The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

Remember the Alamo— Tony Alamo


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.

Tony Alamo makes ‘Malakh’ in The Lost Symbol look like a regular guy. 

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 October 22, 2008, Alamo’s former followers testified in court during a preliminary hearing that Alamo had practiced polygamy and had taken a nine-year-old girl as a wife.

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.

On July 28, 2009, shortly after his conviction, Tony Alamo again
made headlines by calling himself ‘just another one of the prophets
that went to jail for the Gospel.’

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. 

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posted November 21, 2009 at 4:08 pm

It’s my understanding–based on what I can’t recall–maybe Stark’s What Americans Really Believe–that megachurches are organized not to be impersonal. They rely heavily on the involvement of lay leaders and small groups that provide members not merely the experience of being spectator and transfixed member of an audience of thousands, but also of face to face encounters with other members whom they get to know well.
Some members may drop by for the show of a Sunday morning, but others come early, stay late, and meet midweek in small groups.
Further, members of mega-churches are as doctrinally informed and sound as members of smaller churches.
Is this mistaken?
And is there any evidence (granted, evidence of wrongdoing is hard to come by) that ministers of megachurches are more likely to go astray than those of smaller churches? And what is the evidence that denominational mechanisms of accountability actually work to lower the incidence of exploitation and unethical conduct? For instance, how many investigations are conducted, complaints lodged and heard, findings reached, sanctions imposed?
I suspect that way too many Alamos are drawn to the ministry. Human nature is what it is, many vulnerable people come to church for solace and relief, the pews are long on naivete and misplaced trust, and religion is America is short on accountability. But I’m not sure that the measures proposed are likely to ferret our the other Alamos.

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posted November 22, 2009 at 11:45 am

I grew up as a UMC pastor’s daughter, then married a wonderful man (twenty years now…) who also has spent many years as a minister. So…having been in this life for many years, I feel I have seen it all.
I’ve been in non-heirarchical low church (the Missionary Church) and find the accountability high (via a strong Board) and deviant incidents low. Really, scanal is virtually non-existant. I wonder, perhaps, if that is because most of the churches are small (250 range) and they are very low on personality cults? Hmmm.
For me, there is one major factor that I look for in a pastor. HUMILITY. A lack of arrogance. The second thing I look at is his relationship with his wife and children, if he has any.
No one is immune, of course. I think of Dr. David Seamonds for example. Not as strange as Tony Alamo, of course, but definitely a tragedy that surely could have been avoided.
Regarding the right-wing hysteria…Boy. It is bad right now. It is a little frightening, I think. Glenn Beck, a Mormon, is on a huge roll this week which just feeds into the hype. Fear breeds fear, and causes us to retract and withdraw, and bolster ourselves with anger…and consequently very little gets done and what we do accomplish looks very little like Jesus’ actual life and ministry. I’m evangelical, and I’m generally conservative…but I don’t like “us” very much right now. “We” scare me, or at least sadden me.

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posted November 22, 2009 at 11:47 am

Uh…make that “SCANDAL is virtually non-existent.” That sort of mistake happens when you have a two year old on your lap. :) It could have been worse.

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posted November 22, 2009 at 1:44 pm

As an Ex-Member of the Alamo Cult, I take acception to your statements that follow:
1] “Susan Alamo, as it turns out was the better preacher of the two (they viewed themselves as some kind of Pentecostals)”
Susan Alamo was a sham and an abusive proffetieress just like her husband. Please see her daughter, Christhiaon Coe’s account in the SPLC interview of her at the above website.
2] “Unfortunately in Alamo’s case the whistle blowing transpired far too late to prevent polygamy and other sorts of sexual abuse.”
The blame for the time-lapse in prosecution of these cases against Alamo lies solely on Law Enforcement. The polygamy and physical abuse was brought to the Federal Authorities’ attention during the Justin Miller trial back in the late 1980’s. We as a group of survivors and ex-members have been “whistle-blowing” for decades to the respective responsible authorities of each state for each crime. For some unknown reason they chose to ignore our outrage and testimonies. (Also verifiable at the above website).
It was not until local journalists started to PRINT our interviews and claims in public periodicals and newspapers that they began to feel the heat of not following through and taking these claims seriously.
Young girls and boys have escaped through the decades and gone DIRECTLY to authorities only to be told by them that there was nothing they could do about him because he was known to them as “Teflon Tony”. I heard these words from an Arkansas State official myself. ONLY when FBI agent, Randall Harris got word of these victims, interviewed them, decided they were truthful and began his investigation in 2004, did the wheels of justice begin to turn.
Please familiarize yourself with the entire history before making remarks that are unsubstantiated in fact.
Thank you

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posted November 22, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Love your post, Holly ;-)

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posted November 22, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I see that my url did not come up publicly. PLEASE research.
This is where you will find the complete verifiable, factual history of this cult.
I also want to point out that Alamo was not a “preacher” gone bad.
He was a pedophile who found a prospective, prolific pond of victims.
He was a woman hating, verbally abusive, physically abusive, vile, con-man from the gate.
He victimized ALL of his ‘followers’.
Only the handful of upper echelon who were with them from the inception knew the true nature of these two.
Yes, Susan knew the appeal and selling point for lost and searching young souls in Hollywood, CA in the 1960’s, and capitalized on her familiarity with pentecostal preaching from her youth. There were a lot of those in the start-up “Jesus Movement” of that era.

