Throughout his three-decade-long career as founder and president of the world's largest religious broadcasting company, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), Paul Crouch has earned a reputation for preaching about the wrath of God, even delivering holy death threats to his critics, as he did in 1991 when he told them, "To hell with you! Get out of the way! I say get out of God's way! Quit blocking God's bridges or God's going to shoot you if I don't."
Yet when allegations surfaced in reports by William Lobdell of the Los Angeles Times last weekend that Crouch had had a gay tryst with a former employee, he stayed out of public view, delegating his eldest son, Paul Crouch Jr., to appeared in his place as host of Behind the Scenes, a show that focuses on activities within the TBN. Crouch Jr. limited his discussion to an altogether different storm rocking the ministry: Hurricane Ivan, which was threatening TBN affiliates in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the TBN issued a lengthy press release calling the gay-sex allegations "salacious" and predicting that "[t]his storm will pass."
Crouch's accuser is Enoch Lonnie Ford, a former patient at a TBN-affiliated drug rehabilitation center whom Crouch met in 1991 and was later hired as his chauffeur. While working for the TBN, Ford compiled a lengthy rap sheet for crimes including cocaine possession and having sex with a 17-year-old boy, an act that constitutes statutory rape in California. After Ford served a succession of prison terms, the TBN rehired him, provided him with a free apartment, and even lobbied a judge for leniency when he violated the terms of his parole.
Ford now claims that he and Crouch had sex in 1996, while Ford was a guest at a TBN-owned cabin at Lake Arrowhead, a woodsy southern California resort area.
In 1998, when the TBN fired Ford and he threatened to sue, the network offered Ford $425,000 in hush money. Ford accepted, but he later penned a manuscript about his affair with Crouch and, in 2003, threatened to make it public unless the TBN paid him $10 million. Crouch's lawyers are scrambling once again to keep Ford quiet, this time by requesting a restraining order barring him from seeking a publisher.
But if Crouch's legal and public-relations strategy fails, he could lose his role at the helm of evangelical Christianity's most powerful instrument of global influence, a broadcast leviathan with 43 satellites and more than 10,000 cable and local affiliates worldwide. Crouch may also become a liability to political allies like Attorney General John Ashcroft, his boyhood friend who benefited from the TBN's support during a heated 2002 confirmation fight. The scandal could also jeopardize the careers of some of the world's most popular and influential Pentecostal ministers, who rely on the TBN as a platform for their preaching and as a lucrative marketing vehicle for their books and videos.
So far, Crouch has vowed to remain in charge of the TBN in order to "answer God's call," though there's no telling what will happen if Ford's memoirs make it into print. Already, the TBN has taken steps to preempt the memoirs' release by personally discrediting Ford; it its press release, the TBN made certain to point out his history of crime and drug abuse.
Even if the TBN manages to silence or discredit Ford, however, it may still have to tamp down on internal dissent. As the Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday, Crouch's youngest son, Matt, was so shaken by allegations that his father had an affair with Ford that he told a law partner, "I am devastated; I am confronted with having to face the fact that my father is a homosexual."
TBN's star preacher, Benny Hinn, was also quoted by the Los Angeles Times, which overheard him gossiping about Ford and Crouch's affair on a 1998 bus tour. "Paul's defense," said Hinn, "was that he was drunk."
Crouch is not accused of breaking the law like his former business partner, Jim Bakker, who admitted ripping off his own ministry to the tune of $158 million during the 1980s. Bakker's affair with his secretary, Jessica Hahn, disgraced him in the eyes of his followers and hastened his demise. Though Crouch is far from the only evangelical leader accused of engaging in homosexual dalliances, the charges against him carry additional weight because of his prominence in the galaxy of the religious right, which, through its collaboration with George W. Bush's administration and the GOP leadership, has cultivated gay marriage as a divisive election-year issue.
Over the years, Crouch's TBN has played host to an array of vehemently homophobic figures including Hinn. In 1989, after prophesying that Fidel Castro would die within the next decade, Hinn predicted, "The Lord also tells me to tell you in the mid-90s, about '94 or '95, no later than that, God will destroy the homosexual community of America. He will destroy it with fire."
