Long before organized religion in America was infiltrated by evangelical-meets-Amway versions of Christian leaders, there was Reverend Ike.
Long before "Right-wing" and "Christian" were inexorably linked, decades before the Messiah was co-opted as bumper-sticker content, and a generation before the presumptuous question, What Would Jesus Do? was abbreviated (WWJD?) on millions of imitation-silver bracelets — there was the Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II.
This larger-than-life minister, a self-made African-American Billy Graham-meets-P.T. Barnum, who preached personal gain as a direct result of devotion to God, died last week at age 74.
The New York Times quotes him: "Close your eyes and see green...Money up to your armpits, a roomful of money and there you are, just tossing around in it like a swimming pool." They heard, they closed their eyes, they saw green, and they sent a lot of it to Reverend Ike.
The IRS and the US Postal Service turned over every rock in the Reverend's yard, looking for a way to nail the founder of the United Church of Jesus Christ for All People, for his stable of fine cars and lavish homes. They didn't deter him or dampen his devotees' enthusiasm. The man lifted his church and radio listeners way up. Reverend Ike talked of something beyond original sin and the long wait for the Promised Land. He distracted them from the here-on-earth realities of bigotry and want. He spoke the universal language of success, the creed of capitalism and the benediction of upward mobility.
It is a safe bet that no one dozed off during Reverend Ike's sermons. As writer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt points out in The New York Times:
Reverend Ike could be an electric preacher, whether at the old theater or on the road appearing before standing-room-only audiences. And he could make his congregations laugh, drawing on the Bible to drive home his message about the virtues of material rewards. "If it'ês that difficult for a rich man to get into heaven," he would often say, citing Matthew, "think how terrible it must be for a poor man to get in. He doesn'êt even have a bribe for the gatekeeper."
Organized religion may well have once been the opiate of the masses. These days, when the opiate of the masses is well, opiates, a guy offering up some lively pastoral rhetoric doesn't seem so awful.
Progress and social change in America have always been driven by religious movements and leaders. A lot of that change has been painful, much of it good. Commandment-embracer or nonbeliever, you can thank someone in a pulpit for some of your nearby food banks, transitional housing, health clinics, and daycare.
And we can all mourn the passing of a man who put on a good show, and who figured God wouldn't mind if we piled up a little treasure here on earth, not just in heaven.