Shocking! A lavish television ministry!

front-page expose by the New York Times on a television ministry’s lavish spending ought to be shocking reading, right?

Instead, a 2,200-word investigative piece published Sunday left me with a feeling of deja vu — as if I’d read it a few dozen times before. (Do the names Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker ring any bells?)

A friend commented:

I think the sad thing is that none of these completely insane details surprise me.

What she said!

In many circles, the term “televangelist” has become synonymous with shady finances. I interviewed a TV preacher one time who referred to himself as the “anti-televangelist” because he refuses to pitch for funds on air.

Whether the Times report is shocking or not, however, religion writer Erik Eckholm and the Old Gray Lady deserve kudos for taking advantage of recent lawsuits and internal turmoil at the Trinity Broadcasting Network to produce a nice piece of journalism. The story examines allegations of financial impropriety by the ministry and notes — to its credit — that questions concerning TBN’s spending date back four decades:

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — For 39 years, the Trinity Broadcasting Network has urged viewers to give generously and reap the Lord’s bounty in return.

The prosperity gospel preached by Paul and Janice Crouch, who built a single station into the world’s largest Christian television network, has worked out well for them.

Mr. and Mrs. Crouch have his-and-her mansions one street apart in a gated community here, provided by the network using viewer donations and tax-free earnings. But Mrs. Crouch, 74, rarely sleeps in the $5.6 million house with tennis court and pool. She mostly lives in a large company house near Orlando, Fla., where she runs a side business, the Holy Land Experience theme park. Mr. Crouch, 78, has an adjacent home there too, but rarely visits. Its occupant is often a security guard who doubles as Mrs. Crouch’s chauffeur.

The twin sets of luxury homes only hint at the high living enjoyed by the Crouches, inspirational television personalities whose multitudes of stations and satellite signals reach millions of worshipers across the globe. Almost since they started in the 1970s, the couple have been criticized for secrecy about their use of donations, which totaled $93 million in 2010.

Now, after an upheaval with Shakespearean echoes, one son in this first family of televangelism has ousted the other to become the heir apparent. A granddaughter, who was in charge of TBN’s finances, has gone public with the most detailed allegations of financial improprieties yet, which TBN has denied, saying its practices were audited and legal.

The most detailed allegations of financial improprieties yet. At the risk of sounding overly nitpicky, I’d love a source on that. Do long-term watchdogs agree that these are the most detailed allegations yet? If so, why not quote them by name?

A less pressing question: Why do the Crouches need separate mansions? Does one of them have a snoring problem? Unless I missed it, the story never explains the reason for the separate households.

While most of the story (rightly) focuses on the financial questions, a section of the piece tackles the prosperity gospel:

On the air, the Crouches combine uplifting talk with encouragement to give to the Lord, and so be repaid. This “prosperity gospel” is shared by several televangelists who appear on TBN. But many conventional Christian leaders regard it as a sham.

“Prosperity theology is a false theology,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Between its message and its reputation for high spending, Mr. Mohler said, “TBN has been a huge embarrassment to evangelical Christianity for decades.” …

Janice Crouch, called “Mama” on the air, is known for her pink-tinged wigs, which look like huge swirls of cotton candy, and for talking emotionally about the Lord’s blessings. Mr. Crouch, or “Papa,” is relentlessly upbeat as he quotes flurries of Bible verses on signature programs like “Praise the Lord.”

Huge swirls of cotton candy. Wow — so accurate and clever at the same time. But I digress.

I’m torn on whether the piece needs more detailed information on the prosperity gospel itself. On the one hand, I think I know what Mohler is talking about. On the other hand, I wish the Times had given him more space to explain what he means by prosperity gospel and elaborate on why he views it as a false theology.

Now, it’s your turn, GetReligion readers, to read the full story and weigh in. Is the story fair? Does it answer the relevant journalistic questions? What issues or concerns did I miss?

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://endtimestavern.com George L. Duncan

    Yes, the story was fair. Amazingly so from the New York Times. I expected a few cheap shots, but thought the reporter reported the details with sliding into sensationalism or bias.

  • Roberto

    I also thought that it was fair. Your post title suggests that “lavish” television ministries aren’t much of a story, but that says more about a certain segment of the readership than it does about the story itself, especially given the sheer extravagance described.

    I, too, would have liked more space given to Mohler so that he could explain why and in what way the Crouches are an embarrassment, especially since evangelical media, as part of its code of omerta, won’t call them and other offenders out.

  • http://www.faithradionet.com/ Justin

    The story was pretty fair, “cotton candy” notwithstanding. I know those of us who keep up on massive televangelism networks know about the excesses and prosperity gospel that infests those groups. However, it seems to be news every time it’s reported on.

    One thing I think I would have liked to see, instead of a Southern Baptist leader, would be a Pentecostal or Charismatic leader who is not a fan of TBN or its ilk. It’s not surprising that Al Mohler doesn’t care for TBN, but someone with similar theology (such as blogger Dan Edelen) who warns people to avoid them might have more weight. A recent anti-Prosperity Gospel book I’ve read was from a Charismatic from Nigeria – it carried a lot more weight than John MacArthur saying the same.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Your post title suggests that “lavish” television ministries aren’t much of a story, but that says more about a certain segment of the readership than it does about the story itself, especially given the sheer extravagance described.

    The post title meant to convey the shock that one would feel, for example, upon reading a story that a prominent politician had a mistress. It’s not the kind of news that makes you go, “Wow, I would have never suspected that.” It’s NEWS nonetheless.

    Not sure what you mean by “a certain segment of the readership,” so can’t respond without clarification.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Just saw a tweet by AP’s Rachel Zoll (@rzollAP) noting that The Associated Press reported on the Crouch family feud on March 22.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I’m torn on whether the piece needs more detailed information on the prosperity gospel itself. On the one hand, I think I know what Mohler is talking about. On the other hand, I wish the Times had given him more space to explain what he means by prosperity gospel and elaborate on why he views it as a false theology.

    I think it does. Theologically semi-astute observers do know what Mohler is talking about, but lots of people might not. For some people, a program like TBN is the public face of Christianity, and might be mistaken for orthodox Christianity by people who don’t know or don’t have much experience of it.

    I’m not saying it has to be a theological treatise; it could be done in one good paragraph. But an attempt should be made, even if all you are going to do is quote Mohler to do it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Bobby,
    I preferred this NYT story to the Associated Press report, while giving props to AP for being first out of the gate.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Agreed, Mollie.


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