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A Spiritual History of Grifting Preachers

Danny McBride’s latest project, ‘The Righteous Gemstones,’ is part of a rich tradition of onscreen religious con men that encompasses comedy, horror, documentary and everything in between

The Gemstones have never had much use for understatement. As the new Danny McBride-created HBO series The Righteous Gemstones opens, the eponymous family is now decades into building a globe-spanning evangelical empire based around TV shows, arena-sized churches and missionary trips that attract converts by the thousands. Their efforts ultimately all work toward one goal: reaping in the vast sums of cash that keep the Gemstones living in luxury and traveling the world in private jets (dubbed, of course “The Father,” “The Son” and “The Holy Spirit”). Their followers see their lavish lifestyle as aspirational, the reward for holy service well done. From the outside, however, they look a lot like grifters determined to squeeze the faithful for every penny they can shake loose.

Do the Gemstones see themselves that way? That’s not an easy question to answer. In private, they’re profanely hypocritical, but on some basic level, they believe. It’s also not even that relevant of a question: For the Gemstones, the game of using religion to keep the money flowing trumps all other concerns. After all, they worship a forgiving, understanding God, and even if the ends don’t justify the means, it’s hard to say no to all that luxury. 

That makes them very much a product of our moment of megachurches, prosperity theology and preachers who opportunistically insert themselves into politics. But it also makes them part of a long tradition — both in American history and in films and on television — of preachers who double as con men (or worse). The phenomenon predates the modern age: The Old West (and westerns) are filled with dishonest members of the clergy. New technology, however, has allowed men and women of God, shady or otherwise, to operate on a previously unimaginable scale.

American popular religion of the 18th and 19th century was largely defined by a series of Great Awakenings, waves of revivalism in which preachers spread messages of hope and fear before crowds convinced they’d gone astray from the path of righteousness. Each helped entwine religious fervor into the fabric of everyday American life, but some also furthered causes like abolitionism, women’s suffrage and other reform movements. They’re complicated events, in other words, but they also helped create the evangelical template still followed by many ministers, whether speaking to a small church, or increasingly, over the airwaves.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood captures that moment of transition, even if it happens off screen. We first meet Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) as a charismatic fire-and-brimstone preacher with an ability to work crowds into a fervor — and a skill for using that fervor for his personal gain that expands beyond the collection plate. Freely adapting Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!, Anderson’s film explores the many ways religion and business can get entangled as Eli’s church becomes just another battlefield in his ongoing struggle with Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), a ruthless, successful oilman. 

In the film’s final scenes, set some time after the rest of the film, Eli returns to Daniel seeking money. He’s successfully expanded his Church of the Third Revelation into a radio ministry, but he’s made some bad investments that have led him to the brink of financial ruin. Eli’s followers know only his public face, and the stern, righteous voice on the radio. Daniel knows otherwise, and sets about humiliating him by making him admit his true nature before finally completing their business dealings for good.

Eli wouldn’t have been alone preaching on the radio in 1920s California. Aimee Semple McPherson became a religious celebrity at the same time, via radio sermons that helped spread the message of her Pentecostal Foursquare Church. A controversial figure in her time, in part owing to a still-mysterious kidnapping story that almost led to her being declared dead, she’s one of the primary inspirations behind the character of Sharon Falconer in Sinclair Lewis1927 novel Elmer Gantry, which Richard Brooks adapted into an acclaimed 1960 film starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons

Simmons plays Falconer as an earnest, if earthy, true believer responsible for a string of highly successful rural revival meetings. After picking up Elmer Gantry (Lancaster), a disgraced theology student-turned-failed salesman with a gift for stirring up a crowd of worshippers, she finds herself pushed toward taking her message to the city, where her celebrity increases along with her troubles.

Falconer may believe in what she’s preaching, but for Gantry, the gospel is mostly a means to an end. Lancaster plays him as a pitchman who’s finally found a product he can sell, even if selling it means tramping on feelings, bending the truth, manipulating the press and generally operating in bad faith. Any guilt is assuaged by getting him what he wants: fortune, attention, and the woman he desires most in the world, Sharon. Or at least it does until the film becomes the story of careless choices with tragic consequences.  

A consummate showman whose big smile and summoned passion masks his ulterior motives, Gantry became the model for virtually every fictional phony preacher that followed him, and perhaps some real-life phonies as well. Emerging in the late 1940s, not long after McPherson’s death, Marjoe Gortner became a celebrity as the world’s youngest ordained minister, delivering impassioned sermons starting at the age of four. Part of a family of Pentecostal preachers, Gortner was seemingly born to spread the word and decided to begin preaching after seeing God while taking a bath (at least, that was how his parents explained it). 

