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Queer Rumors: Protestant Ministers, Unnatural Deeds, and Church Censure in the Twentieth-Century United States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2021

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Over the course of the twentieth century, dozens of conservative Protestant ministers were accused of sexual deviance—including instances of same-sex acts and attractions. Protestant churches, in turn, experimented with employing various tactics to undermine and challenge such accusations. From silencing and secrecy to public censure and disassociation, denominational bodies labored to undermine evidence of queerness among their ministers. This essay surveys a one-hundred-year history of religious groups’ and institutions’ attempts at dealing with the uncomfortable but persistent allegations of not-quite-straightness among their leaders. This story accounts for how conservative Protestantism has been able to maintain its claims to a particular kind of sexual morality even as religious leaders themselves have repeatedly jeopardized this project.

Research Article
Copyright © 2021 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

The conservative Ohio televangelist Ernest Angley believes that his sexuality is determined by his vocation. Having been accused of unsavory sexual behavior—including homosexuality—multiple times over the course of his seventy-year career, Angley has denied all allegations. “I'm not a homosexual,” Angley told his congregation in 2014. “God wouldn't use a homosexual like he uses me. He calls me his prophet, and indeed I am.”Footnote 1

For a long time, most American Protestants agreed with Angley: God was not in the business of deputizing queer prophets. Yet, time and again throughout the past century and a quarter, that conviction has been undermined by persistent evidence of the queer among the nation's clergy. In January 2019, new confirmations of Angley's alleged homosexuality were anonymously leaked to the press. In a tape recording from 1996, Angley admitted to naked trysts with another man in a phone conversation with his assistant minister.Footnote 2 What might such evidence of queerness among conservative Protestant pastors suggest about the development of religion and sexuality in the modern United States?Footnote 3

The historiography of queer religion in the United States began like other historiographies of the not-straight: with an attempt to find prototypes of queer subjectivities in the past.Footnote 4 Historians have scanned the always already tentative archives of sexuality for traces of otherness in sexual expression and theological disposition. These archival ventures have uncovered subversive theologies, queer celibacies, and peculiar homosocialities among American Christians.Footnote 5 Most recently, historians have challenged the stubborn cultural narrative that religion has generally functioned as a repressive force for queer sexual expressions in the past.Footnote 6 Less has been written about Protestant pastors’ own queer histories. If scholars have discovered (however tentatively) and named (however hesitantly) the queerness of religious practitioners, few studies have focused on the official leaders among Christian ministries and denominations. Especially when it comes to conservative Protestant ministers, their queernesses survive most often as accusations. Undue attention, intimate conversation, and inappropriate touch sometimes accumulate into an almost legible archive of not-quite-straightness. When enough accusations assemble in such a manner, they may even explode in a scandal. Even then, the evidence of queerness remains fragmentary; in almost every case, queerness is vehemently denied by the very protagonist of the exposé.

The denials are not accidental. Ministers accused of unsavory sexual appetites have had to answer to powerful denominational bodies. Their professional and personal fates lay in the hands of other Christians, few of whom held progressive views on sexual diversity. Holding strong to a pattern of denial for most of the twentieth century, conservative denominations’ responses to queer ministers were harsh. Pastors were rebuked, reprimanded, and renounced. This applied across Protestant denominations in the early 1900s and was particularly typical for socially conservative groups at the century's end. This may be why charismatic religious leaders of recent generations have learned to hide behaviors that would be deemed sinful by their own theologies and to unequivocally and dramatically deny allegations of queerness. Tracing the changing responses of religious bodies to rumors of queerness among their ministers helps interrogate larger cultural shifts in the history of religion and sexuality over the course of the twentieth century. The queer past, it appears, is filled with both heroes and villains. Conservative ministers at the center of reports and speculations of queerness have often been the very architects of a system that relegated queerness to the realm of sexual sin in the first place.

A system of silencing and straight-washing has gone hand-in-hand with persistent allegations of queerness among conservative Protestants. From hushing rumors of deviance in the early 1900s to squashing reports of queerness by the turn of the twenty-first century, Protestant pastors have, to a large extent, escaped the label of queerness. The structural mechanisms that have enabled them to do so are the subject of this study. The story unfolds in three stages. Silencing accusers, internal church censure, and—when necessary—swift parting from potentially problematic pastors were effective methods for institutions dealing with undesirable sexualities among their chosen leaders until the midcentury. Official denials and sheltering of potentially problematic pastors by powerful evangelical leaders was the next stage in queer almost-scandals’ unfolding. Finally, in the last quarter of the 1900s, individual ministers’ political message and professional charisma came to override denominational control, and conservative pastors accused of nonnormative sexual encounters found ways to return to public ministry despite denominational censure. Hardly heroic or revolutionary figures in the archive of the queer past, these men and their secret passions nonetheless contribute to the complicated story of religion and sex in the modern United States.

A New Kind of Sex Problem

In the early twentieth century, the threat of homosexuality emerged as a formidable concern among the highly homosocial Protestants.Footnote 7 By the mid-1910s, Sigmund Freud's and Havelock Ellis's ideas about sexuality had captivated the American imagination.Footnote 8 Queer subcultures, especially in urban centers, became a more visible and more mundane part of the new social order.Footnote 9

Although historians have documented the variety of new sexual ideas and queer communities that thrived in this period, it is important to note that the American culture as a whole did not possess a sophisticated understanding of queerness. Part of the difficulty in writing about concepts like homosexuality, same-sex desire, or even the idea of a queer “culture” in this period comes from the relative illegibility of queer people in the eyes of the broader public. The crime of “sodomy,” for example, was still widely used to describe both consensual sex among adults and what would later be understood as sexual assault and pedophilia (fellatio and bestiality also fell under the legal definition of “sodomy” in many states).Footnote 10 As historian Heather R. White explains, in the first half of the twentieth century, the “notorious ‘sin of Sodom’ (and of those seen to be guilty of committing it) involved capacious kinds of deviance that do not align with the medical ideas and identity categories that became ascendant in the second half of the twentieth century.”Footnote 11 The definitional imprecision is indicative of discursive fuzziness about the nature of queer acts and of the uncertain identities of the men and women who engaged in them.

Definitions are, of course, secondary to what occurred on the ground. As ideas about sexuality changed to include a greater variety of sexual expressions, rumors about new kinds of sexual misconduct could undermine the already embattled Christian denominations as they competed with each other for followers in the combative marketplace of U.S. religion. The press had grown increasingly more comfortable with publishing explicit details about crimes of sexual nature, even—and, in some cases, especially—among the nation's holy men. If, in 1898, newspapers found it sufficient to report that a Methodist minister was found “guilty of offenses similar to those of which Oscar Wilde was convicted in England,” within a few years, they would start reporting on the previously unprintable crime of homosexuality with less coded language.Footnote 12 And if other kinds of scandals did not always succeed in ruining Protestant ministers’ careers, rumors of queerness would become a full-proof strategy—leading some of the accused ministers to joblessness, insane asylums, and, in the worst cases, suicide. By publicizing accusations of sexual deviance among the clergy, the press propelled the Protestants’ reckoning with a new kind of sex problem in their midst. And although, as Heather R. White shows, the modern understanding of homosexuality would not be articulated by Protestants until the 1940s, the problem of abnormal sex began to present itself with more frequency than ever before in the early twentieth century.Footnote 13

When the Baptist minister George H. Simmons drank a bottle of cyanide in 1906, newspapers linked the suicide to the accusations of sodomy that had recently surfaced against the pastor. Although Simmons's suicide note did not mention the allegations of inappropriate conduct with the young men in his congregation explicitly, it contained a telling sentiment: “I have preached the truth, but conditions beyond my control have prevented my realizing it.” The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that a boy from Simmons's congregation had recently testified against the pastor and “dispelled all doubts as to the truth of the rumors.” Simmons, the article explained, had “won the confidence” of his congregation by his work with boys—taking them camping, hunting, and swimming. The minister also apparently insisted that the boys called him “George,” not “Reverend” or “Mister.”Footnote 14 The overt attachment to youth ministry and unusual familiarity with boys marked Simmons as a likely deviant.Footnote 15 The Los Angeles Times claimed that Simmons “had for years been afflicted with a species of insanity which made of him a moral degenerate.” It was “the pursuit of these insane desires and passions” that apparently “wrought not only his ruin, but also that of several young men of the community.”Footnote 16 Simmons's queer attachments, the press reported, ruined both him and those in his ministry.

