“Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil… Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith…”
Among the fundamentalist Christian set, it’s a common tenet that faith in Jesus offers the believer some sort of literal supernatural protection against those who would do them harm. The passage quoted above, which goes on in this tedious analogizing vein for some time, has probably been the greatest single inspiration for that belief (as well as being the inspiration for Christian fundamentalist children’s pajamas – seldom has Richard Dawkins’ point that religious brainwashing of the young is the mental equivalent of child abuse seemed so apt).
While the supernatural efficacy of Christian belief is still a dogma awaiting its first piece of supporting evidence, the “armor of God” in a different sense is a very real phenomenon. I refer to the way in which many religious believers accused of wrongdoing immediately seek to hide behind their faith, claiming that God is on their side and that their accusers are wicked, godless people seeking to persecute the faithful with false accusations. In my experience, this claim is one of the last refuges of a scoundrel, and usually a reliable indicator that the accused’s guilt is about to become evident to all.
The latest high-and-mighty religious authority trying to hammer God into a shield is Richard Roberts, son of televangelist Oral Roberts and president of the university his father founded and named after himself. Three former professors recently filed a lawsuit against Oral Roberts University, accusing the Robertses of illegal political activity and misappropriation of college resources for personal benefit. Some of the more salacious details of the suit include:
• A longtime maintenance employee was fired so that an underage male friend of Mrs. Roberts could have his position.
• Mrs. Roberts – who is a member of the board of regents and is referred to as ORU’s “first lady” on the university’s Web site – frequently had cell-phone bills of more than $800 per month, with hundreds of text messages sent between 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. to “underage males who had been provided phones at university expense.”
• The university jet was used to take one daughter and several friends on a senior trip to Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas. The $29,411 trip was billed to the ministry as an “evangelistic function of the president.”
• Mrs. Roberts spent more than $39,000 at one Chico’s clothing store alone in less than a year, and had other accounts in Texas and California. She also repeatedly said, “As long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off.” The document cites inconsistencies in clothing purchases and actual usage on TV.
• Mrs. Roberts was given a white Lexus SUV and a red Mercedes convertible by ministry donors.
• University and ministry employees are regularly summoned to the Roberts’ home to do the daughters’ homework.
• The university and ministry maintain a stable of horses for exclusive use by the Roberts’ children.
• The Roberts’ home has been remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years.
These lurid details have been dissected at length elsewhere, so I won’t focus on them. Instead, I want to comment on Richard Roberts’ reaction to the suit:
At a chapel service this week on the 5,300-student campus known for its 60-foot-tall bronze sculpture of praying hands, Roberts said God told him: “We live in a litigious society. Anyone can get mad and file a lawsuit against another person whether they have a legitimate case or not. This lawsuit… is about intimidation, blackmail and extortion.”
Got that straight? The claim that this lawsuit “is about intimidation, blackmail and extortion” isn’t Richard Roberts’ opinion. It’s God’s opinion. And we can be quite certain of that, because the person telling us so is God’s faithful and trustworthy spokesman, Richard Roberts.
Like Thomas Weeks, who blamed the charges that he viciously beat his wife in a hotel parking lot on the machinations of Satan, Roberts is seemingly counting on this proclamation to rally community support – notwithstanding his obvious personal interest in the outcome of the case, and his strong incentive to claim that God told him this whether he actually received any such communication or not. (I’m betting on “not”.) Roberts and Weeks are just the latest in a long line of religious leaders who sought to cynically invoke their faith for personal benefit, which in itself reinforces the atheist position that no belief, faith-based or not, should be held exempt from criticism.
Time and the courts will see how this lawsuit fares. (I wonder if God will end up telling Roberts to settle out of court. What’s the Almighty’s fee for legal advice, anyway?) But these accusations, if not yet proven, are certainly credible – both because of the abundant past evidence of corruption and hypocrisy among powerful religious authorities, and because they come with the type of highly specific detail that is usually supported by evidence. In particular, the claims of the non-profit ORU engaging in illegal partisan political activity is supported by what is apparently an e-mail sent out by school faculty urging students to volunteer for a school-backed candidate. And it does not help that Roberts’ first instinct is to claim that God is on his side and is telling him that he is being persecuted. Such self-serving “revelations” may reassure the terminally credulous, but for the rest of us, they make the outcome seem even more like a foregone conclusion.