Probing the Prosperity Gospel

I’m surprised that this story, “Going After the Money Ministries“, hasn’t gotten much attention on atheist blogs. Earlier this month, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, and Paula White – six notorious televangelists who preach the “prosperity gospel” – received an ominous letter from Senator Chuck Grassley, ranking Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee, asking them to account for numerous expenditures whose tax-exempt status seems questionable.

These items include jewelry, luxury clothing, cosmetic surgery (!), private planes, flights to Hawaii and Fiji, and most famously, in the case of Joyce Meyer, a $23,000 marble-topped commode. It wasn’t clear from context whether this was referring to a chest of drawers or a toilet. (Sen. Grassley’s website has copies of the letters sent to each televangelist.)

I’m surprised that a Republican would launch such an investigation, but separation of church and state needs all the friends it can get. And Sen. Grassley has certainly picked some large, juicy targets. As tax-exempt organizations, these ministries must use the contributions they take in to further a tax-exempt purpose. Diversions of those contributions for personal use of their leaders would violate the law, and it seems probable that this has happened here. I’d add Richard Roberts as another preacher whose secretive activities are just crying out for investigation.

Of course, it’s no news flash for freethinkers that powerful religious leaders almost always live in tremendous opulence and luxury. That goes double for “prosperity gospel” preachers, who teach that God will reward those who give as much cash as they possibly can to his self-appointed representatives on Earth. These televangelists are obsessed with money and shamelessly exploit the faith and gullibility of their flocks to enrich themselves. Sen. Grassley’s letters give a rare glimpse into the immense wealth and comfort these humbug artists enjoy, all the while telling their poor, struggling followers that they must give more than they can afford if they want to receive their heavenly reward.

Predictably, the friends of darkness are already crying religious persecution:

Remarks Charles Haynes, senior scholar with the First Amendment Center: “I’m worried that [the six] might be used to push for stringent transparency regulations that would affect all religious groups. They are extreme, and extreme cases can lead to bad law.”

Mr. Dollar said that he would comply, but that he planned to consult legal professors and scholars first. “The questions at hand are much bigger than World Changers,” he said, “as it could affect the privacy of every community church in America.”

To this, I say: yes, we should enact transparency regulations governing churches, and by all means, they should be as stringent as possible. Churches receive one of the most lucrative gifts a government can give – near-complete freedom from taxation. As I’ve said previously, I oppose that; but if we’re going to continue giving churches tax exemptions, then yes, they should absolutely be subject to strict rules governing accountability and disclosure, as any group that receives such a privilege should be. If anything, the situation we find now is usually the opposite, with churches getting away with bad behavior and sloppy bookkeeping that would never be tolerated from other kinds of tax-exempt groups.

I hope Senator Grassley hauls every one of these money-grubbing preacher hypocrites before his panel and questions them, under oath and in detail, about exactly what their followers’ contributions have been used for. Such a probe would be a welcome ray of sunlight into the heretofore dark recesses of these organizations, and would give us a glimpse of just how deep the rot of corruption and hypocrisy runs. When a preacher claims to be accountable only to God and not to the scrutiny of his fellow human beings, rest assured, there’s a good reason for it.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • andrea

    I *love* the hypocrisy. The theists want their religion to be in goverment, but not goverment to be in their religion. Shades of old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups ads. I honestly hadn’t heard much about this in the “liberal media”. I had heard that they were under investigation but not exactly for what. I do love how horrified they are about transparency regulations. Hmmm, seems that they have something to hide. Absolutely hysterical how now they want “activist judges” to defend them from such “extreme examples” and “bad law”. ROFL.

    Funny how people who are decent anyway and who call themselves “Christians” aren’t disgustingly wealthy. They often make decent wage but also help people and don’t try to screw people out of what they can, like my folks. It is the people calling themselves “good Christians” who strangely get lots and lots of money by being not Christ-like at all.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Are politicans really saying that we can trust a group with power to be honest about their accounts? That making sure if they’re tax exempt they’re strictly monitored is a bad thing?

    Politicans, of all people, should know better then that from their own lives

  • Joffan

    If they don’t like the scrutiny (such as it is), there is a simple remedy: give up tax-exempt status. The downside, from their point of view, might be that without charitable status they may have to start describing to donors how they differ from a commercial organisation. Rebranding as “spiritual consultants”, perhaps?

  • Steve Bowen

    As a Brit who occasionally visits the US for business I am constantly amazed by the sheer amount of televangelism on American TV. From a UK/European perspective it looks tacky, highly commercial and bears no resemblance to any religious broadcasting we would see over here. I guess the point I’m making is that is that it is so obviously a con and the preachers so obviously self serving that I find it hard to understand why anyone would fall for it.It makes sense to me (as far as any religious practise does) that people would donate to their local church/mosque/synagogue but what sane person would throw a large pecentage of cash at the sharp suited evangelicals that pitch god through a TV?

  • RiddleOfSteel

    It makes sense to me (as far as any religious practise does) that people would donate to their local church/mosque/synagogue but what sane person would throw a large pecentage of cash at the sharp suited evangelicals that pitch god through a TV?

    It is indeed hard to believe that people are giving to these televangelists. I can’t figure it out. But it seems there are an ever increasing number of prosperity preachers taking to the airwaves. The UHF stations in my locale are littered with them most Sundays. These preachers have a common language of keywords such as “increase”, “anointing”, and “abundance”. Viewers are enjoined to “sow a seed” in order to receive the “anointing” (read cash back). It is claimed that giving will result in “increase” and “abundance” for the giver (read cash back).