The slippage between allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior with “boys” and “young men,” combined with the lack of evidence outside of newspaper reports, makes it difficult to assess Simmons's unfortunate life and death in terms legible for today's students of human sexuality. Still, his case demonstrates the mechanisms by which homosexuality came to acquire associations with concepts like sickness, disease, and insanity—at the very same time as the subject finally began to appear in print. As historian Mark Jordan notes, “By a remarkable coincidence, which is no coincidence at all, the homosexual and the adolescent entered English-speaking science in the same years.”Footnote 17 As psychological observations about human development in the early twentieth century embraced the dichotomy of normalcy and deviance, healthy male adolescents were defined, in part, by their rejection of effeminacy. The corruptible vulnerability of youth became a problem to be fixed. Homosexuality assumed the place of the “abnormal,” in contrast to the desired normalcy of virile masculinity. When Simmons's fellow Baptist minister, the Reverend E. L. James, of the First Baptist Church in Decatur, Illinois, was arrested and sentenced to the asylum for the criminally insane, newspaper headlines called him a “moral degenerate” who was “deranged as a result of vices.”Footnote 18 No further specifications of the charges or of the reasons for this language were supplied, but an attentive reader would have assumed some form of deviant sexuality. Queerness led to degeneracy.

As the subject of irregular sexual behaviors became increasingly more printable, accusations of this nature multiplied. In the first decades of the twentieth century, few strategies for ruining reputations were more bulletproof than casting a minister in the light of sexual deviance. As Protestant denominations competed for followers and prominence, some of their representatives deployed this strategy to discredit their competitors. Consider how the accusations of homosexuality played out in the interreligious campaign against the nascent pentecostal movement and its leader, Charles Fox Parham.

Together with William J. Seymour, Parham was the founder of pentecostalism. Eloquent and charismatic, Parham enjoyed immense success as an evangelist for the new movement until the summer of 1907, when he was arrested on the charges of committing “an unnatural offense” with twenty-two-year-old J. J. Jourdan of San Antonio, Texas. As historian Daniel Silliman points out, the details of the arrest are “sketchy” at best.Footnote 19 From the start, the minister categorically denied all accusations, and the charges were dropped in a matter of weeks. Secular newspapers, including the San Antonio Light, which first broke the story, quickly moved on to other matters. But Christian newspapers refused to let the story die. Rumors about Parham's sexuality had been circulating for years, and enemies of the new pentecostal movement latched on to the sensational arrest. The Zion Herald, the official newspaper of Wilbur Glenn Voliva's church in Zion, Illinois, was the first to report on the matter—embellishing the story with false claims and invented details. Voliva began spreading rumors about Parham after the preacher, once a frequent visiting speaker at Voliva's church, had suddenly disassociated himself from the establishment a year earlier. Voliva's Herald cited accusations that the original newspaper reports never printed—including alleged confessions from Parham, which the minister denied producing. In the aftermath, although Parham's ministry continued and the movement that he helped build eventually spread across not only the continent, but the world, the evangelist's reputation was “greatly tarnished” by rumors of queerness.Footnote 20

Over the course of the following decade, accusations of deviant conduct against Protestant pastors multiplied. In 1912, the Episcopal pastor Alfred Garnett Mortimer was suddenly asked to resign from his position because of such rumors. Initially, the reason behind the defrocking was kept secret from the public and the press. “From vague reports today,” reported the New York Times, “it was understood that it is in the intention of all concerned to let the affair die out as quickly as possible.”Footnote 21 But the affair refused to die either quickly or quietly. The Chicago Day Book prefaced the story with a leading question in the headline: “Rector of Exclusive Church Resigns—Scandal?”Footnote 22 The article reproduced the gossip around the case and contributed to the speculations about why Mortimer was being removed from his post. One rumor accused Mortimer of an inappropriate relationship with a married woman; another pegged him as a homosexual. Within days of the article's publication, Mortimer left the United States for his childhood home in England—in part to avoid further scandal. “I have been charged with doing many things against the church as well as against the set rules of morality,” the minister explained. “Some of these charges may be true; others are false. I am not the degenerate that I have been pictured.”Footnote 23 Mortimer's use of the word degenerate provided a clue to the likely charges against him. At the time, the word degenerate could have been understood to be synonymous with sodomite or homosexual.Footnote 24

Mortimer's reference to degeneracy was not the only evidence of his queerness. Historian John Loughery has argued that the reason behind Mortimer's dismissal was indeed his proclivity toward homosexuality. Loughery has written about rumors of a homosexual ring at Mortimer's church, and the historian cites the fact that Mortimer's curates were also dismissed as evidence of the men's queerness. On Loughery's reading, Mortimer's case illustrates how the Episcopal Church responded to “a moral and public relations debacle” that “threatened to tar the whole profession.”Footnote 25 And even though the evidence in Mortimer's particular story may be frustratingly thin, Loughery is justified in asserting that Protestant denominations were learning to quickly disassociate themselves with potentially deviant ministers in this era. The pattern repeated itself in two high-profile—but quietly handled—cases that played out over the following decade.

Historian Kathryn Lofton uncovered the details of the first case from 1916—a story that was successfully kept away from the newspapers by the fundamentalist elites.Footnote 26 In the Presbyterian Historical Society, Lofton located the proceedings of an internal investigation against John Balcom Shaw, the fundamentalist president of the Elmira College for Women in New York. Four copies of an anonymous letter were mailed to four Presbyterian ministers in Elmira, alleging that Shaw was guilty of “the crime of sodomy.”Footnote 27 The story did not become a national scandal. Newspaper headlines did not reproduce the accusations, and reporters did not seek comments from either Shaw or his denomination. The case was handled internally and with the greatest degree of secrecy. Of course, the rumor mill did not require external publicity—only the energy harnessed by gossip. Despite initially dismissing the claims in the anonymous letter, the ministers who knew about the accusations continued to overhear rumors about Shaw's moral character and sexual proclivities. Eventually, in early 1918, an investigative committee advised that Shaw “cancel all speaking engagements and go away quietly, possibly to a sanitarium” to seek help for his condition.Footnote 28 Shaw's fellow clergy seemed to believe that he was, indeed, ill with the plague of homosexuality and wanted him to disappear. To avoid public scandal, Shaw was expected to make himself scarce. Shaw resigned from Elmira College and remitted the ministry in April of 1918. The Presbyterian Church, in the meantime, managed to avoid scandal by handling Shaw's case internally and relegating his alleged sexual proclivities to the realm of mental health.

The following year, the Episcopal Church would face similar, although much more public accusations against one of their representatives. In 1919, the U.S. Navy received reports of homosexual activity among the men stationed in Newport, Rhode Island.Footnote 29 At the helm of the alleged deviants was the Episcopal chaplain Samuel Neal Kent, who reportedly paid sailors for sexual favors. The government's clumsy and bizarre tactics in investigating the case revealed contemporary concerns about homosociality and religion, while the Episcopal Church's initial defense and eventual dismissal of Kent was illustrative of how Protestants attempted to navigate the treacherous waters of rumors of queerness.

World War I necessitated greater numbers of servicemen, and, by 1917, Newport was flooded with new recruits. As the official investigative report explained, whereas the station normally housed two thousand enlisted personnel, the war brought in between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand boys and young men annually.Footnote 30 Some of those who came to Newport were, according to the report, “persons of low morals” who incited “demoralization among the enlisted personnel.”Footnote 31 Rumors of demoralization by “sexual perverts” soon reached the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels (a staunch Protestant in his own right) and his Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt. With great speed and determination—if unusual zeal—the Navy decided to investigate the shocking reports by soliciting volunteers who would infiltrate the ring and engage in homosexual acts to establish once and for all whether the rumors were true. In the summer of 1919, Roosevelt issued an order to enlist men to go into Newport “and to allow immoral acts to be performed upon them, if in their judgment it was necessary for the purpose of running down and trapping or capturing certain specified alleged sexual perverts.”Footnote 32

With the evidence obtained and seventeen sailors apprehended, the Reverend Kent was implicated as well. Five men accused Kent of sexual acts and advances, and the chaplain was arrested on charges of immoral conduct in the summer of 1919. During his trial, details of the government-sanctioned investigation by means of engagement with the alleged homosexuals shocked the public. One operative testified that he was instructed to allow the minister to “play with [his] penis” until he “had an emission.”Footnote 33 Details like this, which revealed that the Navy authorized homosexual acts, made the press and the public question the Navy's integrity. Whatever Kent did or did not do with other men's genitals was based on strange evidence and even sketchier methods of obtaining the damning reports. Kent was acquitted.

