency appeal for funds to rebuild it–only to have that pesky, secular humanist liberal rag the Wall Street Journal report his failure to mention to the faithful that the tower was fully insured.

And never mind his hysterical pleas of autumn 1981 that his ministries faced a deficit that was so perilously close to fatal it had forced staff layoffs. When asked about this by reporters, his then vice president, Ron Godwin, admitted that the deficit was purely seasonal and “operational.” It was not a real problem, and the layoffs were in fact due to the installation of a bigger and more efficient computer system–the effect of expansion, not decline.

For that matter, I’m not even talking about the series of late-December appeals from that same year. Jerry mourned to donors that “in a few days this year will be history. And the Old Time Gospel Hour and the Liberty Baptist College schools may become history as well.” After all, only two months earlier he had declared the end so near that “I can’t go on another month without your help . . . That is the plain truth–not emotionalism–the truth!”

The truth? Actually, the plain truth was that in that year his various operations had increased their total income by $16 million, to over $69 million altogether.

No, amusing and revealing as these samples of his correspondence may be, they are in my judgment not as relevant to Falwell’s present stance as an episode from four years ago involving Falwell and something known as the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability.

ECFA, as it was called, was formed in 1979 by some of the larger evangelical groups, at least partly at the prodding of Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, a prominent evangelical himself. Hatfield warned that if the big media ministries did not start policing their own ranks, the federal government might be brought into the picture; a bill to force more financial disclosure by charities had already been introduced in Congress.

Thus, ECFA was created to polish the big ministries’ images and ward off the threat of increased government scrutiny. One of its prime movers was the Billy Graham organization, which has long maintained a hound’s tooth reputation for financial probity. Another was former Watergater Chuck Colson, who after doing time in a federal penitentiary had started a prison ministry largely staffed by ex-cons, and he was understandably committed to extensive financial disclosure.

ECFA’s founders set right to work writing a set of high-sounding standards, the most relevant here being #6, which advised members that “the organization shall carry on its business with the highest standards of integrity and avoid conflicts of interest.” ECFA set up a Standards Committee to deal with complaints and designed an impressive-looking seal of approval for members.

All of this sounded fine; we should all be so upright. But this is where Reverend Falwell comes in.

You see, Jerry was at the front of the line of those clamoring to sign up as charter members of ECFA. He also got one of his men put on its board, and started slapping its new seal on some of his publications. He even showed up at ECFA’s 1981 conference to declare grandly that “we need to be a part of exposing those organizations that are fraudulent,” adding that “no one can ultimately cripple your ministry but you, by defensively refusing to play by the rules and giving the appearance of wrongdoing.”

But it wasn’t long before things began to go awry between Jerry and ECFA. The trigger was the matter of the Jesse Helms letter.

This missive appeared in July 1981. Falwell persuaded Helms, a renowned right-wing fund-raiser, to sign a letter pleading for contributions to help Falwell through “a very tough time.” Helms insisted that “Jerry Falwell must not be silenced . . . None of these great works and ministries should be allowed to fold up.” (Note: This phrase and the others italicized in this article were all emphasized in the original letters.)

Included with this letter in the mass mailing was a note from Don Norman, Falwell’s executive assistant, that repeated the plea and added, “I know for a fact that the ministries are under severe financial pressure . . . Financial giving to the Old Time Gospel Hour, Liberty Baptist College, and Moral Majority is not up to the expectations of the leadership. Jerry is sweating blood to keep all the operations going.” At the bottom of Norman’s note was the ECFA charter member’s seal.

This was, you will recall, the same year when his revenues were actually increasing by no less than $16 million. And it didn’t take a secular humanist gay liberal porno queen to begin to wonder whether such a performance really met ECFA’s “highest standards of integrity,” never mind the lowest standards of Christianity. Altogether, Falwell’s record clearly seemed to be a case for ECFA’s vaunted Standards Committee. They wouldn’t let Falwell get away with stuff like this over their own seal of approval, would they?

Well, would they? Good question. But when this reporter inquired back then, it turned out that the ECFA board–on which, remember, Falwell was represented–had been careful to specify that any and all of its Standards Committee proceedings were to be conducted in, and forever cloaked by, utter and total secrecy.

So if a reporter asked ECFA, as I did, whether complaints about Falwell’s fund-raising tactics had been received and/or dealt with, the only official answer was the same one you’d get from the CIA: “I can’t tell you that.” Not then, not ever. This was the kind of oversight that the Iran-contra conspirators were looking for.

The specifics of ECFA’s standards policy, when highlighted in the press, proved more than a little embarrassing. After all, if one of their members could get away with the Jesse Helms letter, the radio tower incident, and a constant stream of ersatz emergencies, ECFA’s much-ballyhooed “self-regulation” began to look like, take your pick, either a pious cover-up or the prattling of a pack of suckers. Senator Hatfield for one had urged the group to be willing to name and publicize the violators of its standards. Not a chance.

After this total-secrecy policy was pointed out and criticized in such mainstream publications as The Christian Century, the ECFA board in late 1982 decided to amend its disciplinary policies.

