Jimmy Swaggart, unclear on the Ten Commandments:
Swaggart says this about homosexuals:
I'm trying to find the correct name for it . . . this utter absolute, asinine, idiotic stupidity of men marrying men. . . . I've never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. 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.
The audience laughs and cheers, though when Swaggart is saying the "I'm gonna kill him" part, he sure doesn't seem to be joking. Andrew Sullivan points to the program, available here; check out the material starting at around 36:00 — I watched it, and the transcript is right. Later, as Andrew says, "Swaggart also claims he has nothing against 'the poor homosexual,'" except that he seems to think it's fine to kill them.
There's apparently talk about the Canadian government trying to punish this, since it was broadcast in Canada. I don't support that, and I'm quite sure that the First Amendment wouldn't allow such speech to be punished in the U.S.
But it seems to me that decent Christians ought to condemn this defender of murder, who publicly says that he'd violate the Ten Commandments when someone "looks at [him]" the wrong way, while purporting to preach God's word and lead Christian congregations. Tell us, at least, that this supposed Christian — who was once one of the nation's leading evangelists, until he was tripped up by another of the Commandments — doesn't speak for you.
UPDATE: Sweeney A. (Res Ipsa Loquitur) writes:
Eugene is certainly right that ethical people should condemn [Swaggart's] words, but one wonder's about Eugene's implication that this moral stain is automatically conferred to other Christians until they renounce it. One might say that for a Christian who has heard this comment to consciously refuse to renounce it is a tacit endorsement. That may be true, but the very terms in which Volokh has couched the ultimatum is unfair.
Since advocating murder because a gay man looks at you wrong is an obvious violation of the Christian ethic, why should Christians, qua Christians, feel obligated to renounce the remarks any more than people who share the last name of Swaggart?
For the record, I condemn the remarks, but Volokh's post was an unfair example of guilt by association.
Christianity is a belief system — not just an involuntary status such as race or ethnicity, but a consciously chosen belief system that is based on certain writings and certain traditions. Historically, Christians have often stressed the importance of those writings, which supposedly provide something of an objective standard of behavior, and of a Christian community, which helps enforce this behavioral standard. In recent decades, many Christians have also tried to downplay denominational differences (say, between Protestants and Catholics), and to stress the common purpose of those who follow Jesus's teachings.
When someone who is a Christian minister, and still something of a Christian leader, makes a claim about what Christian scriptures mean, it seems to me that those Christians who condemn his views — and condemn them as deeply evil, rather than just subtly or slightly wrong — do have a responsibility to speak out. Though this man calls himself a Christian leader, they should say, his is not the Christianity that we endorse. That, I think, is needed for them (1) to better educate their own children (whom they've presumably raised to have at least some respect for Christian leaders), (2) to diminish the chance that their fellow parishioners will be seduced from the righteous path by this Christian leader's cachet, and (3) to make clearer to the non-Christian world that the Christian mainstream does not endorse this interpretation of Christian scriptures.
That's not guilt by association: I do not condemn people simply because those who share their religious affiliation advocate bad things. I do expect Christians (or, in analogous situations, Muslims or religious Jews), as people who care about the reputation of Christianity and of the Christian community of belief, to want to tell the world: "True Christianity, as I understand it, doesn't endorse such atrocities" (and, in particular, doesn't follow Leviticus 20:13, "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them"). And when people don't object to what is done in the name of their religion by those who claim to share it — when they don't express any interest in the religion's being tainted by the views of those who speak on its behalf — then I do wonder whether those people might in fact agree (or at least not strongly disagree) with those who purport to speak on their religion's behalf.
As to Swaggart's actions being "an obvious violation of the Christian ethic" — well, since so little is obvious in religion and in scriptural interpretation, it seems to me that non-Christians would understandably like some assurance from other Christians that this is indeed so. And Christians should try to remind those, like Swaggart and apparently some of his congregation, that they are indeed obviously wrong, and are undermining Christianity's reputation.
FURTHER UPDATE: I've gotten a bunch more messages along the vein of the one I quote in the UPDATE above; but I'm still of the view that I expressed originally.