The Navy was embarrassed. In retaliation, they tried Kent again—this time in a federal court. The Episcopal Church supported Kent ideologically and financially, allocating $1,651—the equivalent of about $24,000 in 2020—for his legal defense. The Diocesan Church War Commission that voted to support Kent expressed “its gratitude to the Rev. Samuel Neal Kent for his service as Chaplain, its absolute confidence in him, and also its regret for the unfortunate situation into which he was brought by the charges preferred against him by the Navy Department.”Footnote 34 Despite the denomination's professed confidence in Kent's innocence, however, Kent was soon transferred from Rhode Island to Warwick, Pennsylvania—to pastor another church, far from the drama of Newport. There, the minister was arrested and brought in for his second trial.

Fourteen clergymen testified on Kent's behalf. Kent denied all accusations of impropriety. He insisted that his conduct in the chaplaincy had been nothing short of exemplary when it came to Christian standards of hospitality and care for fellow men. When sailors found themselves without a place to stay for a few days, Kent invited them to room with him at the rectory. When they were hungry, Kent fed them dinner. If they needed transportation, Kent offered them rides. As historian George Chauncey puts it, “Rather than deny the government's claim that Kent had sought intimate relationships with sailors and devoted unusual attention to them,” Kent and his defenders “depicted such behavior as an honorable part of the man's ministry.”Footnote 35 Christian hospitality, not sexual deviance, was behind Kent's actions, according to this interpretation. As Chauncey shows, Kent's defense team successfully recast what would otherwise have been construed as sexual interest in sailors in terms of Christian service and brotherly affection. Although the chaplain was acquitted, he did not remain a minister much longer. According to John Loughery, Kent was “quietly disqualified from performing religious duties” in 1921 and occupied secular professions until his death in 1943.Footnote 36 Just as Alfred Garnett Mortimer quietly disappeared back in 1913 and as John Balcom Shaw was let go by his denomination in 1918, it was easier for the Episcopal church to dismiss a clergyman of questionable sexual affinities than to deal with public disgrace. At least when it came to deviant sexuality, major Protestant denominations were learning to silence potential queer scandals quickly and efficiently.

The Eerie Quiet of the Midcentury Queer

Ministers got on board with the silencing program. Unlike the earlier eras, the midcentury was an eerily quiet time for Protestant sex scandals—even as secular queer cultures were slowly coming out of the proverbial closet and as stories of sexual deviance proliferated in the press.Footnote 37 As historian James Polchin argues, between World War I and the Stonewall riots, homosexuality “was increasingly a subject of public concern,” as newspapers presented sensational stories of sexual deviance as morality tales about criminality, violence, and vice.Footnote 38 Polchin writes that, in New York City alone, between 1936 and 1938, “when sex crime panic was at its height,” arrests for disorderly conduct and sodomy nearly doubled compared with 1932.Footnote 39 As queerness was being increasingly spun in the press as evidence of criminality, respectable Protestant leaders took great care to shield themselves from rumors of sexual deviance.

Which is not to say that Protestants in high places stopped doing things they otherwise deemed immoral. In the 1930s, when Billy Graham was getting his college education, the president of his Bible institute, W. T. Watson, was accused (“falsely accused,” Graham later insisted in his autobiography) of sexual indiscretions [emphasis original]. A quarter of the students and a handful of faculty left Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College of Florida) in response to the revelations of Watson's conduct. Graham not only remained, but also extracted an important practical lesson for his own ministry: religious figures had to learn to tread carefully. “Dreadful as the experience was,” Graham wrote, “I was grateful that the dark cloud passed over Florida Bible Institute while I was there. It was a big learning experience for me in many ways, and it taught me to be very careful myself.”Footnote 40 It is notable that Graham's lesson from the scandal was not about reaffirming tenets of evangelical sexual morality, but rather about strategies for avoiding fallout from alleged impurity.

In addition to learning to be more careful in their intimate affairs, Protestant pastors were also becoming more savvy in using libel legislation to protect themselves from accusations of queerness. Consider the case of Clarence H. Cobbs and his fight against the queer rumors that surfaced about him in the Chicago Defender in 1939. According to historian Wallace D. Best, the members of the Reverend Cobbs's church and the wider African American Chicago community knew that the pastor was gay.Footnote 41 Best interviewed surviving contemporaries, who remembered the flamboyance of Cobbs and his associates and their diva-like behavior—flaunting their fur coats and transferring their energy from church services to gay night clubs all in the course of the same evening.Footnote 42 But when the Chicago Defender publicized the rumors of Cobbs's alleged sexual preferences in November of 1939, the minister sued the paper for libel to the tune of $250,000.

The Defender reported on a police probe regarding “widespread rumors of scandalous nature” and quoted Cobbs as defending his reputation by claiming to be “full man,” thereby indicating that the rumors were, indeed, about the pastor's queerness.Footnote 43 Cobbs did not take to such coverage kindly and sued the Defender for its take on his alleged deviance. The complaint presented Cobbs as “a law abiding and law-respecting citizen” living as a single man with his mother and practicing his ministry in the city of Chicago with respect and dignity. The Defender, Cobbs claimed, published false statements and “greatly injured” the good name and reputation of the minister by causing “hatred, contempt, ridicule, scandal and disgrace.”Footnote 44 In 1941, the Appellate Court of Illinois decided in Cobbs's favor, positing that “there can be no escape from the conclusion that [the Defender] tended to injure the reputation of plaintiff and especially to damage him with reference to his qualifications as a minister of the gospel.”Footnote 45

According to historian St. Sukie de la Croix, the favorable ruling was vindication enough for Cobbs, and he released the Defender from liability soon after. As Cobbs reportedly told his lawyer on the occasion of legal victory, “I am not interested in any money from the Chicago Defender. As is told us in Proverbs, chapter 12, ‘A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.’”Footnote 46 Cobbs may not have financially benefited from the suit, but his victory undoubtedly served as a warning to newspapers that threatened the reputation of Christian ministers in print. Indeed, in the three and a half decades between 1940 and the mid-1970s, queer pastoral scandals appeared in newspapers almost exclusively as court case reports—providing minimal sensational commentary and instead reproducing only the publicly available facts of the cases.Footnote 47

In postwar United States, heterosexuality assumed the mantel of the only acceptable public orientation.Footnote 48 In private, queerness was thriving. In 1948, the nation learned what sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey had known for a while: Americans were having queer sex, and more of it, than they were willing to admit. Kinsey's survey of “a statistically sound population,” titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, revealed that “persons with homosexual histories are to be found in every age group, in every social level, in every conceivable occupation, in cities and on farms, and in the most remote areas in the country.”Footnote 49 The percentage of men who had “at least some overt homosexual experience to the point of orgasm between adolescence and old age,” Kinsey found, was thirty-seven—or nearly two out of every five men.Footnote 50 This widespread trend was made all the more significant, Kinsey noted, because “both Jewish and Christian churches have considered this aspect of human sexuality to be abnormal and immoral.”Footnote 51 But religion, it turned out, was no hindrance to praxis in the sexual behavior of the human male.

