American Idol

Twenty years ago he was a ditchdigger living on welfare. Today he’s one of the most powerful— and one of the richest—preachers in America. Can T.D. JAKES get an amen?

IN 1998 “ NEW YORK TIMESRELIGION WRITER Laurie Goodstein called to ask me a familiar question: “Who is going to be the next Billy Graham?” More specifically, she asked if I thought that T. D. Jakes was a likely candidate to assume the mantle of “America’s Pastor.” Since Goodstein had contacted me because I’m an ostensible expert, I found it a bit embarrassing to tell her the truth: I had never heard of T. D. Jakes. I felt a bit better when her subsequent story acknowledged that Jakes was “not well known among experts who follow rising evangelists.” Still, I tuned my antenna to pick up signals from this apparent new star in the constellations I track. It was worth the effort. It is unlikely that anyone, regardless of talent and commitment, will ever achieve the singular eminence accorded to Billy Graham. That said, it is equally true that few, if any, contemporary religious figures can match the prodigious talent, driving ambition, entrepreneurial genius, commanding presence, rhetorical power, and tangible accomplishment manifested by the senior pastor of Dallas’s 30,000-member Potter’s House, Bishop Thomas Dexter Jakes.

Barely 49, with three decades of ministry under his collar, Jakes has written more than thirty books, at least a dozen of which have been best-sellers. The latest, Mama Made the Difference, reached number four on the New York Times Advice list in less than a month this spring. His weekly television program has long been one of the most watched on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and he now appears on Black Entertainment Television and other outlets as well. His 1999 appearance at the Georgia Dome drew 87,500 people, smashing the venue’s single-event record held by none other than Billy Graham. His music albums have won numerous major awards, and a 2004 movie called Woman, Thou Art Loosed, which he wrote, produced, and appeared in, was so successful that Sony Pictures signed him to produce up to nine more films over the next three years, on topics of his choosing.

In light of these accomplishments and continued attention from the media—Time called him “America’s best preacher” in a 2001 cover story and put him on the cover again in 2005 as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America—I have been surprised to discover how many people, particularly Anglos who don’t watch religious television, have never heard of him. Even in Dallas, many folks know only that he’s “that black preacher” and perhaps that he enjoys an opulent lifestyle, probably with money cadged from poor people. That level of awareness is bound to change; the ambivalent assessment may linger awhile. A complex man, Jakes is difficult to encompass and impossible to pigeonhole. He has a deep sense of the injustice and injury wrought by slavery and racism, but he eschews the confrontational approach of some civil rights leaders in favor of efforts to cultivate cordial relations with those at the centers of power, including occupants of the Oval Office. He rose to fame on the strength of his sensitive understanding and support for abused women, yet he holds a traditional view of men as heads of their households and primary providers. Like many Pentecostal preachers, he proclaims that Christianity and prosperity can sleep comfortably in the same manger, but he’d rather teach his flock the value of starting their own businesses and putting money into 401(k) accounts than have them believe that cheerful givers will automatically prosper or rest content with the promise of pie-in-the-sky by and by. He preaches and practices liberation of the poor and criticizes business and government for ignoring their condition, but he has gained great wealth by embracing and fully exploiting the free-market capitalism that exacerbates their plight. He encourages generosity, yet he cuts shrewd financial deals and brooks little resistance from those who challenge him. He believes that homosexuality is sinful, but he chides religious conservatives for allowing abortion and same-sex marriage to trump all other questions of morality and politics. And so it goes.

To get some understanding of his power, one needs to see Bishop Jakes at home, in the Potter’s House, named for the passage in Jeremiah 18:2: “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words.” To the staff and congregation at the Potter’s House, he is not “the bishop” but simply “Bishop,” even when spoken of in the third person. His wife, Serita, is known and addressed as “First Lady.” The two Sunday morning services, at eight and eleven-thirty, last about two and a half hours each. The first hour includes offerings from one or more of the church’s numerous musical groups—a “praise team” of instrumentalists and singers, a youth orchestra that plays Bach, a chorale that specializes in classical church music, or the Before His Throne Dance Ministry, a troupe of lithe women twirling long ribbons as they pay homage to the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” And, of course, on most Sundays, a large traditional gospel choir will have the eight-thousand-seat auditorium throbbing with jubilee for Jesus. The first hour also includes the “Potter’s House News,” a slick video review of programs at the church, and five to ten minutes of warm and widespread mingling. On my first visit, I hugged or shook hands with more than fifty people as the orchestra, organ, choir, and congregation proclaimed, “This is the Lord’s church!”


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