Sold on the Spirit

DollarSignA couple of years ago, Eric Gorski — then at the Denver Post — ran a a three-part series on a local preacher of the Prosperity Gospel. What I loved about the piece, which exposed the pastor’s financial success, was that it also explored prosperity teaching in detail.

Now with the Associated Press, Gorski has been all over Sen. Chuck Grassley’s investigation of various televangelists. Grassley’s Senate Finance Committee is investigating allegations of questionable spending and lax financial accountability at six organizations that preach “health and wealth theology,” as Gorski puts it.

For his latest, he produced a heavily-researched expose of Kenneth Copeland Ministries. Of the six, Copeland has fought back the hardest, refusing to answer most questions and inviting the Internal Revenue Service to conduct an audit, which would keep information private. Gorski’s piece has run in one form or another in some 280+ papers:

Here in the gentle hills of north Texas, televangelist Kenneth Copeland has built a religious empire teaching that God wants his followers to prosper.

Over the years, a circle of Copeland’s relatives and friends have done just that, The Associated Press has found. They include the brother-in-law with a lucrative deal to broker Copeland’s television time, the son who acquired church-owned land for his ranching business and saw it more than quadruple in value, and board members who together have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for speaking at church events.

Church officials say no one improperly benefits through ties to Copeland’s vast evangelical ministry, which claims more than 600,000 subscribers in 134 countries to its flagship “Believer’s Voice of Victory” magazine. The board of directors signs off on important matters, they say. Yet church bylaws give Copeland veto power over board decisions.

While Copeland insists that his ministry complies with the law, independent tax experts who reviewed information obtained by the AP through interviews, church documents and public records have their doubts. The web of companies and non-profits tied to the televangelist calls the ministry’s integrity into question, they say.

“There are far too many relatives here,” said Frances Hill, a University of Miami law professor who specializes in nonprofit tax law. “There’s too much money sloshing around and too much of it sloshing around with people with overlapping affiliations and allegiances by either blood or friendship or just ties over the years. There are red flags all over these relationships.”

Copeland, 71, is a pioneer of the prosperity gospel, which holds that believers are destined to flourish spiritually, physically and financially — and share the wealth with others.

Those are the beginning paragraphs and the remaining 2,000 words just dig deeper and deeper into the finances. It’s terribly difficult to investigate church finances since religious non-profit reporting is protected in a way that other non-profits aren’t. But Gorski does a good job of using the information at hand to paint a picture of the Kenneth Copeland empire as one of great financial success and somewhat questionable governance.

I wish the article contained more discussion of the prosperity gospel. The sentence quoted above is about it for the article. It was the main strength of Gorski’s previous work on prosperity ministries. Still, this is a fantastically researched and well-composed piece.

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  • Jimmy Mac

    Religion for a little fun and lots and lots of profit.

  • FW Ken

    The main goal, Grassley has said, is to figure out whether existing tax laws governing churches are adequate, which could carry sweeping implications for all religious organizations.

    Just what those implications might be is the detail I would have liked to see. Perhaps we do need more legal oversight of non-profits, but I’d like to know the implications of that oversight for the free-exercise clause of the 1st Amendment. I went looking for a focus on the 1st amendment questions instead of the depravities of the properity preachers (and yes, I regard the “prosperity gospel” as a depraved heresy), but found nothing in the mainstream media. Christianity Today had the most coverage of that angle. Why does a more detached journalistic source not take a good look? When government intrudes on freedom of the press, we hear about it; why not a bit more when the topic is government intrusion on religion? Unless, of course, I just missed it.

    And while I am at it, this whole business puts me in mind of that retired Episcopal bishop who was making half a million or so as headmaster of the tony St. Paul’s, New Hampshire; his wife got $36,000 of her own. Now, if you put the bishop’s salary together with his wife’s, it’s not that far off the combined salaries of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. And that doesn’t count any retirement income the bishop might be getting, or the fact that he was dipping into his discretionary fund for membership dues at a yacht club (not a fancy yacht club, you understand). I wonder if got in on that Episcopal House of Bishops meeting at the resort hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

    I know I’m digressing, but all of this raises questions of why the focus is on televangelists. I don’t much like them or their religion, but should the government be enforcing my religious opinions through tax law, or just plain old harassement? And shouldn’t journalists be asking these questions more than a mere layment like myself?