Crouch has been a member of the Coalition on Revival, an umbrella group for evangelical Christianity's most militantly anti-gay, Dominionist ministers. A 2003 press release Coalition on Revival member D. James Kennedy's ministry issued on the dangers of "the homosexual agenda" stated, "Thomas Jefferson authorized legislation to penalize sodomy by castration."
While Kennedy left unstated whether he personally supports castrating homosexuals, another Coalition on Revival member, theologist Gary North, has written that homosexuals should be stoned to death.
Crouch's broadcast empire would not have been possible without his wife and co-host, Jan, who is probably religious television's most recognizable personality. When she steps onto the TBN's set with the demeanor of an oversolicitous Sunday-school teacher -- clutching a lace-embossed Bible, sporting an enormous, purple-tinted hairdo and powder-cake makeup, along with frilly clothes -- it's almost impossible for viewers to turn away. Nor is it easy to ignore the Crouches' gaudy set, which fuses the kitschy style of a 1950s suburban living room with that of a royalty-themed Las Vegas motel. To watch the Crouches is an exercise in visual overstimulation.
For their devoted viewers, their appearance carries a deeper significance. Every aspect of the Crouches' look is carefully calculated as an aesthetic accompaniment to their Dominionist theology, which urges Christians to acquire as much wealth, power, and influence as possible in order to put the world's secular institutions under the control of biblical law.
To earn the blind loyalty of their viewers, who are often poor or working class and whom Jan Crouch routinely calls "you little people," the Crouches have cast themselves as spiritual aristocrats entrusted with handling God's riches. Seated on purple thrones like the king and queen of an alternate universe, the Crouches plead with viewers for their "seed money," reassuring them that their donations will be planted in heaven and blossom into anything they seek, from material wealth to eternal salvation.
Though it's hard to know how much of this money has actually made it to heaven (especially because the TBN keeps its financial records secret), a good chunk of it has made the Crouches wealthy; in 2001, they bought a $5 million home in Orange County, California, described by real-estate agents as "a palatial estate with ocean and city views."
During their 30-year campaign to extend the TBN's signal to the farthest reaches of the globe, the Crouches have cozied up to some of the most repressive governments in recent history. According to Alfred Ross, director of the Institute for Democracy Studies, a New York-based think tank that tracks anti-democratic movements worldwide, in 1988, Crouch met with the president of South Africa's apartheid government, P.W. Botha, to finalize a deal for a TBN affiliate in South Africa. That same year, the TBN completed work on its station in El Salvador, where Crouch had traveled frequently and associated with officials from the "Treasury Police," which oversaw the country's death-squad operations.
And as Sara Diamond reported in her 1987 book, Spiritual Warfare, in order to get the TBN's signal into the Middle East in the early 1980s, Crouch forged a close relationship with Israel's Likud Party government, donating millions of dollars to it for unspecified purposes. Crouch also held a joint press conference in 1982 with President-elect Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Israel-backed, right-wing Phalangist militia, which massacred thousands of Palestinian refugees during Lebanon's civil war.
While the Crouches' transmissions aren't as overtly political as those of fellow religious broadcasters like Pat Robertson and James Kennedy, they have never hesitated to rally support for old allies like Ashcroft, who attended a Pentecostal church with Paul Crouch as a boy in Missouri. During Ashcroft's contentious battle for confirmation as attorney general in 2002, the TBN hosted Doug Wead, who worked with his friend George W. Bush to rally evangelical support for George Bush Senior's 1992 re-election bid.
On the TBN, Wead promoted Ashcroft's Christian credentials and explained to the audience that the former Missouri senator had been demonized throughout his career "by the whole left" with "very bigoted attacks because of his religion … ."
In the TBN's newsletter, Crouch later told supporters to "pray for John [Ashcroft] and pray for our President every day!"
Crouch hopes he can weather the storm over his personal life by attempting to discredit the character of his accuser, to whom he has paid hush money, according to the Los Angeles Times. For the religious right -- and, ultimately, for the Bush White House -- a considerable asset is at stake in the outcome.
Max Blumenthal is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Read his blog at: www.maxblumenthal.blogspot.com