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Is Religious Television A “Cosmic Comedic Tragedy”?

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Last year’s scandals in religious television brought a chorus of pledges from major televangelists and other religious leaders to police the industry themselves. But Ole Anthony, president of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation Inc., a public, nonprofit “media-watchdog” group, views their promises with skepticism. Last fail, he testified before a United States House of Representatives Ways and Means subcommittee on the subject, charging evangelists such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson with flouting IRS codes and thus “picking the pocket of every American taxpayer,” as well as robbing sincere seekers of faith.

Anthony, who was a television evangelist for a brief period in 1972 (to his “shame,” he says), calls American religious television a “cosmic comedic tragedy.” He says he knows whereof he speaks because after the stint as a TV preacher, Anthony hosted radio and television talk shows interviewing many of the current evangelical heavy-weights.

“In the most outlandish operations,” Anthony charged in his testimony, “bottles of Holy Water or handkerchiefs with sweat from the brow of the evangelist are offered (in exchange for donationsj… It’s interesting to speculate what the IRS would determine was the fair market value for a handkerchief soaked with Swaggart-sweat.”

At forty-nine, Ole (pronounced Oh-lee) Anthony is a tall man with a craggily handsome face and intense, penetrating eyes. A speaker who holds listeners-whether an audience of one or a hundred-in thrall, Anthony now writes and lectures on religious and social thought.

As a religious leader, Anthony hasn’t come up in quite the traditional way. In fact, his background seems like a bio-sheet for the main character in the latest super-spy thriller. His résumé”, citing his “genius-level IQ,” lists his history as this: geophysicist, student at SMU Law School and Harvard Business School, operative for Air Force intelligence, owner of an offshore oil exploration company, management representative for Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, campaign strategist for former Dallas mayor Wes Wise, campaign manager for Senator John Tower, unsuccessful candidate for the Texas Legislature, hostage of Shiite Moslems in Beirut in 1980, writer, and lecturer.

Anthony and two other men formed the Trinity Foundation in 1973, two years after Anthony’s conversion to Christianity. The foundation’s charter says the group will monitor the mass media and “research, develop, and produce programs that reveal the hypocrisy, inaccuracy, and in most cases, outright deception of modern religion as well as the futility of modern humanist philosophies.” His last media project in late 1987 was research and narration for a Canadian television network’s production of “Adolph Hitler: The New Age Messiah,” a film that he says shows the connection between occult practices of the Third Reich and the current interest in “new age” practices such as channeling.

Trinity Foundation has about seventy-five active members in Dallas, all eligible to vote on the board of directors, and another 425 inactive supporters. Members do not belong to churches; they meet in small informal groups for Bible study and singing. At times, the meetings resemble group therapy sessions because members are encouraged, indeed expected, to confess their problems to the group.

Anthony says he flew to Washington to testify because he is outraged. “They’re running around making my Father look like an idiot,” Anthony says.

John Rutledge, a writer and editor for The Baptist Standard, a weekly religious magazine, began attending Anthony’s Bible studies in the mid-Seventies after attending a Baptist church. “I started to look at the things I believed,” Rutledge says. “What Ole was talking about had to do with letting go of your life, trying to let Christ in you be, rather than to do everything just right.”

To members of more traditional Christian churches, Anthony’s philosophies might seem somewhat mystical. He is writing a book called “Three Witnesses” about the connections between the Jewish Torah, the original meaning of the Zodiac, and the Egyptian pyramids. Defining a mystic as “one who experiences,” he encourages his followers to take risks, to push themselves.

Anthony says his primary work will continue to be as a media watchdog. Despite the attention the scandals focused on the religious broadcasting industry, Anthony predicts no change. “These congressmen aren’t going to do anything,” he says. “They believe these guys are the Christians who represent the voters. The name of God will continue to be blasphemed and young people will reject God because they make him boring’” Anthony spits out the last word with contempt. “God doesn’t need our promotion efforts.”

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