    Another question: one website identified Ole Anthony as one of the motivators behind the investigations. Since there are issues with Anthony, might that not be an useful bit of info.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I’m sure there will also be consequences from this as far as the “Faith Initiative” started by G. W. Bush and somewhat endorsed (with reservations) by Barack Obama.

    An interesting movie to watch is Pray TV–not the Dabney Coleman version, but the one with John Ritter and Ned Beatty. This is a good, if biased, look at the televangelism industry.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Kudos to Gorski for an excellent article.

    Yet church bylaws give Copeland veto power over board decisions.

    Gorski nails the key business issue in the third paragraph. Nicely done.

    [Copeland] is one target of a Senate Finance Committee investigation into allegations of questionable spending and lax financial accountability at six large televangelist organizations that preach health-and-wealth theology….The main goal, Grassley has said, is to figure out whether existing tax laws governing churches are adequate, which could carry sweeping implications for all religious organizations.

    The Senate is going to use an investigation of six prosperity gospel groups to determine the adequacy of existing tax laws for all churches? If that doesn’t give you pause, then nothing will.

  • cls

    For more on Copeland see: and be sure to watch “demo!”

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I am a personal witness to the devastation that Copeland, Hagin and company can wreak. At my Catholic alma mater, there was a young man in the same wing of my dorm who fell prey to their teaching. No matter how hard we tried, my dorm mates and I could not convince him of their errors.

    Toward the end of one spring semester, it was clear that something had gone wrong with his thinking. One evening, John came out of his room dressed like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever saying that he was going to go evangelize in the bars downtown. He came back from that venture very downcast as it had failed miserably, as was to be expected.

    Unfortunately, John’s mind became more muddled. He heard what Copeland and Hagin and other prosperity gospel preachers were saying and saw that his life didn’t live up to it, and it drove him to despair. During summer break, as his mother was driving him somewhere on an Illinois freeway, he opened the door and threw himself out.

    Of course, there could have been mental issues from the beginning that we at school didn’t know about. However, it is safe to say, I think, that Copeland’s teaching didn’t help him at all and may have even been the immediate cause of his suicide.

    While this is something that would be difficult to check, I think it merits further investigation in the press.

  • tyler

    Chris B – good comments. The result of this investigation will affect all of us -not just churches if the wrong decision is made. This has dragged out for too long and Grassley has made too many errors in his handling of this situation. Copeland offered an IRS audit from the beginning which would have given Grassley the information he wanted, but would have been made to keep it confidential. It’s time this thing came to an end and our Congressmen get to work on some more pressing and serious issues.

  • David W

    Its a sad day when a society condemns people for their beleifs. Its even more depraved to judge a person by their wealth or socio-economic condition. Maybe its time to spend a little effort on the fruit of the trees in our society instead of cutting the tree down because its too big or we just dont like the way it looks.
    Eric Gorski should not be applauded for his poor journalistic expression. His report is typically filled with inuendo and one sided and is purposely biased so that it reaffirms an errant veiw that the Church and its representatives should be poor and useless. Nonetheless, this issue is about freedom as FW Ken so eloquently stated in his previous post.
    ……………..Thomas, have you ever asked yourself what part you and your friends may have played in creating such despair for John. It is not ‘safe to say’ what you have accused and such anecdotal evidence reflects your own personal bias.

  • Msgirl

    You are so right David W. Like the majority of the media that has covered this story, Eric Gorski is yet another telling a one sided very slanted version. Personally, I am not a follower of their teachings, but I do recognize how this could and will affect us. Copeland’s defense is holding much more weight than what Grassley is continuing to grasp at.

  • Dreamweaver

    As previously mentioned, whether you support these ministries or not – the decision made in this case WILL affect us all. I think it’s time for Grassley to admit the error of his ways and give it up. He has been threatening subpeonas for several months now. However he hasn’t done it, yet the smear campaign against Copeland still continues. Maybe it’s time Grassley should get back to work on some other issues.

  • Michele

    Grassley has fallen in line with the rest of the government as it continues to push its way into our lives. This is not just about the churches. That’s the reason I believe Copeland is standing his ground so strongly. I am like you dreamweaver – if Grassley has the evidence or whatever he claims – then move on with it. How long does this really need to drag on? Copeland continues to gather support across denominational lines.

  • Glen

    Grassley is way out of line. He has made himself the judge and jury. Laws are already in place to govern churches. Goreski’s article is definetly slanted. Copeland is teaching and preaching the Word of God. Why doesn’t he recognize that fact. I agree with Michele, this will unite churches.