College basketball fans are in rapture after the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles pulled off a pair of upsets in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Over the span of three days, the 15-seed gutted out hard-fought wins against 2-seed Ohio State and 7-seed Florida. In the process, they’ve become just the second-ever 15-seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
Oral Roberts University (ORU) has captured the hearts of a nation. Nearly every basketball-lover in the country is celebrating its unlikely success.
Except for Oral Roberts. Oral Roberts is in Hell.
ORU’s namesake was a massively influential Pentecostal preacher who rose to prominence as a faith healer in the 1940’s and ’50s. As his fame grew, Roberts took to radio and television. He became one of the first preachers to reach a national audience. Over the years, he claimed to commune with a 900-foot-tall Jesus, and said he raised the dead on numerous occasions. He also pioneered the preaching technique of begging for money. Roberts raised millions of dollars through mail-based “seed faith” campaigns and at one point even saying that God would kill him if people didn’t give him $4.5 million over a couple months. He used that money to make himself fabulously wealthy and found his university in 1963.
Roberts’ grandson, Randy Potts, grew up gay in a world dominated by his family patriarch. In interviews, he describes his grandfather as an overbearing conservative. Potts even said Roberts once threatened to shoot his dog if it kept bothering him. Roberts preached a brand of Christianity that viewed being gay as a sickness. That intolerant environment eventually drove his son Ronald to suicide just six months after he came out. Over the ensuing three decades, the Roberts family has vehemently denied Ronald was gay.
To call Oral Roberts a “controversial figure” is underselling the extent of the damage he’s done. This is a man whose life’s work is directly responsible for the death of his own son. He bears at least indirect responsibility for the proliferation of a tortuous pseudoscience wielded like a cudgel against the country’s LGBTQ+ community.
Seven percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual people ages 18-59 in the U.S. have experienced conversion therapy at some point, according to a 2020 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law. In a population already disproportionately at risk of suicide, those subjected to conversion therapy were about twice as likely to try taking their own life.
By preaching that homosexuality was a sickness, by claiming to “heal” people of their sexual preferences, Oral Roberts laid the groundwork for a structure of discrimination responsible for destroying thousands of lives.
Oral Roberts has blood on his hands. The school he founded is just as tainted. Oral Roberts University makes its student pledge not to engage in same-sex activity. It forces students who come out to endure conversion therapy and does its best to stop LGBTQ people from attending in the first place. The school even went through the trouble of filing for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation, an exemption it was granted in 2017.
The discrimination Roberts and his school practice isn’t just evil, it’s also biblically unsound. Beyond the inhumanity of preaching that homosexuality is an affront to God, there’s good scholarship that suggests the infamous line in Leviticus 18:22 warning that “man shall not lie with man” is actually a mistranslation of a prohibition of same-sex rape. Proselytizing a false interpretation of God’s will got at least one guy thrown into a lake of fire in Revelation.
Roberts’ preaching, which form the basis of what we now call the Prosperity Gospel, are also anathema to the actual teachings of Jesus. This is a man who was worth millions of dollars claiming to champion someone who told rich people to give away their possessions to the poor. However, the New Testament is clear that rich people who condone the suffering of the poor are going to Hell. In accruing wealth to build his evangelical empire, that’s exactly what Oral Roberts did.
So when you see people frame the Golden Eagles’ run as a victory for the underdog, know that the real story is much more sinister. It’s certainly not the basketball team’s fault they embody the legacy of a devious televangelist shyster. Still, they’re the product of a poisoned past, one causes suffering to this day. If you’re ok supporting that, that’s your decision. If you aren’t, you can at least take some comfort knowing that Oral Roberts himself is looking up, not down, at this year’s NCAA tournament.