The story of Tony Alamo is bound, someday, to be made into a movie. It’s so bizarre, so improbable, so full of incident and crime and sin that it makes some soap operas look clean! The horrifyingly saddest part of this story is that Alamo was viewed and viewed himself as a conservative Christian minister. In the eyes of the world, it gives all such persons a bad name. And on top of everything else it plays on and plays right into the ultra right wing paranoia in America about a “NEW WORLD ORDER’ secretly masterminded by the Pope, as an attempt to turn America into a Fascist state. One can only imagine Alamo’s reaction to the revelation last week that Catholic bishops aided in getting the health care legislation changed so that abortions wouldn’t be funded with federal money. Dan Brown couldn’t have thought up a conspiracy story this good, or a nefarious character as amazing as Tony Alamo.
Perhaps however you have been vacationing on the planet Xenon, and have not followed the story of Tony Alamo from the 70s until last week when he was sentenced to 175 years in jail. Since he is now 74, that’s a wrap folks. He will not be ‘ministering’ (and I use the term loosely) again outside of a prison.
Let me summarize for you the story of Tony Alamo. Again, you can’t make this stuff up. Truth is always stranger than fiction. Let’s start with his real name— Bernie Lazar Hoffman, born in 1934 to Jewish Romanian parents in Joplin Missouri. We don’t know as much as we would like about his childhood and youth except that at some point his family moved to Montana and Bernie was a newspaper boy for the Helena Independent Record. Where the story really surfaces is in the 1960s when Bernie turns up in L.A. Initially Bernie decided to pursue a career in music under the names Mark Abad or Mark Hoffman. He was briefly put in jail on a weapons charge during this period in his life. It was in 1961 that the man married his first wife Helen Hagan, whom he remained married to until 1966 when they got a divorce. Bernie’s actually met his second wife, Susan Lipowitz, a Jewish convert to Evangelical Christianity when he was still married. Susan was in L.A. trying to become an actress. She was married to a hoodlum in L.A. and was nine years the senior of Bernie Hoffman. After she managed to get a divorce, Susan and Bernie got married in Las Vegas and legally changed their names to Tony and Susan Alamo. Who knows why they picked Alamo, but at least it was a memorable name. Susan and Tony remained married until her death due to cancer in 1982.
Together the couple set up in 1966 the Tony and Susam Alamo Christian Foundation in dear ole Hollywood, a place known to look the other way at the wild and wacky. It has been called the place where the odd get even, or at least they get recognized and can pass for normal. So far the story is exotic and eccentric but not yet bizzare, or was it? As a sideline, the two set up a business venture selling sequined suits, ala Elvis, only Elvis had left the business and the building. If you look at the pictures of Tony during this period of his life it is clear he was trying hard to channel Elvis. In fact this went on for a long time. Below find a picture of Tony in 1986 a sort of combo of Elvis and Don Johnson from Miami Vice—-
The suit sideline however got Tony a visit from the suits, and Tony landed in prison for tax evasion in connection to this business. This would be the first of some six times he would be tried and convicted for tax evasion of some sort. You would have thought he would have learned after a time or two. Instead, he decided that this justified his demonizing the American government, something he would be increasingly prone to do. It is indeed amazing how many fundamentalists use the psychological technique called projection– namely projecting their own faults on some other person or some external institution they feel they have an adversarial relatrionship with.
This problem of course is not confined to fundamentalist Christians of a more cultist ilk, it can be found in any and all sorts of fundamentalism, whether connected with a recognized religion or not. Fundamentalism is not really a point of view on the religious spectrum as much as it is an inflexible and unchangeable mindset. I have not infrequently met fundamentalist liberals, utterly convinced that their views are unassailble, immune to critical scrutiny or dispute. But if you thought the Alamo story was a little far out, thus far, you ain’t heard nothing yet.
Susan Alamo, as it turns out was the better preacher of the two (they viewed themselves as some kind of Pentecostals), and throughout the 70s she was doing the preaching whilst her husband channeled Elvis the Gospel singer. This was also a practical move since she managed to stay out of jail, but Tony went back and forth to the slammer on various charges. By this point the Alamos had a syndicated TV show, and then something drastic happened— Susan died right about Easter time, on April 8th 1982. Unwilling to accept this outcome, Tony claimed that his wife would very soon rise from the dead, and so they kept her body on display whilst their loyal followers prayed for her resurrection. But resurrection did not happen and the saddest part of this part of the story is that Susan’s body was not returned to her family for another 16 years!! Tony was to go on and marry twice more, and the pattern of tax evasion continued as well. When he was convicted in 1994 he stayed in jail until 1998. Tony however was not idle. His Alamo tracts became famous or infamous and continued to be distributed by his followers both in Arkansas to which his ministry had migrated, and elsewhere. The essence of his preaching was a mishmash of things political and apocalyptic. In this respect he sounded rather like Rev. Hagee of San Antonio. Here is the pith of what you might find in one of his tracts according to Wikipedia–
The tracts predict impending doom and Armagedddon and invite the reader to accept Jesus as their savior. The tracts condemn Catholicism, the Pope and the American government as a Satanic conspiracy behind events such as 9/11, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the John F. Kennedy assassination. Tracts currently being distributed include a picture of Alamo circa 1986. In a tract distributed shortly before the seige of the Branch Davidian establishment in Waco,Texas, Alamo protested the media’s use of the word “compound” to describe the campus of his seminary and the word ‘cult’ to describe his ministry. As it turns out, there were more similarities between David Koresh and Tony Alamo than one might have realized at that point in time.
