Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Jan 25, 2022
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SENSE OF THE CITY Buying Bob Tilton? Let the Believer Beware

The plaintiffs were free to choose. They shouldn’t collect a penny from Tilton.
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Some wit once coined the term hathos to describe that sense of pleasurable loathing-or loathing pleasure- we get from watching certain schlocky celebrities at work. Our better nature tells us to turn away in disgust, but we keep watching, smiling and wincing, as attraction fights with revulsion.

Celebs who get my hathetic juices flowing include Jerry Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, the later Neil Diamond, Mary Hart, and of course the Prinee of Hathos: Robert Tilton, who keeps me hypnotized each weekend of late, Watch his show, especially the live Sunday extravaganzas on Channel 27, and you’ll witness a spectacle that reduces the mysteries of religion and man’s fate to the level of a comic book. Tilton is to religion what Hulk Hogan is to sport, or Jackie Collins to literature. But the medium, forgive the cliche, is the message. Tilton’s sweaty, howling antics, his blind certainty, and his protean persona-puckish, egotistical, street-tough, self-effacing-do pack a wallop on television.

Ah. Here’s Tilton, eyes bulging with bottled-up glee, doing a live stand-up spot outside Word of Faith while inside, the choir and band pump up the faithful. “The devil’s gonna squeal like a stuck pig!” he chortles, and in that wonderfully mobile face we see a pure, lobotomized joy. Compared with Tilton, First Baptist’s Rock of Ages, W. A. Cris-well (Channel 11 at 11 a.m.), comes off as staid, aloof, even-yes-intellectual.

Besides an enlarged hathos gland, what makes me watch? I don’t share Tilton’s faith or his theology. Maybe I’m trying to glimpse what makes sick and dying people send him their money instead of spending it on medical treatment or leaving it to their families.

Of course Tilton now denies that he ever promised any miracles. On a recent Sunday show he thrust his hands into two bushel-baskets of prayer requests, then asked the flock if they thought they were buying miracles from God. No hands went up. Harried by the state attorney general and up to his neck in lawsuits, Tilton is trying to cover his tracks, but he’s left a long video trail behind him. There are too many tapes of Tilton urging believers with “female troubles” or “problems in the area of the back” or chemical addictions to put their hands on the TV screen and pray with him. Those tapes will be among the evidence brought forth by the six plaintiffs, five of them from Dallas, who are suing Tilton for fraud, demanding $500 million in damages because he failed to procure healing miracles for them or their spouses.

I wish no more misery on the plaintiffs, but I can’t see why they should collect a penny from Tilton. America is a marketplace of ideas. Some are good, some are dangerous, and not all come with warning labels and child-proof containers. These people went shopping and bought the idea of a divine being who, if properly cajoled, will intervene in the natural order to cure illness and reverse the course of incurable disease. Then they bought the belief that a TV preacher had the ear of God. And they bought a more modern idea: If you’ve suffered, someone out there should pay damages.

Now these plaintiffs, buyers who failed to beware, want the state to make them and their lawyers rich, just as if they had been injured in a defective car or been swindled by a quack doctor who claimed to cure cancer with salt baths. In matters of religion, however, the state is officially neutral, letting each person find his or her own way. There will never be unanimous agreement on what “works” in the spiritual realm-or, for that matter, whether there is a spiritual realm at all. Believe or not, pray or not, tithe or not: We’re free to choose our ideas. But we must live with the consequences of our beliefs.

Not surprisingly, Tilton doesn’t understand freedom anymore than his “victims” do. Recently, he praised a federal judge who greatly limited the attorney general’s investigation of his church. The judge, of course, was upholding the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. Now Tilton has filed his own libel and slander suits against the plaintiffs’ attorneys and others whom he accuses of damaging his church. A judge refused to grant a restraining order that would have silenced the critics. When his suit comes to trial in August, Tilton will learn that he can’t deny others freedom of speech. Similarly, the courts should tell the plaintiffs suing him that their religious decisions are no business of the state’s. Big Brother can’t always save us from ourselves.

Tilton is-must be-free to persuade, as are his critics. The cure for Tiltonism is education and information, not lawsuits. Someday, Tilton’s toll-free numbers may stop ringing. Until that day, we’ve got to love freedom more than we loathe him.