The homosexual minister was by no means a common trope in the midcentury, but such men existed—quietly and out of sight of their denominations and of the state, which was growing increasingly more concerned with the alleged social evil of homosexuality. The first comprehensive historical account of homosexuality, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach (1955), insisted, to the tune of Kinsey's report, that there was “no religious group—unless its entire culture is different from that of the modern Judeo-Christianity—that has fewer homosexuals in proportion to the total number of adherents.” The author—a closeted gay man himself, writing under a pseudonym—disclosed that he knew “at least two preachers who were homosexuals” and who found “great consolation in their prayers and meditations.”Footnote 52 As conservative Christianity began to denounce homosexuality in public, queer pastors at the midcentury remained quiet, and married, and straight-acting—those were often the only practical options available to them.Footnote 53

Some of these men became the most zealous conservative Christian crusaders of their generation. Take, for instance, Edgar C. Bundy, a retired Air Force major who dedicated his postmilitary career to countering the spread of communism among Protestants. As head of the conservative Church League of America, Bundy, a Baptist minister turned anti-communist agitator, accused just about every other Christian organization of being secret agents of the Soviet Union. As the unsubtle title of his Collectivism in the Churches: A Documented Account of the Political Activities of the Federal, National, and World Council of Churches (1958) suggests, Bundy believed that all but the most right-wing Protestant organizations were in danger of the ever-present threat of a communist takeover.Footnote 54 Paranoid in his desire to catch every last communist sympathizer, Bundy saw himself as a collaborator with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—frequently writing to J. Edgar Hoover and other officials with unsolicited reports on alleged communist activity. In October of 1958, for example, Bundy wrote Hoover asking whether the rattlesnake that an anti-communist friend of his found in his suitcase upon returning from a trip to Chicago was a communist warning.Footnote 55 The letter received no response. The FBI dismissed Bundy as an attention-hungry conspiracy theorist who sought cheap publicity. By 1961, FBI agents were set on dismissing Bundy entirely—especially after he allegedly attempted to impersonate an FBI agent.Footnote 56

Soon, the Bureau would learn a detrimental secret about Bundy. “The disgusting truth,” an FBI memo read, “is that Bundy is a sexual pervert.” He was the worst kind of “pervert,” the memo explained, because “he particularly favors satisfying his perverted desires with young boys.” The source of this information was a Columbus minister who maintained “a comprehensive file containing information about Bundy's homosexual activities.” This unnamed informant was apparently close enough to Bundy to have confronted him with the evidence, after which Bundy allegedly “readily confessed but begged forgiveness.” The minister also reported that hundreds of other Christian pastors were aware of Bundy's predicament.Footnote 57

Indeed, within the Christian anti-communist movement, it had long been rumored that Bundy had a sex problem. Already in the mid-1950s, he had been implicated in a series of homosexual acts while working with the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC) and its fundamentalist leader, Carl McIntire. With early ambitions of getting the Republican Party to support the agenda of the Christian Right, McIntire enlisted Bundy in the Abraham Lincoln National Republican Club. The organization was dedicated to mobilizing conservative grassroots efforts to remake the GOP in the image of Christian conservatism. When rumors of Bundy's homosexuality reached McIntire, he was advised to fire Bundy, but McIntire refused. Winning the GOP was his top priority, and Bundy was great at fear-based campaigns that united certain demographics of the American public. This was a misstep on McIntire's part—one for which he would ultimately pay by losing the support of many evangelical leaders by the 1970s. Historian Markku Ruotsilla cites McIntire's refusal to condemn Bundy's sexuality among the chief reasons for evangelicals’ eventual dismissal of McIntire's political project.Footnote 58

Like Bundy's detractors in evangelical circles, the FBI knew that few strategies were more effective for destroying a man's reputation than accusations of sexual deviance. In 1964, the same Columbus minister who had supplied the FBI with the first allegations of Bundy's homosexuality provided the Bureau with further evidence. The minister presented a letter containing an account of Bundy's attempted sexual advances toward two Christian boys in 1946 and 1947—incidents that apparently resulted in Bundy's removal from youth work.Footnote 59 Another letter, penned by Bundy himself in 1954, suggested that Bundy both admitted his homosexual tendencies and seriously considered leaving Christian ministry because of his sexuality. The letter, with names redacted by the agency, bears quoting in full:

Dear [name redacted],

Out of the anguish of a broke heart and a crushed spirit I am crying to you. I am beaten, defeated and wrecked. I have withdrawn from all Christian work. I have been unable to eat or sleep for the past three days. I have vomited until I cannot do it anymore.

I am sorry for all the misery and heartaches I have caused anyone. I cannot express myself more. All I ask is forgiveness and something or someone to heal. If I were there in your presence I would offer myself to be tramped on.

Please [name redacted], ask all concerned to stop writing and talking about the situation from now on. I am going to try to live my life with my wife by making a living in the secular world. Don't blame anyone in the ACCC or [International Council of Christian Churches] for me. I am not a member anymore of my own free will, and I don't want any of them to take the blame for me.

God alone knows my heart. I must depend on Him. All I ask is some relief from the suffering which is mine. I must find rest somewhere, somehow. Please try to remember me kindly in your prayers. Again, all I can say to you and all the rest is: I am sorry from the bottom of my heart. There is an ache there which at times seems as if it would consume me. I do not know to whom to turn for help. I have cried to God until I can't cry any longer.Footnote 60

Although Bundy would ultimately leave neither the ACCC nor full-time ministry, the letter's repentant tone suggests an attempt at grappling with the reality of Bundy's predicament—a problem that he must have viewed as profoundly incompatible with his faith. Bundy's distress echoes the tortured experiences of his early twentieth-century predecessors who, like him, must have resented the part of themselves that they were unable to change—even as they sometimes tried to square their desires with their theologies. The troubling rumors of Bundy being both a child abuser and a homosexual went hand-in-hand in the FBI's file about the minister. No meaningful distinction was made between the two—demonstrating how, by the midcentury, the connection between criminal sexuality and same-sex attraction had become conflated in the eyes of the state and the public, even as the scientific community began to suggest that homosexuality was neither pathological nor always correlated with same-sex experiences in adolescence.Footnote 61

Bundy was not entirely sincere in his confession. He returned to the business of Christian anti-communism in no time. In fact, Bundy would soon come to use the weapon of “sex perversion” allegations against others. Ten years after he penned his anguished letter, Bundy would write to Florida Senator George A. Smathers and tell the politician that he had it on good authority that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was “a secret Communist and pervert to boot.”Footnote 62 Seeing no apparent contradiction in making these allegations against others, Bundy proceeded to excel in his anti-communist career and advance in far-right circles. The FBI may have dismissed Bundy as a “pious hypocrite,” but this characterization would do little to impede Bundy's zealous crusade.Footnote 63 Unlike Martin Luther King Jr., Bundy had multiple layers of protection of his reputation. His whiteness and his connections to other powerful men in evangelical circles allowed him to remain in a position of influence long after the allegations of his homosexuality emerged.Footnote 64 By the midcentury, a network of conservative Christian men was working hard to protect each other from rumors' reach. If, early in the century, rumors of queerness led to ruin, by the Cold War, political expediency took precedence over temporary lapses in sexual morality.

The Sins of Billy James Hargis

One of the men in this network of evangelical anti-communists was Billy James Hargis. Like Bundy, Hargis had been a one-time employee of Carl McIntire, and he, too, would come to grapple with a sex problem. A devout fundamentalist, Hargis believed that the United States was facing the existential threats of secularism, godlessness, and loosened morality. With catchy slogans, folksy charisma, and media savvy, Hargis rose to prominence as the most outwardly patriotic, America-loving, born-again evangelist of the postwar era.

Hargis's rise to popularity was not conventional by any means, yet perhaps his claims to being an outsider were precisely what propelled his success.Footnote 65 He was, as he liked to remind his followers, a simple orphan boy from Texarkana. Ordained by the Disciples of Christ at age seventeen, Hargis left that church only a few years later and swore to never join another denomination again. True Christianity, he preached, was not bound to any one denomination. Hargis despised arbitrary denominational rules and regulations. He tried to get a formal education at Ozark Bible College but dropped out after only one year to become a full-time pastor. Four years later, Hargis left that position to focus on “warning the churches of America, over a small network of radio stations, of their deadly enemy before it was too late.”Footnote 66 The deadly enemy was communism, and the nation was ready to listen to the alarming message of the preacher of doom. Hargis was only twenty-four years old.

At twenty-five, in 1950, Hargis founded his flagship organization, the Christian Crusade. At the heart of Christian Crusade's mission was a single issue: Hargis believed that Satan was using the spread of communism to bring about the events of Armageddon. Cloaking his political agenda in the language of theological conviction, Hargis's message had a much broader reach than just his obsession with communism. He favored segregation and was a member of the John Birch Society. He hated Catholics and was suspicious of Jews. Sex bothered him. In 1968, the Christian Crusade published a pamphlet titled Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?, which vilified all manner of sex education. Two years later, Hargis published another alarmist book about America's sex culture titled The Sex Revolution in the United States.Footnote 67 Throughout his career, Hargis promoted a conservative political agenda, even as he attempted to present all of his concerns as purely religious, masking them in the language of a cosmic battle between God and Satan. The Internal Revenue Service figured as much when they revoked Hargis's tax-exempt status in 1960. At the time, his ministry was a $1 million-a-year enterprise.

