Sadly but not surprisingly, researchers find no shortage of candidates for this list. Compiling this list, researchers defined “fraud” in reasonably strict legal terms, setting aside all questions of doctrine and faith. In most cases, religious leaders duped their followers into believing in their righteousness; and they subsequently were exposed as pious hypocrites. Fraudulent leaders’ sexual exploits typically were the source of their undoing. Some faced criminal charges; all endured severe public humiliation, and none ever rebuilt a ministry after his exposure.
1. Jim Jones
Shortly after leading nearly 1000 of the faithful to establish a colony in Guyana, Jim Jones, founder of The People’s Temple, became the object of a Congressional investigation late in 1978. Deborah Layton, a Jonestown defector, and concerned relatives of Jonestown pilgrims alleged Jones had bilked his followers of all their assets and was holding them captive at the Guyana settlement. Layton disclosed The People’s Temple controlled millions of dollars in offshore accounts, and she detailed the deceptive practices by which Jones had secured their transfer. Other concerned relatives detailed their allegations that messages of family indicated Jones and his lieutenants held them against their will.
2. Warren Jeffs
In another much-publicized case, Warren Jeffs, a “descendant of the Prophet and leader of the Fundamentalist “LDS” Church, went to trial on charges of rape as an accomplice, because former members of his flock testified he had married them to church elders while they still were in their early teens. Jeff’s Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints openly practiced polygamy, housing all its members on a huge, well-fortified compound that straddled the Utah-Arizona border. According to testimony in the case, Jeffs and the elders banished teen-aged boys and claimed eligible teen-aged girls as their wives. Witnesses testified some elders had as many as seven wives, and some wives were as young as twelve years old. For a brief period, state officials took all the children from Jeff’s compound, making them temporary wards of the state. In court proceedings separate from Jeffs’s trial, FLDS officials won restoration of their parental rights, but a variety of criminal investigations continue.
3. Jimmy Swaggart
In a vivid illustration of a New Testament parable, Jimmy Swaggart threw stones—hard, fast, and repeatedly—before he took stock of his own sins. Third among the top three 1980s televangelists, Swaggart systematically took out his rivals, exposing Jim Gorman’s affair with a member of his congregation, and then trapping Jim Bakker and revealing his infidelity. Both exposes received extensive media coverage. Adapting the old principle “an eye for an eye” to the modern media world, Gorman retaliated, hiring a private investigator who found Swaggart in flagrante with a prostitute. In an impassioned, tear-filled confession, an icon of the televangelist age, Swaggart admitted between sobs, “I have sinned against you, my Lord.” The confession still attracts lots of hits on YouTube.
4. Jim Bakker
Arguably the best known and most successful among televangelists of the late seventies and early eighties, Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye first came to prominence in Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. The Bakkers later moved their popular “Praise the Lord” television show to Paul Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network, contributing substantially to its nationwide success. In the mid-seventies, the Bakkers launched their own network and evangelical enterprise; by 1978 they controlled a satellite network with more than thirteen million regular viewers. They also operated “Heritage USA,” a surprisingly successful evangelical theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina. In 1987, Bakker suddenly resigned his position, admitting he had an affair with Jessica Hahn, a “PTL” church secretary, who later became Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s frequent friend and companion. Bakker confessed paying Hahn “hush money,” and further investigation revealed he had started a ponzi-like scheme with investors in Heritage USA. Bakker served five years in a federal prison. During his term, Tammy Faye divorced him and became a popular guest on television talk shows.
5. Ted Haggard
Between 2003 and 2006, Ted Haggard served as President of the influential National Association of Evangelicals while he continued his ministry at New Life Church, a huge and politically active congregation in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Handsome, articulate, and charismatic, Haggard emerged as one of the poster boys for America’s “religious right,” and he consulted with President George Bush on faith-based initiatives and social policy. Just before the 2006 mid-term elections, CNN and several other major media outlets reported Haggard regularly had visited with a male prostitute, who, in addition to providing sexual services, introduced Haggard to methamphetamine. Haggard resigned his posts, but many pundits believe the scandal influenced voters’ choices in the mid-term elections, when the Democrats scored significant gains in Congress, state legislatures, and key gubernatorial races.