In 1987, television preacher Oral Roberts made a dramatic appeal. If his supporters did not send donations totaling $8 million dollars within three months, he warned that God would "call me home." There were those who complained that Roberts was extorting his viewers and using the Deity as an accomplice, but there was no doubting his charisma — or his results. Roberts received over $9 million, and God did not call him home.
On Wednesday, the head regent at Oral Roberts University announced that the school is an astonishing $52.5 million in debt. This news arrived just three weeks after the revelation of a wrongful termination suit filed against the school by three former professors who claim that they were fired after providing the school's Board of Regents with a report detailing moral and ethical lapses by Oral's son Richard, who had inherited the school's presidency from his father, and Richard's wife Lindsay. Among the allegations: the Roberts had remodeled their home eleven times in 14 years with university money; they bankrolled one of their daughters' $29,411 trip to the Bahamas with school funds; and Lindsay Roberts had spent the night in an O.R.U. guest-house with an underage male nine times.
Richard Roberts went on Larry King Live in October claiming the charges amounted to "intimidation, blackmail and extortion." On Friday Roberts said in a statement:
“I love O.R.U. with all my heart. I love the students, faculty, staff and administration, and I want to see God’s best for all of them.”
The whole affair is a sad denouement for one of the pioneers of televangelism, a man who, in the early 1980s, seemed poised to pull the then-declasse Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions, which emphasize gifts of the Holy Spirit such as healing and speaking in tongues, into the mainstream. Says Randall Balmer, chair of the religion department at Barnard College, who has written about Roberts, "I feel badly for him. This must be a blow."
What happened? J. Lee Grady, the editor of the magazine Charisma, wrote recently, "I don't know about you, but I'm having flashbacks of 1987," the year that the sexploits of Jimmy Swaggart and financial hijinks of Jim Bakker gave televangelism its reputation for sleaze. But while the allegations in the suit certainly meet Swaggart-quality standards of salaciousness, the causes of the university's fall may owe more to mismanagement than greed or negligence, suggests John Schmalzbauer, an expert in Christian higher education at Missouri State University. Unless some party siphoned off "massive multimillion-dollar diversion of funds over 25 years," he says, "I think the causes must be deeper and more structural."