    Ebonmuse mentioned Paula White, and this woman is a real piece of work – maybe the worst of the lot. I watch occasionally for entertainment value, and one day she had on that shyster Donald Trump peddling a book. Paula was trying to tie “The Donald’s” financial practices in with her prosperity gospel. I hope Senator Grassley follows through and makes these people account for their activities. I am impressed these days when any holder of public office takes on religion regardless of party. Keep in mind that in my home state of Illinois, it was the Democrat controlled senate that just foisted on our public schools the mandatory so called Moment of Silence legislation.

  • Karen

    what sane person would throw a large pecentage of cash at the sharp suited evangelicals that pitch god through a TV?

    The vulnerable person, the desperate person, the poor, the undereducated, the trusting, the gullible, the disenfranchised, the elderly – these are the victims of the televangelists and the prosperity gospel hucksters in the U.S.

    In short, the people that are being defrauded by these shameless individuals are those that Jesus called “the least of these,” the ones he told his followers to care for and protect especially in “his name.”

    The fact that more Christians do not recognize this and lead the charge against these charlatans is only one of many major hypocrisies within Christianity.

  • lpetrich

    I’m reminded of Jesus Christ’s Temple temper tantrum (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-16) and his various anti-wealth and anti-capitalist sayings.

    Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, because a rich person can no more make it into Heaven than a camel or thick rope can go through the eye of a needle. (Matt 19:16-24)

    Accumulate heavenly treasures, not earthly ones, which are vulnerable. (Matt 6:19-21)

    Don’t show any foresight, because God will always deliver, as he delivers food to birds and clothes to wildflowers. (Matt 6:25-34)

    You cannot serve both God and money. (Matt 6:24)

    Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find that

    The love of money is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10)

    and that Ananias and Sapphira were zapped when they tried to hang on to their money (Acts 5:1-11), which seems rather Stalinist.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    James Randi’s aging — but excellent — book “Flim-Flam” has one helluvan exposé on these jerks . . . how they use spotters with radios to point out ailing believers in need of “healing” which is most often temporary anyway, so that they could convince the bed-ridden or home-bound to donate even more.

    And yes, they had their share of fancy toilets, too. Isn’t that pretty revealing?

    Finally, I must comment on the delicious irony of one of these hucksters bearing the family name “Dollar”. Oh, if only his mother had named him “Freflo” instead [sigh].

  • Ryan

    Evangelists are about the most corrupt, money grubbing, hypocritical, lazy bastards you can find anywhere.

  • Alex Weaver

    Your blog’s stated goal seems like a good one, Ryan, but advertising in this fashion is appreciated by approximately no one. I’m surprised PZ hasn’t said something to you about it in the several Pharyngula threads you’ve posted essentially the same thing in.

  • Damien

    I’m reminded of [snip] Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-16, Matt 19:16-24, Matt 6:19-21, Matt 6:25-34, Matt 6:24, 1 Timothy 6:10.

    Ah, Ipetrich, but don’t you know that fallen Man cannot follow the commandments of God? So there’s no point in trying to point all this out to a Christian: he or she will just claim that they’re a sinner, and then start talking about how the blood of Jesus has washed them clean, regardless of what sins they may have, or may still be, committing.

    and that Ananias and Sapphira were zapped when they tried to hang on to their money (Acts 5:1-11), which seems rather Stalinist.

    I’ve just moved to a border town where the only radio station in English is a Christian broadcaster. They’ve got a Thanksgiving fundraiser and — what do you know? — this very passage is quoted ad nauseam, alongside the Parable of the Widow and the Two Pennies, to get people to give whatever money they haven’t already donated.

    For, “What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; And what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten; And what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.” (Joel 1:4)

  • Becky

    Yes, they are cons and crooks and I would love to see them all fall flat on their lying faces. The problem is that so many people are deceived. They are also just as greedy as these wolves are. They love the easy get rich doctrine. All you have to do brother and sister is send in as much as you can and god will restore it 100 fold! Greed plays a huge part in all of it on both sides. As long as people stay that self-centered and naive, these fools will continue on. I have decided anyone who follows these snake oil salesmen deserve whatever they get, or lose.

  • lpetrich

    I think that a serious problem here is that much of our society considers the religion business untouchable; “mainstream” religions are automatically “good”, no matter what. You get get away with whatever outrages you want as long as you hide behind pious talk about Jeeeeeezus. Look at the Catholic Church — it’s taken pedophilia scandals to cut them down.

    And the Rev. Creflo Dollar has followed the long Xian tradition of making Jesus Christ seem like him; he has a theology of JC having been rich. He notes such things as the expensive gifts that the three wise men had given him and how the Roman soldiers thought his clothes worth gambling over when he was crucified.

    Something that Xenophanes would have understood.

  • The Ridger

    Can I say Amen?

    Churches have been allowed to play both sides of the fence too long. If they’re going to keep their tax-exempt status, they have to follow the law. No politics, no diverting the cash into the preacher’s pockets, and all the rest of it. Stringent and transparent and yes, affect “all religious groups” and “the privacy of every community church in America.”

  • chas

    First-time commenter – lurker for about a year. Very interesting site. Here are updated links to Sen. Grassley’s letters to Creflo Dollar and Joyce Meyer. Hemant Mehta’s Blog also has a post on The Prosperity Gospel.

  • chas aka Charles