Years later, appearing in Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan’s Oscar-winning 1972 documentary Marjoe, Gortner recounted a childhood in which his parents would hold him underwater to the point of drowning as punishment for failing to memorize his sermons, then later ripped off the fortune he’d earned for them. The remarkable film was conceived partly as Gortner’s attempt to have the last laugh. He’d returned to preaching in his 20s — throwing in some stage tricks picked up from rock stars — as a way to make money the only way he knew how, even though he didn’t believe in what he was preaching. Wanting to transition into acting (which he later did with some success), Gortner treated the making of the film as a final hurrah, one that would capture the often unsavory world that made him a star.

The film captures preachers counting stacks of bills and talking about missionary trips to Korea that double as a way to buy real estate. Gartner discusses how he works his audiences and reveals he’s learned to sleep with airline stewardesses and other secular types rather than religious groupies. For him, it’s all a hustle (and the possibility that he’s hustling the filmmakers to some degree or another can’t be ruled out). It’s hard not to admire how good Gartner is at his job as he asks not just for money, but for worshippers to give him the biggest bill they have in their wallet. But it’s harder still not to feel sorry for those who follow him, expecting to find a way to God rather than just an empty wallet.

You might think that Marjoe would put a serious damper on religious hustlers in the 1970s, but you’d be wrong. The film enjoyed only a limited release, then went largely unseen until resurfacing on DVD in the 2000s. But even if it had enjoyed success on the scale of Jaws, it probably wouldn’t have rolled back the tide that led to the rise of televangelism in the 1970s and 1980s. This is when the line between religion and entertainment became thinner than ever thanks to the popularity of TV preachers like Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson and Robert Schuller (who preached from a building he dubbed “the Crystal Cathedral”). Marrying extravagance and showmanship to a narrow sense of right and wrong, they would become the model of a new sort of bad guy in the years that accompanied their rise.

One early example can be found in Carl Reiner’s 1977 comedy Oh, God! starring John Denver as a humble, skeptical grocery store manager who’s recruited by God (in the form of George Burns) to spread a message of love, tolerance and environmentalism before it’s too late. His simple (if mushy, granola-filled and very 1970s) spiritual message runs afoul of the religious powers that be, including the flamboyant Reverend Willie Williams, played by Paul Sorvino as an odious composite of every larger-than-life, drawling TV phony filling the airwaves at the time — and in the years to come. 

After public scandals engulfed Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart and (most famously) Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the phony preacher became something of a stock villain in the 1980s. The 1989 James Bond film License to Kill cast Wayne Newton as a televangelist whose ministry serves as a front for a vicious drug lord. That same year saw the release of Fletch Lives, a largely forgettable sequel livened up by R. Lee Ermey’s turn as Jimmy Lee Farnsworth, another con man preacher with one foot in the criminal world, willing to use huckster tricks like a hidden earpiece to perform miracles (well, “miracles”).

As the highly successful traveling preacher Jonas Nightengale, Steve Martin leans on similar technological tricks, and an innate ability to intuit the needs of those he meets, in the 1992 film Leap of Faith. Directed by Richard Pearce from a script by Janus Cercone, the film gives Martin a role few others could play, one that draws on an ability to work a crowd developed as a stand-up comic, and the dramatic depths he’d developed in his years as a movie star. It also offers a fresh spin on Elmer Gantry that doubles as a reminder that spiritual needs never go away, and that those who rise to meet them often do so out of self-interest. The film never loses sympathy for those Nightengale rips off, but the real drama comes from the question of whether or not he’ll be able to rescue his own soul. His ability to understand others doubles as a kind of curse. It also means he understands just how much harm he’s doing by selling them razzle-dazzle and false promises rather than real solace.

The film’s home stretch finds Nightengale shaken by the possibility that he’s witnessed an actual miracle, and in its own dark way, that’s more or less the same story told in the 2010 found footage film The Last Exorcism. Directed by Daniel Stamm, the film stars Better Call Saul’s Patrick Fabian as Cotton Marcus, a disillusioned preacher who, shades of Marjoe Gortner, has agreed to participate in a documentary to discredit the exorcisms he’s grown famous for performing. The only problem: It seems that this time he might have stumbled on a real demon in need of casting out.

Though it explores it with twisted bodies and spurts of blood, the theme at the heart of The Last Exorcism is one it shares with everything from Elmer Gantry to The Righteous Gemstones: When you call upon the power of God for selfish purposes, you risk punishment from forces beyond your control — whether you believe in them or not. It’s one no less timely now than when Eli Sunday first took to the airwaves. It’s also one worth revisiting as long as mass communication — be it the internet or just a really big tent — can be used to make proclamations about what God wants, and to help those making such proclamations lead a life of wealth and comfort here on Earth without a second thought for those who made it possible.