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posted November 22, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Susan Alamo may have been a sham from the outset, but she definitely had a gift for manipulation. She could charm the pants off most anyone ( a skill she used in a more literal sense before she became a gospel minister ). Tony was her hapless patsy – her willing lapdog. I never got tired of listening to Sue preach ( even though I knew she was full of it ) .

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posted November 22, 2009 at 9:19 pm


posted November 23, 2009 at 12:28 am

Thank you, Dyann. I’m so sorry for those who have suffered under the abuse of these people. May God bring healing…

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Sick of the lies

posted November 23, 2009 at 11:05 am

Tony Alamo is INNOCENT!..This is a frame job by the Vatican Government to attack true CHRISTIAN Pastors in these last days.
This is disgusting! Coming from someone who claims to know the gospel and be a preacher himself he is fueling hate and persecution and joined in with the government to destroy the word of God and those who preach it. I suggest you read and believe the bible and not Satan’s mouth the media and government!
go read the truth and stop this HORRIBLE persecution!
alamoministries (dot) com

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Sick of the lies

posted November 23, 2009 at 12:35 pm

These people never suffered from anything the ministry or Pastor Alamo did…In fact all he ever did was help them and they render evil for good!
They are in this for the $$$ Just like the witnesses each getting 2.7 million. Steal the children from their loving parents, homes and church and abuse them by the Feds, DHS, Foster care and the most unhonorable judges hand picked for the occasion of destroying those who do nothing but good to others and preach the gospel! All together to try to destroy the word of God and the works of God.
I heard these people on their forum YEARS ago talking about the government selling all the hard earned members properties to them for cheap so they can get them..They are the most horrendously evil, vile people and any Pastor that can’t see through these lies of Satan really needs to repent and pray for spiritual discernment. You are helping the works of Satan to destroy true Christians and Christianity. Even the jury by their own mouths could not find Pastor Alamo guilty…they convicted him anyway. There was NO evidence of any kind to convict him or steal the children or any of the other lies they have told in the satanic media. Go REASEARCH the TRUTH!

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James C

posted November 24, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Bravo! Perhaps one of the best articles ever written on the topic of Tony “Bernie Lazar Hoffman” Alamo I have seen to date. This article should serve as a warning as there are many more “Alamo’s” out there who even now are fleecing and destroying people in body and spirit just to fill their own lusts for power and money. I congratulate you Mr. Witherington for a well written article which every Christian shoud take the time to read carefully. These are indeed periolus times and your editorial sheds a much needed light on this difficult but important topic in ministry ethics.

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posted November 25, 2009 at 10:04 am

There was No evidence against Jesus either…just a bunch of false witnesses. Same as Tony Alamo.
People believe such insanity! It’s pathetic really and you as a “Pastor” should be able to see through this garbage! What a SHAME the Pastors and churches have become that they believe the media liars and NWO government and paid false accusers over the word of God!
1Jn 3:13 Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.
Mat 5:11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Mat 24:10 And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.
Zec 8:17 And let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith the LORD.
Luk 6:22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake.
Luk 21:12 But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake.
GO TO THE WEB SITE AND READ THE HORRENDOUS PERSECUTION THIS MAN AND MINISTRY HAS SUFFERED. THANK GOD HE IS DOING THE WORK OF THE LORD HE WAS CALLED TO DO…For Pastor’s out there that claim they are doing God’s work..ask yourself if you are being persecuted..The bible says you would you really believe God’s word and are you REALLY doing the Lord’s work?
New Evidence that Pastor Alamo Is Innocent
Conspiracy in the United States
Nation Without Pity
This Is A Very Brief History of Tony Alamo’s Persecutions
Government Subversion Against Tony Alamo

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posted December 12, 2009 at 12:11 am

I’ve been musing over why somebody gets a hold of acid or fly agaric and next week he’s walking barefoot down 5th avenue with a sign that says “Repent! For the end is near!” It’s a story as old as religion, or entheogens, I guess. If they’re dipping into the subconscious, why don’t they all come back with “everything is fabulous and the All totally loves you so just keep on doin’ what yer doin.”

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posted January 15, 2010 at 8:04 am

Sorry, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This guy has a record as long as his arm. Yeah, I’m sure they are all false charges. He should have gotten the electric chair. Buh bye Tony.

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