Gene Scott, the American television evangelist who has died aged 75, offered his followers all the advantages of Christianity with none of the inconveniences, and thus became immensely rich.
Scott's followers were assured that they did not have to go to church on Sunday and that such foibles as homosexuality, adultery, abortion, profanity and drinking were just fine. "I don't ask you to change," he told his congregation. "I take you as you are." He had little time for the conventional pieties. "You ever meet Christians?" he asked. "You wish you could shove a pipe in their mouth. Anything to shut them up."
To qualify as a member of his church, the main requirement was a valid credit card, Scott's aim apparently being to make it richer than the Vatican. "A skinflint may get to heaven," he admitted, "but what awaits him are a rusty old halo, a skinny old cloud, and a robe so worn it scratches. First-class salvation costs money."
Anyone requiring salvation had to hand over 10 per cent of their income. This was a bare minimum. "I want 300 people to give $1,000 by June 30 to humiliate Satan's efforts to destroy us," read a recent message on his website. "I also want 700 to commit to $10,000 by Christmas." He once excomminucated the entire congregation for not giving enough. Those who did not respond to his barked instruction "Get on the telephone!" were told to "vomit on yourself with your head up in the air."
His fund-raising efforts were spectacularly successful. Individual donations from his 15,000-strong congregation at the Los Angeles University Cathedral (housed in a Spanish baroque-style former cinema), and from the estimated 50,000 contributors reached through his global broadcasting empire, were said to average $350 a month. In 1980 Werner Herzog made Scott the subject of a documentary, God's Angry Man, which showed the preacher raising several hundred thousand dollars during a television show lasting half an hour.
Scott's appeal lay in his genius as an entertainer. Buccaneering, shaggy-haired and bearded under a bandana or flamboyant hat, he was by turns unpredictable, outrageous, funny and inspired, but always compelling. Fat cigar in hand, his face contorted with rage, he would mix scripture with profanity-laden monologues about the state of the world ("Nuke 'em in the name of Jesus!" he cried during the Gulf War), punctuated with demands for more money.
No gimmick was neglected. At church services a rock band would belt out such hymns of praise as "Kill a Pissant for Jesus." His television shows would sometimes feature "Scott's Bunnies", a bevy of female followers in thong bikinis. (He felt he could "probably teach Hugh Hefner a thing or two" about sex.) When he found himself under investigation by the authorities for alleged fraud, he assembled a band of wind-up toy monkeys, then proceeded to smash them to pieces on television with a baseball bat.
Scott enjoyed a lifestyle that included a chauffeured limousine, a mansion in Pasadena, 24-hour bodyguards, several ranches and a stable of more than 300 thoroughbred horses. It would be easy to dismiss him as a charlatan, yet he also spent lavishly on charity. When the Los Angeles Central Library was damaged by fire, he organised a telethon that raised $2 million, and there were many other examples of well-judged philanthropy. In consequence he acquired powerful friends who were generous with their testimonials.
During show-downs with the authorities, Scott seldom hesitated to drop a few hefty names to aid his cause. When, during the 1970s, the California Attorney General's office launched an investigation into Scott's church (and several others) following allegations of financial malpractice, the investigation was dropped after the state legislature passed a law barring prosecution of civil fraud against tax-exempt religious organisations.
The son of a travelling preacher, Eugene Scott was born on August 14 1929, at Buhl, Idaho. When he was six, his mother gave birth to premature twins, one of whom died within hours. The following month, Gene began having convulsions and his mother saw a stairway come down from heaven: "Two angels walked down and they stopped in front of Gene," she recalled later. "I said, 'Oh no, Lord, you can't take Gene!' and they just went around him and picked the baby up." The surviving twin died but Gene was saved; it was clear that he had been spared for some purpose. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Gridley in northern California where Gene's father took over as pastor of an Assemblies of God church after the previous incumbent crucified himself.
Young Gene was an exceptional student. "Do you know you have a genius for a son?" asked a teacher on his school report. He ended up at Stanford University, where he took a doctorate on the works of the protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1957. Despite having no formal training in theology, Scott then taught briefly at a Midwestern Bible college, helped Oral Roberts to establish his university in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and joined his father's church, the Assemblies of God movement, where he soon established himself as a brilliant preacher and fund-raiser.
But in 1970, Scott renounced his membership of the denomination to launch his own ministry. Five years later he was invited to take over the Faith Center Church at Glendale, California, an ailing evangelical enterprise which boasted four broadcasting stations and a $3.5 million debt. He agreed on condition the church leaders gave him carte blanche to do what he wanted. To his surprise, they accepted, and he went on to build his huge evangelical empire.
Scott had several run-ins with the authorities. In 1983 the Federal Communications Commission stripped the church of three broadcast stations after he refused to hand over financial records. Later he frustrated attempts to scrutinise the church's finances by instructing contributors to sign pledge slips stating that he could spend the money however he pleased.
When Scott was diagnosed with cancer, he decided to "give God the first shot" before resorting to conventional medicine. By the time it became clear that the Almighty had stayed his hand, it was too late. He died on February 21, and is survived by his third wife, Melissa.