I'm not asking for anything much — I'm simply saying that Christians should be outraged at Swaggart's essentially slandering their religion, and should denounce his views, to make clear that his views (though purportedly Christian) are not mainstream Christian views. Swaggart calls himself a Christian; was once a very prominent minister; continues apparently to have some influence; and purports to interpret the Bible. His statements are representations of what Christianity is supposed to be about. I would think that Christians would want to denounce those representations, and the closer they are in denomination to him (e.g., Protestants, evangelical Protestants, etc.), the more they would want to do that.
This is the standard that I use for members of my ideological movement — when Republicans say outrageous things, it seems to me that we Republicans ought to condemn them, to try to redeem the movement's good name. Careful readers of this blog will notice that I have done this in the past, and that many other Republicans have done it as well. This is one of the responsibilities of being part of an ideological movement, of urging others to join your movement, and of praising the movement as good for society: You need to police your own, or those who purport to be your own. Not an onerous responsibility, or an unreasonable imposition, it seems to me.
FURTHEST UPDATE: See above.
More on Swaggart:
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.
Christianity Today weblog on Swaggart:
To its credit, Christianity Today magazine's weblog reports (thanks to Patrick Oden for the pointer):
Speaking of televangelists ...
Crouch [a figure from the preceding story] isn't the only TV preacher who needs help with his theology this week. In his September 12 broadcast, Jimmy Swaggart (remember him?) demonstrated exactly how not to oppose gay marriage. "I'm trying to find the correct name for it . . . this utter absolute, asinine, idiotic stupidity of men marrying men," he said. "I've never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. 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."
One might think that someone who has publicly experienced brokenness in his sexuality might be a bit more careful in his words. In this line of thinking, wouldn't the prostitute that Swaggart hired have been justified in killing him?
Homophobia might be a word thrown about too carelessly by the left, but remarks like Swaggart's are why the word exists in the first place. Let's be "blunt and plain": Biblically speaking, for a Christian minister to make such a comment is at least as sinful as it is for people to engage in homosexual activity.
The Canadian Radio Television Commission is investigating whether the broadcast, which aired on a Toronto station as well as several Christian stations in the U.S., constituted a criminal offense. The station that aired it apologized and called it "a serious breach" of Canadian broadcast regulations.
Jimmy Swaggart Ministries has removed the broadcast from its online archives.
One more related point: Leviticus 20:13 unfortunately does say "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." I am very glad that most, likely nearly all, American Christians — and even those who tend to endorse a literal approach to the Bible — do not to my knowledge take this as a literal suggestion to kill homosexuals. I'm sure there are good Biblical arguments for why this passage ought not be taken that way, and I certainly hope that people follow these arguments.
But it seems to me that Christian leaders, especially in those denominations that do often speak about the importance of literal adherence to the Bible — and particularly stress the literal force of the Bible when citing Leviticus 18:22 ("Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination") as their chief support for less militant opposition to homosexuality — be watchful for other Christian leaders who may have been unduly swayed by the isolated Leviticus 20:13 text, or who may in any event be reinforcing the tendency of some parishioners to focus on the isolated text.
Again, I stress that American Christians, including ones who are relatively literal in their Biblical interpretation, generally do not support killing homosexuals. Yet it seems to me that thoughtful Christians should be aware of the potential of Leviticus 20:13 to do harm (especially, as I said, when citing Leviticus 18:22), and should use those opportunities that arise to warn fellow Christians about it. The Swaggart outburst seems to me one such opportunity.
Swaggart on Swaggart:
From the San Francisco Chronicle,
Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart apologized Wednesday for saying in a televised worship service that he would kill any gay man who looked at him romantically. . . .
In the broadcast, Swaggart was discussing his opposition to gay marriage when he said "I've never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry."
"And I'm going to be blunt and plain: If one ever looks at me like that, I'm going to kill him and tell God he died," Swaggart said to laughter and applause from the congregation.
On Wednesday, Swaggart said he has jokingly used the expression "killing someone and telling God he died" thousands of times, about all sorts of people. He said the expression is figurative and not meant to harm.
"It's a humorous statement that doesn't mean anything. You can't lie to God -- it's ridiculous," Swaggart told The Associated Press. "If it's an insult, I certainly didn't think it was, but if they are offended, then I certainly offer an apology." . . .
I leave it to readers to decide how much of an apology this really is. Thanks to Renato Mariotti for the pointer.