Now even more critical of the leftist leanings of the state and disillusioned with its morals and tactics, Hargis joined the separatist fundamentalist university movement.Footnote 68 With little formal education and no experience, Hargis nonetheless appointed himself president of his American Christian College in 1971. President Hargis wanted the school to be a training ground for “God and country” Christians who would fight “for Christ and against Communism.” He was soon disappointed to discover that running an institution of higher learning meant having to allow for difference in opinion among its faculty. Some of the hired instructors did not share Hargis's extremist fundamentalist views, yet were protected by what Hargis contemptuously referred to in his autobiography as “academic freedom” and “tenure privileges.” The college was not the piece of fundamentalist paradise that Hargis had envisioned.Footnote 69

Still, Hargis enjoyed his position and his new venture. He also loved getting to know the students. The school formed a musical act, the “All American Kids,” with whom Hargis toured across the country and around the globe. Later, he would lament forming such close relationships with his students. “While traveling with those young people,” Hargis would recall, “I really thought I had become one of them. Today, I wish that I had never ridden the bus with them, never laughed at their jokes, never heard their confessions, and never related to them on a one-on-one basis.” Hargis also had an “open door” office policy and frequently met with students individually.Footnote 70

Soon, allegations of sexual immorality surfaced. Perhaps the most shocking was the accusation that Hargis had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with both female and male students in his “All American” choir. Time magazine broke the story in an article titled “The Sins of Billy James.”Footnote 71 The epigraph preceding the piece was an ironically juxtaposed fundraising appeal Hargis had sent out to supporters a month earlier:

Dear Friend:

After years of shock and sorrow over the decline of morals and decency in our country, I thought I had become shockproof. . . . Can you believe it: complete color films of sexual acts between women and men, including homosexual acts, using your children. Unless you and I act today . . . our children and our children's children will be exposed to perversion so sinister that good will become evil and evil will become good.Footnote 72

According to Time, David Noebel, the vice president of Hargis's college, reported that the first two students—a man and a woman—came forward with accusations in 1974. Hargis had officiated those students’ wedding. On the honeymoon, the couple chatted about their respective relationships with Hargis. It was then that both the bride and the groom admitted to having had sexual encounters with their school's president. Eventually, three more students—all of them male—told Noebel that they, too, had been intimate with Hargis. When Noebel and two other college administrators confronted Hargis, the evangelist reportedly “admitted his guilt and blamed his behavior on ‘genes and chromosomes,’” presumably trying to explain both his sexual orientation and predatory behavior away by assigning responsibility to genetics.Footnote 73

With only two and a half columns of text on a single page of the magazine, Time changed the course of Hargis's life. Hargis would never publicly admit to having engaged in these sexual encounters. He even denied having ever admitted any wrongdoing, claiming that what he said was not that he had sinned, but that he was—in the existential sense—a sinner. Hargis would also obfuscate when the news media pressed him for a confession: “I am not guilty of all the sins that I have been charged with. However, Christ died to save sinners of whom I am chief.” In his 1985 autobiography, Hargis doubled down on the unsatisfying nonconfession that he had furnished: “If I had said, ‘I am not guilty of any sin,’ then I would have been lying unto man and God. I couldn't live with that. I had sinned, in many ways that no one but me knows about. God knows I have repented of my sins.” Admitting to being guilty of all metaphorical sin conveniently freed Hargis from having to fess up to any specific wrongdoing. He also never explicitly addressed the homosexual nature of his encounters with the students.Footnote 74

Unfortunately for Hargis, he lacked the support network that protected Edgar C. Bundy twenty years earlier. Hargis had been a lifelong critic of all organized religious institutions; he stood before his accusers alone in the aftermath of the scandal. His vice president leaked the story to Time. The students in his college, whom Hargis had once considered to be his friends, no longer trusted him. In a refrain that he would repeat time and again, Hargis blamed fellow Christians for all his troubles. “I have found that some Christians are the most unforgiving people in the world,” Hargis complained.Footnote 75 In lieu of forgiveness or support from within, Hargis lashed out against the liberal media and held onto the I'm-a-sinner-but-not-like-that line of defense.

In the early months of the investigation into Hargis's alleged inappropriate behavior, the preacher appeared on the Tom Snyder Show on NBC to once again warn the country about communism and to mount a defense of himself in the process.Footnote 76 Snyder was gentle with Hargis, focusing most of the discussion on the political issues of the day and only turning to the scandal at the end. Still, Hargis refused to take any kind of meaningful responsibility for his alleged improprieties while shifting the attention to how supposedly unforgiving—and therefore un-Christian—his fellow believers were. This strategy was not an unreasonable posture of defense for Hargis. It is possible that Hargis's carefully scripted denials were sincere. As historian Carol Mason explains, Hargis firmly believed that “it was who you were—your godly character—that determined the nature of what you did, not vice versa.”Footnote 77 Mason speculates that this may be why Hargis personally saw no inherent problem with engaging in sex with his students of both genders—after all, all parties were good Christians. In this framework, their physical expressions of spiritual communion need not mean that their identities were implicated in something queer.

Impatient to move on from the scandal, Hargis hoped that the fears of Armageddon, about which he preached so often, would be distracting enough to forgive the allegations of sex with students. In this, Hargis miscalculated. Although the district attorney's investigation never came to an indictment, the preacher's popularity plummeted. Then again, the episode did not ruin Hargis's life's work entirely. He was forced to resign from his college, and the institution soon crumbled under financial pressures and overwhelmingly negative response from the parents of enrolled students, but Hargis's career did not end. He moved to his Ozarks farm full-time and continued to author anti-communist propaganda until his death in 2004. A small but faithful flock continued to support Billy James Hargis, disgrace and all. Their religious and political allegiances outweighed the effects of publicized rumors about their leader's sexual appetites.

The Queer Career of Jim Bakker

A similar tale of the appeal of charisma over allegations of sexual deviance played out in the case of Jim Bakker in the 1980s and 1990s. At the peak of his career serving up Christian entertainment to millions of Americans eager to combine piety with pleasure, Jim Bakker was worth millions. The obsession with money, fueled in equal parts by greed and prosperity theology, would eventually usher in his demise. Between 1984 and 1987, Bakker received a total of $4.8 million in salary—and used $265,000 of his ministry's money to silence Jessica Hahn, a church secretary who accused him of drugging and sexually assaulting her in 1980.Footnote 78 Bakker would also be accused of homosexual advances by multiple men within his ministerial empire. Despite the accusations of sexual assault, homosexual tendencies, and financial fraud, Bakker has since managed to return to full-time ministry. His case demonstrates how denominational censure had come to lose its power and how the appeal of religious charisma could conveniently cover a multitude of sins in the Protestant imagination by the turn of the twenty-first century.

Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye started out small. They met in 1960 at North Central Bible College, an Assemblies of God school in Minneapolis. Soon, the couple began touring the country as healing evangelists. Jim preached. Tammy sang. They entertained the children who came to the meetings with puppets—a compelling medium that brought them the attention of Pat Robertson, one of the leading Christian television broadcasters in the country. Robertson hired the Bakkers to do a show on his Christian Broadcasting Network in 1965. After that, the Bakkers never had to worry about finding adoring audiences again. Modeling their television appearances after secular talk shows like the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the Bakkers assumed Christian celebrity status and started their own network, Trinity Broadcasting Systems (TBS), in 1972. A year later, PTL Club (acronym for “Praise the Lord” and “People That Love”) launched, and by the end of the decade, PTL television ventures, which relied on revolutionary cable satellite systems to transmit their programming, would be among the most successful in the nation.

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were nothing if not ambitious, and the success of their shows became impetus for further expansion. In 1978, the Bakkers began construction of Heritage USA, a Christian theme park meant to attract believers who eschewed secular entertainment but were still looking for a good time on their hard-earned vacations. Contributions from eager would-be vacationers poured in, providing the Bakkers with enough capital to continue constant expansion. Prosperity begot greed. Before long, Bakker began lying to his supporters about how much return they were going to see on their investments, as his vision for Heritage USA outgrew his budget, and as his desire for personal fortune became insatiable. Facing unexpected expenses and inevitable debt in his many expansion projects, Bakker resorted to speculating in $1,000 “lifetime memberships,” on which he knew he could not deliver. He would eventually be convicted on multiple counts of fraud in 1989.

