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Sinner Swaggart & Our Smugness

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | June 1988

When my wife and I read of preacher Jimmy Swaggart’s abrupt decline into the role of a public sinner, we remembered the hold he has had on so many people we have known, not only in our coun­try’s South, but the South that stretches from the Rio Grande Valley way down to the Strait of Ma­gellan. So many families we have met over the years have found Swaggart’s performing skills irre­sistible. He has a way of collaring his listeners and viewers, insinuating his hyped-up alarm and fore­boding into their nervous systems. He has a way of hitting a home run with his hysteria, evoking it in others, proving what Freud learned in the Vienna of 1900 — that passions denied at home or in the workplace can suddenly burst forth, inexplicably or in response to something — or someone. It is all too easy for someone like me to pursue the above line of psychoanalytic thinking, to render a discourse on the contagious power of religious emotionality on certain kinds of psychologically vulnerable people. It’s rather easy, as well, to join the ranks of those who prefer a more sociological or economic or cultural mode of analysis — the ig­norance and impotence, the near desperation, the edge of despair in so many men and women who can take little, indeed, for granted, who live in con­stant debt or with no hope of any real security, any sense of achievement. To pursue such inquiry is to risk the cool, confident self-importance of the quite privileged intellectual — one more “them” to comprehend, maybe pity, maybe keep at a distance as a negative drag on the kind of enlightened poli­tics my kind proudly tries to favor and practice.

As I tried to discuss the foregoing with a few friends “up here” (in New England) as opposed to “down there” (in Louisiana) — ah, the occasional symmetry of language and egotism — I was met with a barrage of skepticism, if not scorn. Swaggart is a phony, a manipulative fraud, an exploiter of sorts. He rakes in millions, lives high off the hog, exudes contrived bombast, offers hurt and ailing people — well, the list is familiar — an opiate; false consciousness; illusions; a crutch; or as a friend of mine, a decent, hardworking psychoanalyst whose liberal politics and sane rationality I admire, put it in his quiet, understated Jamesian way, “some du­bious satisfactions, indeed.” Yes, yes, I want to say, and do say — but. I stop with that small qualifying word, have trouble spelling out what “but” is meant to announce.

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