To listen to the mass media, you’d think that all fundamentalist Christians—especially those who live in D.C.—spend their mornings hatching strategies for Sen. Phil Gramm’s presidential campaign, their afternoons phoning Rush Limbaugh to denounce baby-killer Bill Clinton, and their evenings plotting to drive Time-Warner out of business.
So in the age of Ralph Reed, Dr. Morris Cerullo and his traveling “Miracle Explosion” seem something of an anachronism. Cerullo spends more time miraculously curing his octogenarian followers of arthritis than he does legislatively ridding the country of secular humanism. When he brought his show to the D.C. Armory last weekend, the faithful didn’t speak the political language of turnouts and media buys. They spoke in fundamentalism’s more traditional language: tongues.
Televangelism may be made for TV, but like professional wrestling, it plays best live and in person. Cerullo’s Miracle Explosion begins (as does Saturday Night’s Main Event) with an undercard. Twenty minutes before the scheduled opening, the armory’s 4,900 seats are almost all taken, and the flock is swinging to the beat of Christian pop. The emcee, a hockey-haired, holy-roller incarnation of “Mean” Gene Okerlund, hypes the rising national fame of singer Steve Lowry and boasts that warm-up preacher Dr. Larry Lee presides over the “fastest-growing church in North America.”
Lee starts hands waving with his oratory. “Something massive’s about to happen right here in the Washington, D.C., vicinity,” he declares, to rising cheers, prophesying a release of supernatural powers such that “you will never be the same again! This town’s never going to be the same again! This country will never be the same again!”
Dr. Lee also starts hands reaching for checkbooks. Rather than the Pat Robertson pitch—“give so we can lobby your senator for Christ”—Lee makes a good old-fashioned, opiate-of-the-masses appeal: A C-note today will be paid back in heaven tomorrow. “God is about to start pouring it out everywhere,” he declaims, “if you make an acceptable sacrifice.” He predicts wrath for the wicked in the next life, and rewards for the docile poor who sow their sacrifice in his ministry’s “supernatural soil.” Envelopes are passed out.
“And there’s nothing immoral about using a bank card,” Dr. Lee assures the audience. (Admission to the revival meeting is free.)
With contribution buckets safely stowed away, Lee and the emcee return to their places upstage. It’s showtime. “Let’s give a big Washington, D.C., welcome to Dr. Morris Cerullo!” The assembly cheers wildly, and the main act, elated, takes the pulpit. His toupeelike cap of black hair shines under the spotlights.
Cerullo may not be the region’s most famous religious visitor of the weekend, but does Pope John Paul II broadcast a daily TV show, Experience the Power, on Washington’s Channel 50 and around the nation? Morris Cerullo does. (“I’ve been in some places,” says Lee, “where Dr. Cerullo’s name is better known than the president of that country.”)
Was the Holy Father rescued from an Orthodox Jewish orphanage 50 years ago by two angels? Morris Cerullo was.
Cerullo’s oratory is old-time revival preaching. It verges on a harangue, preferring explosions to long buildups. There is not a great deal of challenging theology. “What he speaks will come to pass,” Cerullo thunders. He promises “100 percent victory.” God has, in fact, made the reverend a specific promise that his prophetic mission will be achieved by the end of 1995.
A reading from Deuteronomy allows Cerullo to segue into a favorite chant. “Devil, you’re a liar!” he screams, standing before a sign bearing the Miracle Explosion’s motto, “There is a power so strong it makes leaders of this world tremble.” Clinton may or may not be quaking in his boots, but the power is certainly shaking the faithful in the armory. Throughout the arena, worshipers break into spasmodic frenzies. In one of the aisles, a child of about 8 lies on his back, jerking violently, while three women stretch their hands over his body and pray.
This fit is nothing compared to the highlight of the show, the Miracle Explosion. Cerullo instructs the flock to touch whatever part of their bodies may be ill. “If you’re sick in your back, touch your back, if it’s your stomach, touch your stomach, if you’re sick all over, just put your hands on your heads.” Cerullo pronounces them all healed. “I know someone’s curved spine just healed….I know someone with arthritis just was cured….God’s working here tonight!”
The healed react wildly. Miracles explode, like popcorn kernels popping, throughout the crowd. Those who have been healed begin speaking in tongues and shaking their hands ecstatically. Aides rush into the crowd to assist the swooning vessels of the faith, guiding them up to the stage. Soon lines of people who feel cured snake down the aisles on the right and left sides. Onstage assistants introduce each of the healed to Dr. Morris. “Dr. Cerullo,” says Lee, “this man has had a bad back for years.” The man throws his cane away, and walks to Cerullo. The reverend marvels and blesses him with a theatrical touch on the head. He faints dead away, keeling backward into the waiting arms of an aide, who lays him down flat on his back.
The line moves along. Folks with high blood pressure, arthritis, curvature of the spine, colic—they are all cured into joyful unconsciousness before the throng. It looks like Jonestown as the bodies pile up around the energetic preacher. A formerly blind 9-year-old is brought forward by his parents. Cerullo has him read from an aide’s identification pass, which he does, to the crowd’s joyous applause. And then, blessing him with a touch, Cerullo leaves the boy unconscious as well.
The reverend does tiptoe around one politically loaded disease. Lee begins to introduce a woman who has just felt freed of HIV. “Dr. Cerullo, this woman has had the HIV virus,” he says, but Cerullo cuts him off and turns to a gastroenteritis victim.
When the healed have come to and been cleared away, Cerullo beckons “anyone here who is on drugs: cocaine, speed, marijuana, whatever.” They come running, queuing on each side of the stage. They pronounce a never-ending faith in God. Then, hand outstretched, Cerullo charges down the lines. The drug users collapse, like dominoes, as his hand brushes them.
With a final word, Cerullo is gone, and the music is pumping once again. Lee reminds the flock that the next Miracle Explosion starts tomorrow at 9 a.m., but no one seems to be listening. Behind the stage, counselors are assisting those who are overcome with emotion. Outside in the parking lot, the faithful bid farewell until the next morning, driving off in cars decaled with expressions of faith: “I Love Jesus” and “Jesus Is Lord.” Vastly outnumbered is the Honda with the tattered “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Bush” sticker. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but these days it is: Fundamentalist Christians—gee whiz!—care most about, well, fundamentalist Christianity. The president may be a profitable target, but Satan’s no slouch himself.
And the Miracle Explosion is a lot more exciting than the Republican National Convention.