This post began as a strident anti-religious screed, then was more prudently and thoughtfully rewritten during a rainy drive to Wilkes-Barre.
The intersection of religion and money always makes me squirm.
To figure out why, it helps to take a look at my formative years in the early to mid-’80s. Those were spectacular boom-then-bust years for televangelists of every stripe, whose capers were front-page news.
I was no TV addict as a kid, and certainly didn’t seek out religious programming. But I can remember some of the figures from the glory years of televangelism, as caught in snippets here and there:
— Dr. Gene Scott, the leonine Los Angeles preacher whose all-night program was sometimes the only thing on at 2:30 in the morning where I lived. I can still see him, slumped down and scowling in one of his cowboy hats, sharply exhorting his late-night faithful to reach deeper into their pockets.
— Staying home sick from school one day and catching an episode of “The PTL Club” after the on-air departures of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. I remember a pair of beaming nonentities — introduced on-air as “your happy and smiling hosts!” — basically trying to gloss over the fact that their organization was ass-deep in alligators.
— Bakker, blubbering and singularly pathetic, being led away to prison in chains after being found guilty of fraud and conspiracy.
The foibles of other televangelists didn’t register to me until I did some more growing.
Robert Schuller, for instance, appears to be one of the more honest figures in his line of work; but he also spent a reported $18 million in Seventies money building a giant glass church. Seems to me he could have fed, educated and otherwise uplifted a lot of needy people (done the Lord’s work, in so many words) with the money he’s spent over the years on construction and maintenance of his building.
So, yeah, walk around my memory banks for a couple of minutes and you’ll understand why the intersection of religion and money makes me squirm.
At the same time, I realize there are worlds of difference between the high-rolling televangelists and the staff of your average neighborhood church. And I know those neighborhood churches can’t magically exist without some sort of cash flow.
This week’s calendar entry, then, captures a somewhat more benign meeting of God and cash:
I didn’t know what Loyalty Sunday was when I first noticed this entry. I thought it had an ominous, finger-pointing, with-us-or-against-us sort of ring, reminiscent of Joe McCarthy.
I thought it might be a publicly promoted civic event. I imagined millions of Americans lining up, under thick clouds of peer pressure, to state their support for their country and its then-contemporary war effort. (Nov. 14, 1965, was also the first day of the Battle of the Ia Drang, the first large-scale conflict between American and North Vietnamese troops.)
Then I Googled the phrase “Loyalty Sunday.” Most of the matches were for churches of various denominations. And many of the matches involved the phrase “pledge card.”
While Loyalty Sunday means slightly different things in different congregations, it most commonly seems to be a day when congregants tell their church how much they’ll be giving for the year to come. The churches, of course, always angle for a few more bucks.
The wordsmith in me cringes a little bit at the idea of Loyalty Sunday, since true spiritual loyalty shouldn’t have much to do with money. Who is more loyal to a church, in the truest sense: The person who drops 50 cents into the basket and lives the messages he hears in church, or the person who gives $100 a month and revels in avarice, greed and lust?
Since my grandfather (who certainly did not revel in avarice, greed or lust) took time to note Loyalty Sunday on his calendar, I assume he intended to take part. Perhaps he even put it on his calendar ahead of time so he could give some thought to how much he wanted to tithe.
I would be interested to know how much my grandparents gave, as a portion of their overall household budget. I’m sure they didn’t pony up as much as some of Jim Bakker’s devoted marks — er, congregants. But I imagine they gave something, as dutiful members.
The Methodist church my grandparents attended is still there, which suggests that enough people still dig deep on Loyalty Sunday to keep it alive.
Here’s hoping the current leadership spends this year’s take a little more intelligently than the Bakkers did.
(If a theme park rises on Hope Street, the neighbors will know that something’s afoot.)