Bad Faith: Fraud and Religious Freedom in the “Mighty I Am” Case
The journalist Westbrook Pegler has coined a pithy phrase to describe state actions to regulate and punish financial fraud on the part of religious groups. “Occasionally,” he wrote, law enforcement has to “burst up a flock for the sake of the lambs, which is a fine commentary on religious freedom, but that’s the way it goes, nevertheless.” Pegler was writing about the I Am movement, the topic of this paper. Mostly forgotten today, at its peak the “Mighty I Am” was the largest of the spiritualist movements which flourished in the United States during the 1920s and ‘30s. Its leaders claimed more than a million adherents, and even objective observers estimated that hundreds of thousands of Americans responded to the I Am message. People packed auditoriums to hear the movement’s leaders, Guy and Edna Ballard, channel the voices of “Ascended Masters.” They joined the Ballards in shouting “decrees” at these cosmic powers, demanding health and wealth for themselves and annihilation for their enemies. I Am generated a great deal of enthusiasm—and an equal amount of anxiety. According to one critic it was a case of “mass hypnosis” that threatened to bring about a “psychic dictatorship in America.” These anxieties culminated in a high-profile trial of the I Am leaders for mail fraud. These trials suggest the important role that the idea of “fraud” plays within the American system of religious freedom.