With the financial scandal still almost a decade away, the Bakkers were basking in the glory of their temporary—but lavish—success, even as their marriage was struggling. Rumors of affairs on both sides were not unsubstantiated, and Tammy had developed a taste for prescription medication. It was during that time that Jim Bakker flew to Florida to hold a telethon. There, he met twenty-one-year-old Jessica Hahn, a church secretary from New York, who had been asked to come to Florida to babysit Bakker's daughter while he was away on official PTL business. In the hotel, Bakker allegedly forced Hahn to have sex with him. Bakker would later deny allegations of assault and portray the entire ordeal as consensual—undertaken, on his part, only to make Tammy jealous.Footnote 79

Whatever the truth of the encounter in that hotel room, Bakker understood that what happened had to be kept secret from the public. PTL employees reached out to Hahn and asked that she stay silent—for the good of the church and the propagation of the ministry. PTL tried both monetary compensation and spiritual intimidation to stir Hahn away from scandal. Recounting the pressure from PTL decades later, in 2017, Hahn recalled being told, “Just keep your mouth shut, Jess, because this is a church” [emphasis original]. The church, Hahn continued, was her world. She knew that revealing what happened “would affect millions of people.”Footnote 80 It did.

After years of investigation of financial mismanagement at PTL by the Charlotte Observer and speculations of marital infidelity by Bakker's televangelist rivals, Jim Bakker resigned from ministry on March 19, 1987. The few details that came out initially were murky. At first, Jim and Tammy presented the resignation as a consequence of vicious attacks against the ministry—stepping down to them seemed like a lesser evil, meant to diffuse unnecessary tensions and save PTL.Footnote 81 No guilt was ever admitted. Like Billy James Hargis, Jim Bakker initially thought that he could save himself through vagueness.

There was, of course, truth in the assertions that PTL had been struggling amid serious allegations, rumors, and tensions. The most significant of those involved Bakker's one-time friends and rivals Jerry Falwell, John Ankerberg, and Jimmy Swaggart. All three men occupied prominent leadership positions in their respective denominations, and two of the three (Falwell and Swaggart) were concerned about the effect that Bakker's revealed infidelity would have on the reputation of their own television ministries. Ankerberg and Swaggart asked Falwell to confront Bakker, which Falwell was all too happy to do, since he had already had his sights on taking over PTL. Historian John Wigger explains that, initially, the “goal was to enlist a group of prominent ministers to guide Bakker through a process of public confession and restoration.”Footnote 82

By 1987, many Protestant leaders understood that the only way to restoration was through confession. As historian Susan Wise Bauer puts it, “confession offered [televangelists] an opportunity to reassure their devotees that they were still fighting on the side of divine good.”Footnote 83 But this plan, although tactically correct, ultimately failed in its salvific capacity. Some of the ministers the group had in mind were either unwilling or unavailable, and Falwell and Swaggart, who knew Bakker well, “doubted that Bakker would submit to public discipline.”Footnote 84 What Bakker agreed to was a meeting with Falwell, during which the truth was finally spoken. Bakker confessed to his infidelity and to the pay-off he authorized to keep Hahn quiet. Falwell took over Bakker's ministry.

Bakker's official resignation from PTL—first in the form of a telephone call to the Charlotte Observer and later through a formally published letter—blamed everyone but Bakker for Bakker's problems. “I sorrowfully acknowledge that seven years ago, in an isolated incident,” Bakker wrote, “I was wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends and then colleagues who victimized me with the aid of a female confederate.” Bakker, not Hahn, was the victim in his retelling. Everything he did in that hotel room was the result of wicked, power-hungry men (and a female accomplice) plotting to destroy his reputation. In this whirlwind of a conspiracy, Bakker “succumbed to blackmail” to save his ministry. Emphasizing that now that his predicament forced him and Tammy Faye to enroll in “full-time therapy at a treatment center,” Bakker was hopeful for redemption and restoration in some not-too-distant future.Footnote 85

Bakker miscalculated his redemption timeline. The reason the Charlotte Observer reporters even stumbled upon the Hahn story was because they had been interested in Bakker's finances, which elevated the scandal to a new level.Footnote 86 Exactly one week after Bakker spelled out his vaguely conspiratorial reasons for resigning, the Observer reported that PTL lawyers paid Hahn $265,000 to stay silent. Several weeks later, the Observer revealed the extent of the Bakkers’ luxuriously indulgent lifestyles to the public. In the previous year alone, PTL paid Jim and Tammy Faye $1.6 million in salary and bonuses. Besides, as the Observer journalists had long suspected, Bakker's fundraising techniques were more than a little dubious, bordering on fraud. The paper followed the story for another year, when it won a Pulitzer Prize for covering PTL.Footnote 87

As the aftershocks of revelations refused to die down, Bakker's denomination was forced to introduce harsher measures and censure the minister. Anonymous allegations of Bakker's alleged bisexuality sealed the deal for the Assemblies of God, whose leaders had, until then, remained hopeful that Bakker might be rehabilitated and restored to ministry. In early May of 1987, the Assemblies of God defrocked Bakker for the Hahn incident and for “alleged misconduct involving bisexual activity.”Footnote 88 No further explanation of “bisexual activity” was supplied, but the denomination made it clear that, although it was willing to put up with poor money management and even sexual assault, queer sex crossed a line. “The Assemblies of God church,” reported the Washington Post, “regards homosexuality as unpardonable for clergy.”Footnote 89

The denomination had worked out protocols for dealing with homosexuality among their clergy in the 1950s. The minutes of the forty-third General Council include the following recommendation: that the “same ruling apply to homosexuals as applied to those guilty of adultery and fornication.”Footnote 90 The ruling had to do with revoking the license of a minister, disfellowshipping the offender, and ensuring that he or she never again be reinstated. And, whereas the status of “adulterer” or “fornicator” presumably required a provable physical offense, the General Council applied the rule to homosexuals just by virtue of their being. By the midcentury, in the eyes of the Assemblies of God, the homosexual had indeed become a species—punishable for his or her very being, to say nothing of acts.

Jim Bakker denied the new allegations. Tammy Faye, faking peace of mind in the chaos of the affair for TV cameras, enthusiastically reassured her interviewers that she knew her husband well enough to know that he was not bisexual. It was not immediately clear who exactly supplied these allegations, but the televangelists who orchestrated Bakker's downfall were the likely culprits. Jerry Falwell had long preached that the future of America was being jeopardized by “the homosexual revolution.”Footnote 91 Soon, Falwell was openly repeating rumors of Bakker's homosexuality. According to Falwell, a male witness told the Assemblies of God that he had had sex with Bakker and that he also witnessed Bakker “in the same act with others.” Another man, Falwell said, claimed that a naked Jim Bakker had once made advances toward him, the details of which Falwell was only too happy to supply to the titillated press.Footnote 92

At the time, the details of Bakker's encounters with men were murky and underreported. But in his recent book on PTL, historian John Wigger concludes that the ample evidence of Bakker's bisexuality goes hand-in-hand with the fact that he was also a “sexual predator, taking advantage of [male] employees who depended on him for their livelihood” through sexual coercion and blackmail.Footnote 93 One of the victims of Bakker's predatory behavior chose to speak publicly about his same-sex encounters with the minister. Jay Babcock, a former PTL employee, told a Charlotte grand jury in no uncertain terms that he and Bakker had a sexual relationship. When asked what he would say in response to Bakker's denials of bi- or homosexuality, Babcock replied, “He is a liar.”Footnote 94

Five months after being defrocked, the disgraced PTL leader was indicted on twenty-four wire and mail fraud charges and one count of conspiracy to commit fraud by a federal grand jury. Still ignoring the homosexual charges mounted against him, Bakker doubled down in his commitment to appear repentant and only marginally guilty. “I have sinned,” a tearful Bakker appealed to the sentencing judge, “but never in my life did I intend to defraud.” The plea fell on deaf ears. During his sentencing, Jim Bakker dealt with an especially tough judge and an especially severe outcome. “Those of us who do have a religion,” Judge Robert Potter said, “are sick of being saps for money-grubbing preachers and priests.” Potter sentenced Bakker to forty-five years in prison and a fine of $500,000.Footnote 95 The prison sentence was later reduced, and Bakker was paroled in 1994, having served less than five years of his term.

Bakker's queer past did not figure into his sentencing, but it was not something he could stop thinking about either. In prison, Bakker would finally dabble in trying to reckon with the problem of his sexuality. In his 1996 memoir, written shortly after being released, Bakker recounted episodes of childhood sexual assault perpetrated against him by an older male friend from church. When it began, Bakker was just eleven. Within a few years, Bakker would develop an interest in girls, and the relationship with his abuser ended. Still, the thought lingered in Bakker's mind: “[P]erhaps there was a part of me that was not heterosexual, but homosexual.”Footnote 96 Bakker told his therapist about the abuse. Terrified of what it meant for his sexual identity, Bakker asked the counselor, “Am I gay?” “No, Jim, you are not a homosexual,” the therapist reportedly replied. “No man can love women as much as you do and be a homosexual. It is obvious you're not gay.”Footnote 97 With that, Bakker finally achieved a diagnosis of straightness that apparently fully satisfied him. He would never again feel the need to address the allegations of his sexually predatory behavior toward either women or men.


