“Fleecing the faithful,” it’s called. The sort of story featured on the front cover of Saturday’s New York Times tends to rankle everyone’s feathers, from the utterly agnostic to the truly devout. I might also add that such stories tend to surprise no one. There’s news here, to be sure, about grandchildren calling their grandparents out on their moral and fiscal crimes. But it’s hardly new news.
While it may raise eyebrows that Americans continue to bankroll televangelists—$20, $50, or $100 at a time—exactly why they continue to do so when such ministries are so self-evidently opulent and excessive remains something of a mystery to the rational mind. I suppose some would simply reply, “If you can believe in something as outlandish as basic Christian doctrine, then you can be convinced to do things as gullible as that, and worse.” Hmmm…perhaps. Perhaps not. Lots of us, religious or not, are capable—under the right conditions of charismatic authority and legitimation—of heinous evil. Has always been true.
Back to the Trinity Broadcasting Network. What has long perplexed me about TBN is their look. I don’t quite understand the appeal of their truly faux architecture, gaudy sets, and personal attire. Maybe it’s the simple Midwesterner in me, but is there really an audience in America who thinks that look is attractive? I recently drove past a TBN facility of some sort halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, and it stood out—an accomplishment in that area, let me tell you—for its outlandishness. To whom does this appeal? To North Texas Pentecostals over the age of 60? (I don’t know.) No, I haven’t been everywhere (unlike the Johnny Cash song), but the only places that seem comparably cheesy are old sections of Beverly Hills, or perhaps some parts of South Florida.
I presume that most of TBN’s checks aren’t coming from those quarters, but who knows—perhaps the health-and-wealth gospel is underwritten by the healthy and the wealthy, not the poorer and disabled, as many have long presumed. It’s an empirical question, of course, but one that’s only answerable by open access to accounting. And we know that’s unlikely. And yet the checks keep rolling in:“Clearly, many viewers have heartfelt responses. In 2010, TBN received $93 million in tax-exempt donations, according to its tax report. The company also had $64 million in additional income from sales of airtime and $17 million in investment income that year. It spent $194 million operating its far-flung network and investing in new programs. The company was in the red for the year, but could draw on its cushion of $325 million in cash and investments.”
It may sound like a lot, but it’s comparatively not. Think about it: if 1 out of every 337 Americans gave TBN $100 bucks this year, $93 million is exactly what they’d take in. For comparison, say a 6000-member suburban congregation witnessed, per capita, about $1500 in the offering plate in a year; there’s $9 million–and that’s just one congregation.
I nevertheless take some heart in the mass antagonism toward the small minority of Christian ministers who live opulent lives, whether honestly gained or ill-gotten. Because there remains a seed in all of us that just knows that the lives of the shepherds are to be more Christ-like than that. (Can you imagine St. Francis of Assisi staying here, in a hotel and city named after him?)
People expect better of shepherds, as they ought. Give them neither poverty nor wealth, I pray. And the same for me. (All of this raises disturbing questions about my own feeble level of generosity and excessive self-concern.)
Finally, let’s remember to retain some perspective here. After all the Christian hand-wringing, sheepish looks, and obligatory “we’re not all like that” apologies—blah, blah, blah—the fact remains that there is an extraordinary amount of legal-but-immoral wealth out there already, and little of it has been gotten by way of preaching in front of cameras or building cheesy theme parks. Plenty of modern wealth has been built upon fleecing people by more socially-acceptable means, including convincing people of things they “need” but cannot afford, or by—gasp—creating silly, time-wasting games and selling millions of them. Indeed, apparently my fair city’s tech future relies on such foolish sources of income. There are many ways to fleece, whether by taxation, donation, or clever marketing.
But as noted above, we expect better from (so-called) believers. I hope we always do.