Billy James Hargis was a twentieth-century American evangelical entrepreneur writ large: charismatic, ultra-conservative, segregationist, anti-communist, anti-feminist, anti-gay, McCarthy supporter, charged with abusing tax-exempt status, accused of sexual misconduct by male and female students at the Christian college he founded, etc. He sat for an interview with Tom Snyder in the late 1970s to address a number of topics, including his sex scandal. A polished TV presenter, the “hillbilly preacher” comes across well despite everything. During the conversation, the two refer to Pat Robertson as the “Johnny Carson of Evangelism.”
From Hargis’ 2004 obituary in the Economist: “For four years, starting in 1953, he launched a million hydrogen balloons from West Germany towards the east. They contained verses of Scripture, sent ‘to succour the poor starved captives of communism.’ Rather less lightly, he himself hit the pulpit across America and in ‘foreign lands,’ perfecting his own style of shouting, flailing and sweating with an energy alarming in a man of his girth.
As televangelists do, he also set up courses and centres of learning: the National Anti-Communist Leadership School, the Christian Crusade Anti-Communist Youth University and, in Tulsa, the American Christian College. A naive reporter once asked him what was taught there. Why, Mr Hargis answered, ‘anti-communism, anti-socialism, anti-welfare state, anti-Russia, anti-China, a literal interpretation of the Bible and states’ rights.’ As if he had needed to ask.
After a while the authorities, stirred up by the Evil One, got interested in him. The Christian Crusade was a supposedly religious charity with tax-exempt status; yet Mr Hargis’s work seemed mostly political. Its purposes were allegedly altruistic; yet Mr Hargis drew a salary of $25,000 from it, besides his utility bills, his house, his clothes, his colour TV, his travelling expenses and his dry-cleaning bills. In 1964 the tax-exemption was withdrawn by the Internal Revenue Service, and his reputation spoiled.
Seven years later, sex reared its head. For Mr Hargis, adopted and brought up in crushing Christian poverty in Texas, fun had meant daily Bible-readings and, once a week, gospel choir. He gave the impression that nothing had ever changed. The targets of his daily wrath were not only homosexuals and women’s libbers but the blatantly sexual pop-gods of the day: ‘When the Beatles thrust their hips forward while holding their guitars and shout, ‘Oh Yeah!!’ who cannot know what they really mean?’
Yet in 1974 both male and female students at the American Christian College, and three male members of the college choir, the All-American Kids, claimed Mr Hargis had deflowered them.”