I continue to feel strongly about the need for ideological movements (whether Christians, liberals, conservatives, and so on) to police their own, and publicly condemn them when they merit condemnation. Nonetheless, I've gotten two kinds of responses that, if factually well-founded, would undermine this as to Swaggart.
First, a couple of people suggested that "kill them and tell God they died" is a colloquial phrase in Texas and Louisiana that is a facetious way of saying "I'm really annoyed by this person" — often someone close to you — but with no real connotation of killing, or even of murderous anger (see, e.g., this book title). I'd never heard of this usage before some readers told me about it; and the context, "And I'm gonna be blunt and plain; if one ever looks at me like that, I'm gonna kill him and tell God he died," with accompanying talk of "abomination" and "utter absolute, asinine, idiotic stupidity," surely didn't seem like good-natured joking about being really annoyed about something. Swaggart's manner also didn't seem humorous, and I suspect that at least people in his Canadian audience (the program was broadcast in Canada as well as in Louisiana) didn't see it as a joke. But I do want to flag the possibility that this was pretty misplaced and callous humor rather than serious anger.
Second, some readers suggested that Swaggart is so marginal that he doesn't merit attention, even negative attention. As reader David Allen colorfully put it,
While I agree with you in general (policing your own, etc), at what point of silly "off the deep end" nutcase do we get to ignore people? I mean, I can ignore the guy on the corner who gets arrested regularly for flashing traffic, saying God told him to, right?
In my book (and a lot of others, I think), Swaggart is a pathetic and previously exposed con-man. How long do we need to pay attention to him?
I was struck by Swaggart's statement because Swaggart was very big in the 1980s; he has been described as "the most popular television preacher of his day", and even accounting for some hyperbole, he was surely near the very top. The prostitute scandals, which led to his being disgraced and apparently disciplined by his own denomination, surely brought him down. But my assumption is that, given his continuing ministry and continuing TV presence, coupled with his past fame, he still has some influence — while many Christians rightly ignore him, he has enough sway with some that he does deserve denunciation. My sense is that anyone who is on television (and not just the 3 am local public access cable) has some potential to do harm.
Still, if my impression based on his past fame is mistaken, and Swaggart today really is a laughingstock with next to no influence, even in the evangelical community (the natural place for him to have some lingering appeal), then I agree that this makes condemning him much less important. Still worth doing, I think, but considerably less imperative.
UPDATE: A couple of readers, in making the second point I was responding to above, suggested that Swaggart was to modern American Christians was like Michael Moore to liberals and Democrats or Pat Buchanan to conservatives and Republicans. If that's right, then it supports my point that Christians should disavow appalling things said by Swaggart. Moore and Buchanan may not be middle-of-the-road Democrats or Republicans, but they do have substantial followings, I believe, within those movements. (Moore more so than Buchanan, I suspect, since Buchanan is generally seen as yesterday's news, but even Buchanan does still seem to enjoy, to the best of my knowledge, some respect from one corner of conservatism.) If Moore says outrageous things speaking as a liberal or a Democrat, or if Buchanan says outrageous things speaking as a conservative or a Republican, then mainstream leaders of those movements should indeed denounce them -- both to help stop such outrageous sentiments from spreading, and to protect the good name of the ideological movement generally.
On the other hand, if Swaggart is a much more marginal figure, like Lyndon LaRouche -- an analogy another reader drew -- then denouncing him becomes less important.