Billy James Hargis, who died on Saturday aged 79, founded an interdenominational movement called the Christian Crusade and built up a huge broadcasting empire with outspoken attacks on Communism; but he distinguished himself by becoming the first American television evangelist to be brought down by allegations of sexual misconduct.
A burly Oklahoman “bawl and jump” preacher with puffy, porcine eyes, Hargis built his reputation with belligerent attacks on all the usual targets – homosexuals, permissiveness, drugs, Communists, journalists, women’s libbers – to which he added some of his own. The Beatles were a butt of his wrath: “When the Beatles thrust their hips forwards while holding their guitars and shout, “Oh Yeah!!!” who cannot know what they really mean!” he thundered.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Hargis achieved top billing on 250 television and 500 radio stations, founded a Christian college and a newspaper, published more than 100 books, issued record albums and went on barnstorming tours in America and around the world. He was credited, along with the Rev Carl McIntyre, with giving birth to the “Christian Right” and reviving Christian fundamentalism in post-war America.
In 1953 he received international coverage when he visited West Germany and launched a “Bible balloon barrage” in which a million hydrogen ballons bearing biblical passages were floated towards Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany, “to succour the spiritually starved captives of Communism”.
In 1968 his organisation published the bestselling Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? But in 1976 Hargis found himself the subject of an article in Time magazine in which it was alleged that he was in the habit of giving impromptu sex lessons to students at his American Christian College in Tulsa.
In 1974 Hargis had conducted a wedding for two of his students. On their wedding night, in an episode reminiscent of the scene in Cabaret when Sally Bowles and Brian Roberts admit to having had affairs with the bisexual Max, the bride and groom confessed to each other that neither was a virgin and discovered that Hargis had deflowered them both.
Not long afterwards, three male members of the college choir, the All- American Kids, approached the college authorities alleging that they too had been sexually abused by Hargis over a period of three years.
Hargis had allegedly justified his acts by citing the Old Testament friendship between David and Jonathan and, just in case his victims were minded to consult biblical texts that were sympathetic, threatened to “blacklist” them for life if they talked. When he was confronted by his colleagues, he allegedly admitted his guilt, blaming his behaviour on “genes and chromosomes”.
But he later denied the charges, complaining of “liberal subversion” and “the forces of Satan out to silence anti-Communism”. Nevertheless, he was forced to resign as college president. Without the income Hargis generated, the college closed in 1977.
An adopted child, Billy James Hargis was born on August 3 1925 at Texarkana, Texas. After Texarkana High School, he attended the Ozark Bible College at Bentonville, Arkansas, but dropped out before he finished the course.
Despite his lack of formal qualifications, Hargis was ordained, aged 17, a minister in the evangelical Disciples of Christ denomination, and became a pastor at various churches in Oklahoma and Missouri.
By his own account, it was while he was working as pastor of the First Christian Church, Sapulpa, Oklahoma, that he “became aware of the threat of Communism internally”. In 1950 he founded Christian Crusade, an interdenominational movement designed as a “Christian weapon against Communism and its godless allies”.
From the early 1950s, he gave up his pastoral ministry and became a full-time radio and television preacher, presenting such programmes as Billy James Hargis Down on the Farm. Gradually his definition of the “godless allies” widened in range, taking in people working in government, business, unions, entertainment, cultural and charitable institutions and other religious organisations. He accused mainline Protestant churches of being infested with Communist sympathisers, and announced that the nation was in the hands of a group of Harvard radicals hooked on “the insidious dope of Socialism”.
In the mid-1960s, the Disciples of Christ became concerned that Hargis was concentrating more on Communism than on Christ, and dropped him as an accredited minister. But by then his crusade had become big business.
In 1966 he established the David Livingston Missionary Foundation, which ran medical clinics and orphanages in Asia and Africa, and in 1970 he became founder-president of the American Christian Crusade College at Tulsa. In his heyday, Hargis was almost as famous as such evangelists as Oral Roberts and even Billy Graham. His organisation was described by one congressman as “the best-heeled right-wing organisation in the United States”.
But in 1964 came the first of a series of reverses when, after a long battle with the tax authorities, his Christian Crusade lost its tax-exempt status on the ground that it was engaged in “political activities”.
After his enforced resignation from the American Christian College, Hargis’s following diminished. He continued to serve as director of the Christian Crusade Ministries until last summer, when his son, Billy James Hargis II, took over.
Hargis was the author of several books, such as Communist America…Must It Be? In 1985 he published his autobiography, My Great Mistake, in which he proclaimed: “I was guilty of sin, but not the sin I was accused of.”
Billy James Hargis is survived by his wife, Betty Jane, whom he married in 1951 and by his son and three daughters.
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