It takes a lot of hard work and natural talent to come in first in the corrupt preacher sweepstakes if you live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After all, you have to compete with the notorious Robert Tilton and his money-as-sacrament TV ministry of greed. Yet Reverend Lonnie Latham is doing his best to eclipse Tilton by following in the notorious footsteps of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Tilton may be greedy and hypocritical, but he managed to avoid any sex scandals.
Latham is the pastor of the South Tulsa Baptist Church, one of the largest congregations in a town which is truly the buckle on the Bible Belt. He’s also on the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest Christian denomination in the United States.
The Southern Baptist Convention is notable for its strongly held public positions on traditional moral values which include outspoken condemnatation of homosexuality and belief in ‘wifely submission’ in marriage. Latham himself is known in the Tulsa community for his preaching against homosexuality and his belief that homosexuality can be ‘cured’ through aggressive application of the Bible in sexual orientation reeducation programs.
I can only imagine the joy of his congregation on Thursday when they heard on the local news that the most-righteous Rev. Latham was arrested in Oklahoma City for picking up a male prostitute who unfortunately turned out to be an undercover police officer. Can’t you hear the sounds of elation which will echo in the warehouse-like vastness of his megachurch on Sunday when he stands up to explain to the faithful how he was just ministering to the homosexuals and pastoring to the police? Surely he can make them understand that he didn’t travel the 100 miles to Oklahoma City to avoid being spotted by anyone he might know, he did it because the gay prostitutes there needed missionary support to give up their sinful ways much more than their local counterparts in Tulsa.
This story is both amusing and somewhat tragic, but what’s truly remarkable about it is how often we’ve seen it repeated. It’s become a cliche – the man of God who has an altar boy under his robes, a mistress in the choir or a gay lover working in the church office. And it’s usually the most morally righteous and the most outspokenly critical of the sins of others who seem to be the most corrupt. It’s as if their self-loathing drives them to direct their anger and hatred outwards towards others – often those who share the same prurient interests.
It seems as if more often than not, religion and hypocrisy walk hand in hand, especially down the spacious aisles of the Walmart-like super churches of the southwest. Whether it’s inner guilt which drives these twisted parodies of Jesus to success, or that the power and access to wealth which their position gives them is a corrupting force, the end result is exactly what Jesus preached against. These are the merchants in the temple and the Pharisees sitting in judgment all wrapped up together in one bundle of hate, hypocrisy and hubris.
The Southern Baptists may have been crazier in the old days when they were condemning dancing, miscegenation, popular music and education for women, but at least they were honest bigots and you knew where they stood. Lonnie Latham is a microcosm of the modern Southern Baptist church, all piety on the outside and corrupt to the core underneath.
The final irony of Latham’s story is the as yet unwritten next chapter. Like those who have gone before, rather than turning a new leaf and admitting his sexuality and striking out bravely as a gay pioneer among the Southern Baptists, experience teaches that Latham will deny his nature and attack his accusers, and then if that doesn’t work he’ll declare himself healed of his homosexuality, and redouble his efforts to impose his hypocritical morality on those around him.
Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart came through their scandals and are both back on TV. Latham should take heart, because it shows that fundamentalist congregations either have very short memories or an unlimited capacity for forgiveness. Of course, it could just be more proof of Barnum’s Maxim, and with a sucker born every minute there are plenty around to fill up the pews.