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Religion: Heavyweight Champ

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“The foundation of New Testament Christianity is being destroyed,” Evangelist Billy James Hargis bellowed into the mike at the Fourth Annual National Convention of his anti-Communist Christian Crusade last week in Tulsa. “God is being attacked from every quarter. Although life under Communism would mean the abolition of worship, certain socialistic, clergymen in the U.S. are propagandizing for unilateral disarmament and ultimately world government including the Communist nations.”

The audience loved it (although several frowning ladies walked out when, during subsequent speeches, Columnist Westbrook Pegler began to tell how he once “got loaded” in the course of some journalistic duties). Up between each of the speeches popped Hargis. “Friends, I want you to carry as many of these books home as you can,” he said, waving a copy of his Communist America . . . Must It Be? “There’s 15 chapters, 200 pages, and they’re four for a dollar. Now a lot of you people say you can’t afford this anti-Communist literature. Now this is four for a dollar.” Another time: “The Christian Crusade hotel is now open at the foot of Pikes Peak. Now it’s just two for six dollars a day, and children under twelve are free.” Finally: “How many of you weren’t here yesterday? Oh-h-h-h-I’m going to have to take another offering.”

Faith & Politics. Among American evangelists, Billy Graham earned national fame for the sincerity of his gripping, Bible-centered oratory, and Tulsa’s Oral Roberts for his emotional faith-healing sessions; Billy James Hargis has made his name with a blatant melding of fundamentalist faith to extreme right-wing politics. Age 37, he stands a shade under six feet, but weighs almost 275 Ibs., in rolls of fat that start at his jowls and balloon into an elephant-sized waistline. Except when he is drumming up donations, Billy James Hargis is deadly serious onstage—but he nonetheless lays the serious cause of anti-Communism open to ridicule.

Hargis (g as in give) came from a strongly religious family. His father, a dollar-a-day truck driver during the Depression, was an elder in Texarkana’s Rose Hill Christian Church. Hargis recalls that “the first promise I made was to read the Bible all the way through every year. But I haven’t had time recently to continue it.” After graduating from high school, Hargis got a job in a defense plant, earned enough money in six months to quit and enter the Ozark Bible College at Bentonville, Ark., in 1943. “I stayed a year and a half,” he says. “Frankly. I left because I felt like I knew everything.”

He was ordained a preacher in the Disciples of Christ at the age of 17, and, with the encouragement of one of his Bible College teachers, began to tour the Southwest, preaching at revival meetings. “He said I had promotional ability,” Hargis says. “That’s all evangelism is—promotional ability.” Promotional ability earned Hargis four pastorates, but he soon gave up the ministry to work full time as a radio preacher.

Better than Healing. Hargis had relatively little following outside Tulsa until 1954, when a sharp-eyed advertising executive named L. E. (“Pete”) White, who had successfully publicized the booming career of Oral Roberts, took an interest. White finds that the anti-Communist angle which Hargis uses is better than either straight evangelism or faith healing. “Radio evangelists probably get less than a dollar a letter,” says White. “A lot of those people write in for help without any contribution at all. Anti-Communism is not as big in volume as either healing or evangelism, but the donations run between two and four dollars.”

Hargis was dropped from the Disciples of Christ ministerial roll in 1957, does not preach in any church now. He appears via film and tape on 141 radio and 24 television stations, and spends 20 days each month speaking on tours through the South and Midwest. Says he: “I always worry when I give a sermon and the offerings are not up to standard. I ask myself, ‘Where did I fail?’ ” But he is usually able to keep up standards; last year Hargis’ crusade took in nearly $1,000,000.

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