Jim Bakker was paroled in 1994, after serving less than five years of his sentence. Nine years later, he would resurrect his religious broadcasting—this time with a brand-new Jim Bakker Show. In live YouTube streams, Bakker now warns Americans about the impending end times and sells buckets of dehydrated apocalyptic gruel in exchange for $600 “donations.” As with Billy James Hargis's postscandal ministry, the conservative evangelical message seems to matter more than potential contamination by queerness for people who tune in to Bakker's broadcasts.

The title of Jim Bakker's memoir, I Was Wrong, does not, in the end, refer to his infidelity, his predatory bisexuality, or even the fraudulent financial machinations for which he was convicted. While Bakker admits to regretting his sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn, his being “wrong” has little to do with his guilt. The closing lines of the book read: “I once thought that God had abandoned me. I thought that my days of ministering for the Lord were done. I thought that I would never preach again. I was wrong.”Footnote 98 Resolute in their insistence on the right to preach despite whatever sexual behavior they have been caught in, the last few generations of evangelical ministers appear to be unstoppable—queer rumors notwithstanding.

Over the course of the twentieth century, encounters between religion and queerness that involved Protestant ministers employed by conservative denominations have been marked by impressive attempts as silencing, straight-washing, and denials. This is hardly surprising. White conservative Protestants spent the better part of the twentieth century waging cultural battles against challenges to their particular idea of Christian sexuality; they desperately needed their leaders to, at the very least, appear to embody appropriately patriarchal heteromasculinity.Footnote 99 Yet evidence of not-straight attractions, desires, and acts abounds. Whether through homosocial interaction, queer theologizing, or outright abuse, the men who have put themselves in charge of the nation's religion have proven to not be as straight as they have claimed.

Taken together, the stories of Protestant pastors surveyed here represent a curious shift that occurred over the course of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, ministers rumored to be queer appear in the archives as fragile victims of denominational and social power structures that denied their full being and censured them based on sketchy rumors and uneven reports. As competition among conservative and mainline Protestant denominations reached a new level after the 1920s, some conservative Protestant groups chose to change course. They now shielded their ministers from accusations of queerness. Others used libel litigation to stop the spread of queer rumors. Still others adapted to ways of keeping their queer attachments hidden as they labored to present themselves as nothing but straight. By the century's end, denominational sanction gave way to personal charisma and political messaging when it came to Protestant ministers’ appeal. The queer-adjacent stories of Billy James Hargis and Jim Bakker testify to both men's tendency to abuse their power, even as their return to ministry suggests that their appeal to the public mattered more than the otherwise credible reports of their queer proclivities. With denominational censure no longer an obstacle, ministers like Hargis and Bakker brushed off credible allegations, insisted on their restored moral purity, and proceeded to preach a gospel that glorified the ideal of patriarchal, heteronormative religion.

When considered from the angle of conservative Protestant pastors caught up in queer rumors and allegations, the story of recovering heroes in the archive of LGBTQ+ histories becomes more complicated. Some of these men were victims, to be sure; others, particularly in the latter half of the century, became active antiqueer agitators. Their charismatic reach and theological interpretations allowed them to simultaneously claim redemption from whatever sins they may have committed and then proceed to deny the same grace to others. Unlike narratives of secular sexuality, which have tended toward progress, histories of queer-adjacent Protestant pastors refuse straightforward trajectories. Allegedly queer religious figures remain elusive subjects of study. Complicit in their own erasure as queer actors, they are hardly the heroes that early historiography of LGBTQ+ sexuality in the United States sought to uncover in the archives. To fully understand the contours of the history of sexuality over the course of the long twentieth century, it appears that queer villains must be included in historical excavations of the not-straight past.


1 Bob Dyer, “Falling from Grace, Part 1: Ernest Angley's Grace Cathedral Rocked by Accusations Involving Abortions and Vasectomies,” Akron Beacon Journal,, October 2014, reprinted online on January 6, 2019,

2 Bob Dyer, “The Rev. Ernest Angley Admitted Sexual Encounter,” Akron Beacon Journal,, January 19, 2019,

3 Here, and throughout the essay, the word queer operates as a broad, capacious category that encompasses not-straight and same-sex attachments, desires, intimacies, inclinations, and sometimes even rumors. Queerness, in this sense, indicates a challenge to claims of straightness, rather than a coherent category in its own right. Positively asserting the sexual identities of the Christian ministers profiled here would make for an exercise that is both impossible and misguided for two reasons. First, categories of sexual identity and self-identification have changed profoundly over time—including over the course of the twentieth century. Second, none of the ministers whose stories are featured here would openly claim any label that did not conform to whatever form heterosexuality happened to assume in their respective historical periods. Still, because they were credibly rumored to have had encounters with people of the same gender, queer is used as an all-encompassing, fluid term that allows for a variety of interpretations of these encounters as well as a multiplicity of possible identities for their protagonists.

4 Kunzel, Regina, “The Power of Queer History,” The American Historical Review 123, no. 5 (December 1, 2018): 1560–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See, for one of many examples of recent scholarship, Talvacchia, Kathleen, Larrimore, Mark, and Pettinger, Michael F., eds., Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (New York: New York University Press, 2014)Google Scholar.

6 White, Heather R., Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Frank, Gillian, Moreton, Bethany, and White, Heather R., eds., Devotions and Desires: Histories of Sexuality and Religion in the Twentieth-Century United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 John Donald Gustav-Wrathall, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998).

8 For a brief survey of the changing ideas about sexuality in this era, see John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 222–28.

9 George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

10 See a compilation of state-by-state sodomy statutes at midcentury in Donald Webster Cory, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach (New York: Greenberg, 1951), Appendix B.

11 White, Reforming Sodom, 6.

12 “Preacher Convicted of Revolting Acts: Rev. W. E. Golding of Placer County Found Guilty and Dismissed from the Ministry,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 1898.

13 Heather R. White convincingly argues homosexuality was not a serious concern for Protestants before the 1940s. Indeed, White calls the scriptural condemnation of homosexuality “an invention of the twentieth century” and demonstrates how religious liberals in particular “un-muddled the confused category of ‘sodomical sin’ and assigned to it a singular same-sex meaning.” See White, Reforming Sodom, 3–4.

14 Quoted in “Suicide to Hide Shame, Then Ruin: Self-Destruction of the Rev. George H. Simmons, Banker-Politician, Stirs Peoria,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 7, 1906.

15 As Mark Jordan argues, “The most effective American rhetoric for condemning civil or religious toleration of homosexuality has repeatedly warned of dangers to the young.” See Mark D. Jordan, Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), xiii. This trend, as Jordan's work demonstrates, began in the early twentieth century and intensified from the 1970s on, as public religious figures like Anita Bryant explicitly linked homosexuality with child abuse and child recruitment. Few made this connection in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The 2011 John Jay College of Criminal Justice report on the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests concluded that, despite speculations about a correlation between same-sex attraction, acts, and identities with the sexual abuse of minors, the data “do not support a finding that homosexual identity and/or pre-ordination same-sex behavior are significant risk factors for the sexual abuse of minors.” See Karen J. Terry et al., “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950–2010” (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 64,

16 “He Flees in Disgrace: Dr. Simmons Takes His Own Life,” Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1906.

17 Jordan, Recruiting Young Love, 1.

18 “Pastor Moral Degenerate,” The [Seymore, Indiana] Tribune, December 26, 1906, 1.

19 Daniel Silliman, “The 1st Pentecostal Scandal,” May 18, 2012, Daniel Silliman (blog),

20 See Alan F. Bearman and Jennifer L. Mills, “Charles M. Sheldon and Charles F. Parham: Adapting Christianity to the Challenges of the American West,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 32, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 116; Tony Cauchi, “Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929), The Revival Library (blog), 2004,

21 “To Keep Minister's Secret: Dr. Mortimer, It Is Said, Will Be Unfrocked and Return to England,” New York Times, December 29, 1912.