The rapidly accelerating downward spiral is chronicled adequately and basically correctly by Wikipedia (entry accessed Nov. 15, 2009)—
“On September 20, 2008, federal and state investigative agents raided
the Arkansas headquarters of the ministry, which is a 15-acre (6.1 ha)
compound near Texarkana, Arkansas, as part of a child pornography investigation. This investigation involved allegations of physical and sexual abuse and allegations of polygamy and underage marriage. According to Terry Purvis, mayor of Fouke, Arkansas, his office has received complaints from former ministry members about allegations of child abuse, sexual abuse and polygamy since the ministry established itself in the area. In turn, Purvis turned over information about the allegations to the FBI. Alamo denied the child abuse allegations.
“On September 25, 2008, Alamo was arrested by Arizona police and FBI agents in Flagstaff Arizona,
on a federal warrant out of Texarkana, Arkansas, federal court (case
number 08-40020) on charges that he transported minors (as early as
1994)over state lines for sexual activity in violation of the Mann Act. On October 17, 2008, he pleaded not guilty, and his case was set for trial.
On December 2, 2008, a judge in Arkansas unsealed a federal
indictment that included eight new charges against Alamo. The
74-year-old Alamo, who remained jailed while awaiting trial, originally
faced two charges of taking minor girls across state lines for sex. The
eight new counts were similar and involved four new alleged victims. His trial began on July 13, 2009, and on July 24, 2009, Alamo was found guilty on all ten federal counts.
He was sentenced to 175 years in prison on November 13, 2009.
Alamo must return to court on January 13, 2010, for a hearing to
determine whether five women who testified about sexual abuse will be
paid up to US$2.7 million in restitution.”
What lessons can be learned from sad tales like this, and that of David Koresh, and in a milder vein, that of Ted Haggard (see my old blog post in the archives under the heading ‘Looking Haggard….”). Firstly there is the not incidental matter of accountability. Low church Protestants have difficulties with this issue, and isolated cults who sequester themselves in compounds have an even worse time with this issue.
When you have a church structure where there is little or no accountability for the minister, no ministerial supervision of the minister, no district superintendent or bishop or elder or board of deacons or accountability partners to call ministers to account, we have seedbed for sin in the making from the top down. Tony Alamo is simply one more example of this classic problem when you do not have some sort of hierarchial ministerial accountability structure whether it is based in the local church or in the parish or in the diocese or in the conference or in the synod.
Secondly there are the sexual issues. When ministers are placed on an unassailable pedestal, the potential for abuse of power is considerable, and it often manifests itself in sexual aberrations. If you study the issue of power relationships you quickly learn that people in the subordinant power position who look up to the minister find it difficult if not impossible to say no to the person they look up to and admire. This is all the more the case if we are talking about a man much older than a woman, and in Alamo’s case it involves young girls. Unfortunately in Alamo’s case the whistle blowing transpired far too late to prevent polygamy and other sorts of sexual abuse.
Thirdly there is the issue and problem of the cult of personality, which is so much a part of American culture, and especially Hollywood culture. Of course at bottom this is a form of idolatry, and no church should be promoting idolatry. Obviously the bright lights of TV and the context of mega-churches with super-sized pastors are breeding grounds for problems which further the cult of personality. This word just in— its the Lord’s ministry. It does not belong to this or that minister, and we can all be replaced, indeed we shall all be replaced.
My advice to those reading this is as follows—- support no TV ministries by sending them money!! You are too far removed from the pastors in question to help with the accountability process, and in fact all the body of Christ in a particular locale has an obligation to help with the accountability process. Just as all politics is local, so all church is local when it comes to this matter of accountability. If you are not part of the worshipping community in that place you are not really fulfilling your role in relationship to this or that ministry.
I would also urge you to not attend a church which furthers the isolation of the minister from his people. I am referring to the mega-church. Of course there are some responsible mega-churches who have devised some ways to avoid doing the accountability thing poorly, and avoid the depersonalizing tendencies of church services where you can become a nameless face in a crowd. But it is an ongoing struggle, and it would be better if the mega-church stopped super-sizing itself and went into the church planting business full scale. Some do, some don’t, but when it comes to worship it ought to be personal– a place where you are known and know others and you, like the minister are accountable to this expression of the body of Christ.
One of the major problems we have in American society is the misreading of the whole notion of the separation of church and state. The church-state divide should never protect those in the church from prosecution when they commit crimes of whatever sort, especially not ministers who should be held to a higher standard of ethical rectitude. Ministers must work hard to be above reproach in their personal lives. And this word just in, something maybe deeply personal and not private at all. If you commit a crime in your home, you have no right to privacy. If you commit a sin in the church which is also a crime, you have no right to claim the protection of the separation of church and state. All human beings have a strong capacity for self-justification, even Christian human beings. This is why we all need accountability. This is why Jesus’ brother James says to his audience- “confession your sins to one another, not merely to your priest or counselor or spouse or friend in confidence.
Tony Alamo’s story should be seen as a cautionary tale. My word to all
ministers who thing they are bullet proof and above the law, including
perhaps even the law of God is—– Remember the Alamo.