The changes were modest: the board agreed that ECFA would answer some questions regarding possible complaints about members’ fund-raising; for instance, they would say whether there had been any complaints, whether the complaints were being looked into, and whether any disciplinary action was taken. (ECFA’s weightiest sanction, incidentally, would be to terminate the offender’s membership.) However, details of the complaints, and the investigative proceedings themselves, would still be kept confidential.

(How much of a real improvement these changes brought is arguable. After all, the PTL Club was an ECFA member until the end of 1986, just before the storm broke and long after most of the grossest abuses were committed.)

What these changes meant in Falwell’s case came down to this: ECFA at length acknowledged that it had in fact received numerous complaints about Falwell’s fund-raising tactics, especially his direct mail appeals, and allowed that they were being looked into.

Even with its revised procedures, however, ECFA seemed to be in no rush to discipline brother Jerry. But Falwell decided not to wait to find out what they might do: on March 14, 1983, his office disclosed that he and the Old Time Gospel Hour had withdrawn from ECFA. Furthermore, his office confirmed, the decision to drop out had been made the previous December, just after the ECFA board had revised its disciplinary procedures to make possible disclosures about complaints against members such as Falwell.

In a March 11, 1983, letter to ECFA vice president George Wilson of the Billy Graham organization, the president of Falwell’s own board asserted they were pulling out as a favor to ECFA: “It is the opinion of our board that you will constantly be bombarded by our enemies and critics, demanding a great deal of your time, money, and energy in responding to these attacks. This has been your experience in the past and, in our opinion, will intensify in the future as Dr. Falwell steps up his activities in opposition to the nuclear freeze, normalization of homosexuality, acceptance to pornography, etc.

“We would prefer to wage these battles without saddling ECFA with the resulting flak and criticism.” The letter closed by insisting that Falwell and his organization would continue to uphold the ECFA standards; and a press statement reiterated this commitment to “total compliance with all of the standards and requirements of ECFA.”

Falwell’s hasty exit from ECFA was little noticed at the time. And he quickly returned to the attack, launching a major campaign against the Nuclear Freeze campaign, repeated alarums about homosexuals, and pleading in season and out of season for his readers to send money to help him stave off new, ever-new, financial crises.

In May of last year, for instance, both the Moral Majority and the Old Time Gospel Hour were given the equivalent of death sentences in his letters, unless rivers of contributions were immediately forthcoming. “We are in a critical situation,” Jerry pleaded on behalf of the former. “I don’t know what else to do or where else to turn.” Of his TV shows he said, significantly, “the remainder of the Old Time Gospel Hour television network is in imminent danger of going off the air.” His accountants, he said, said flatly that “I must raise $7 million during May–or all is lost. Time is of the essence,” he concluded. “We are hanging on by a thread.”

Then again in November, the Moral Majority was “desperately behind in our finances . . . ” while the next month a “personal and confidential” letter said of his TV show: “everything is on the line. The Old Time Gospel Hour is about to go off the air.”

As usual, these pleas paid off. Last year Falwell’s various projects grossed over $90 million, another record high.

As they have done so, though, more dubious financial dealings have come to light:

Item: In 1985 and 1986, according to an article in U.S. News and World Report last April, Falwell raised as much as $3 million from letters begging for “your immediate help as we attempt to save one million starving Africans from death,” but according to a State Department report cited by the magazine, none of the money was actually spent feeding people. So what happened to it? (Falwell denies any misuse of funds and insists he fed some people.)

Item: In 1985, Falwell “bought” a $165,000 house from his ministry, using a no-interest loan from the ministry. But by June 1986 he had made no payments on the loan. (Falwell insisted this spring that since then he had made “significant” contributions toward paying it off, and had the loan changed from no-interest to 8 percent.)

Item: Almost at the same time that Falwell was telling reporters in the wake of the Bakker-PTL scandals that he was cleaning up his financial act, yet another apocalyptic fund-raising letter was emitted from his headquarters. This one was signed, as was the note accompanying the fateful Jesse Helms letter of 1981, by Don Norman, Jerry’s executive assistant. He had written to the faithful before, Norman said, “But never have I come with more urgency than today.” Because of the press criticism brought on by the PTL affair, Norman said, “I am asking you to stand with Jerry in this crisis,” urging them to show support by sending “a one-time emergency gift of $30–immediately–to help in this time of need.”

Item: On May 14, Falwell appeared on the PTL show to announce that he had to raise $7 million by the end of May, or else. “We have no alternatives,” he declared. “Either we do that or we shut down.” Calling on viewers for “the most sacrificial gift you can send,” he repeated that “if you want this ministry’s doors to stay open, you write to me today.”

If this sounds a tad familiar, that’s because it is almost an exact replay of last May’s plea for the Old Time Gospel Hour: same end-of-the-month deadline, same amount, same all-or-nothing context.

Can he do it? Will PTL fold? Will Falwell’s new image as the reforming preacher-statesman continue to be accepted by the press and public? What new financial crises await him and his ministries?

As for the latter, if you are on one of his mailing lists you won’t have to wait long to find out: he sends out a letter every week, and scarcely a one of them lacks a crisis.

The most nagging question about him and his enterprises, though, is a simpler one: how much longer can he get away with it? The record suggests that the answer is: indefinitely.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.