22 “Rector of Exclusive Church Resigns—Scandal?” Day Book, December 27, 1912.

23 “Sailing of Rev. Alfred Mortimer Is Hastened When an Irate Husband Hints at Intention to Interview Unfrocked Minister,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 4, 1913.

24 See, for instance, Max Carocci, “Sodomy, Ambiguity, and Feminization,” in Indigenous Bodies: Reviewing, Relocating, Reclaiming, eds. Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Rebecca Tillett (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013), 73.

25 John Loughery, The Other Side of Silence: Men's Lives and Gay Identities—A Twentieth-Century History (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1998), 14.

26 Kathryn Lofton, “Queering Fundamentalism: John Balcom Shaw and the Sexuality of a Protestant Orthodoxy,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 17, no. 3 (September 2008): 439–68.

27 Lofton, “Queering Fundamentalism,” 439.

28 Lofton, “Queering Fundamentalism,” 464.

29 George Chauncey, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War One Era,” Journal of Social History 19, no. 2 (1985): 200.

30 Alleged Immoral Conditions at Newport (R.I.) Naval Training Station: Report of the Committee on Naval Affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-Seventh Congress, First Session Relative to Alleged Immoral Conditions and Practices at the Naval Training Station, Newport, R.I. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1921), 3.

31 Alleged Immoral Conditions at Newport, 4.

32 Alleged Immoral Conditions at Newport, 5.

33 Quoted in Lawrence Murphy, Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign against Homosexuals by the United States Navy (New York: Routledge, 2014), 103.

34 Journal of the One Hundred and Twenty-Ninth Annual Session of the Rhode Island Episcopal Convention (Providence: The Providence Press, Snow and Farnham Company, 1919), 89.

35 Chauncey, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion,” 200.

36 Loughery, The Other Side of Silence, 13.

37 On the increasing visibility of male queer life in urban areas at the midcentury, see Jim Elledge, The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-Sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago's First Century (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2018); David K. Johnson, Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019); Hugh Ryan, When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2019).

38 James Polchin, Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice before Stonewall (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2019), 12.

39 Polchin, Indecent Advances, 78.

40 Billy Graham, Just as I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 59.

41 Wallace Best, “Lessons from the Rev. Eddie Long Scandal: Some Historical Context,” Huffington Post, October 2, 2010,

42 Wallace D. Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 188.

43 “State's Attorney Probes Scandal on Rev. Cobbs,” Chicago Defender, November 25, 1939.

44 “Radio Pastor Sues Defender for $250,000: Says ‘Virtue and Integrity Were Injured,” Chicago Defender, December 9, 1939.

45 Cobbs v. Chicago Defender, Inc., 31 N.E.2nd 323 (Ill. App. Ct. 1941).

46 Quoted in St. Sukie de la Croix, Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 157.

47 See, for instance, “Bishop, Convicted on Morals Charge, Freed,” Chicago Defender, December 21, 1940.

48 White, Reforming Sodom, 11.

49 Alfred C. Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1949), 627.

50 Kinsey, Sexual Behavior, 650.

51 Kinsey, Sexual Behavior, 610.

52 Donald Webster Cory, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach (New York: Greenberg, 1955), 96.

53 Here, the “conservative” designation is important, as many in the mainstream and liberal Christian traditions began to develop more compassionate, therapeutic approaches to dealing with homosexuality in their congregations (if not quite yet among their pastors). As the work of Heather R. White and the many archival collections available through the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network shows, conservative denouncements of homosexuality were not the only kind of Christian response at the midcentury. See White, Reforming Sodom, 43–107; LGBTQ Religious Archives Network,

54 Edgar C. Bundy, Collectivism in the Churches: A Documented Account of the Political Activities of the Federal, National, and World Council of Churches (Wheaton: Church League of America, 1958).

55 Letter from Edgar C. Bundy to J. Edgar Hoover (October 27, 1958), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-1” file.

56 See, for one of many examples, a memo from William C. Sullivan to A. H. Belmont (March 14, 1961), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-1” file.

57 Memo from R. W. Smith to William C. Sullivan (May 6, 1963), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

58 Markku Ruotsila, “Carl McIntire and the Fundamentalist Origins of the Christian Right,” Church History 81, no. 2 (June 2012): 378–407.

59 Letter from [Redacted] at Evangelical Covenant Church to [Redacted] in San Diego, California (no date), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

60 Letter from Edgar Bundy to [Redacted] (June 21, 1954), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

61 Linda Gordon, “The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Notes from American History,” Feminist Review 28, no. 1 (January 1, 1988): 56–64; Diederik F. Janssen, “Egalitarian: From Homophile to Helicophile in Post–World War II America,” Journal of Homosexuality 65, no. 12 (October 15, 2018): 1656–82.

62 Letter from Edgar C. Bundy to George A. Smathers (May 18, 1964), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

63 Note to a letter from J. Edgar Hoover to [Redacted] (September 1, 1964), Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FOIA: Bundy, Edgar C.-Church League of America-HQ-3” file.

64 For more on the FBI's much less gentle methods of dealing with Martin Luther King, see Lerone Martin, “Bureau Clergyman: How the FBI Colluded with an African American Televangelist to Destroy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Religion and American Culture 28, no. 1 (2018): 1–51.

65 Historian R. Laurence Moore has argued that self-proclaimed religious outsiders have been a constant force in American history. “Those who play the role of outsiders,” Moore writes, “can wield enormous public influence that the alleged insiders are powerless to block. They can also determine in crucial ways the outlook and behavior of the insiders.” See R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), xiii.

66 Billy James Hargis, My Great Mistake (Berryville, AR: New Leaf Press, 1985), 41.

67 For more on Hargis's crusade against sex education, see R. Marie Griffith, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics (New York: Basic, 2017), 155–200.

68 For more on fundamentalist higher education in the twentieth century, see Adam Laats, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

69 Hargis, My Great Mistake, 80.

70 Hargis, My Great Mistake, 88.

71 “The Sins of Billy James,” Time 107, no. 7 (February 16, 1976): 68.

72 Billy James Hargis, quoted in “The Sins of Billy James,” 68.

73 “The Sins of Billy James,” 68.

74 Hargis, My Great Mistake, 89, emphasis original.

75 Hargis, My Great Mistake, 108–109.

76 Tomorrow Coast to Coast, “Billy James Hargis,” National Broadcasting Company, December 27, 1977.

77 Mason, Carol, Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), 84Google Scholar.

78 The most recent and comprehensive account of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers’ careers and scandals is Wigger's, John PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Evangelical Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)Google Scholar.

79 See Wigger, PTL, 121–24.

80 Tim Funk, “Jessica Hahn, Woman at Center of Televangelist's Fall 30 Years Ago, Confronts Her Past,” Charlotte Observer, December 16, 2017.

81 “Preacher Claims Plot on Ministry,” Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1987.

82 Wigger, PTL, 261.

83 Susan Wise Bauer, The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 7.

84 Wigger, PTL, 261.

85 Quoted in Wayne King, “Bakker, Evangelist, Resigns His Ministry over Sexual Incident,” New York Times, March 21, 1987.

86 Emily Johnson, “A Theme Park, a Scandal, and the Faded Ruins of a Televangelism Empire,” Religion and Politics, October 28, 2014,

87 Wigger, PTL, 274.

88 Quoted in William E. Schmidt, “For Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Excess Wiped Out a Rapid Climb to Success,” New York Times, May 16, 1987.

89 Art Harris and Michael Isikoff, “The Good Life at PTL: A Litany of Excess,” Washington Post, May 22, 1987.

90 Minutes of the Forty-third General Assembly of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN: Church of God Publishing House, 1950), 231.

91 Jerry Falwell, “Letter from Jerry Falwell on Keeping Old Time Gospel Hour on Air” (August 13, 1981), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library,

92 “Tapes Cite 3 Homosexual Acts by Bakker: Falwell Says Church Leaders Received Testimony on Encounters,” Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1987.

93 Wigger, PTL, 284.

94 Gary L. Wright, “Ex-PTL Employee Testifies He Had Sex with Bakker,” Washington Post, September 22, 1988.

95 “Jim Bakker's Startling Sentence,” New York Times, October 29, 1989.

96 Jim Bakker, I Was Wrong (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 344.

97 Bakker, I Was Wrong, 345.

98 Bakker, I Was Wrong, 461.

99 For more on white evangelical investment in patriarchal hypermasculinity, see Du Mez, Kristin Kobes, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright, 2020)Google Scholar.

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