A Celestial Extortionist and His Sycophants

I’ve been warning us to brace ourselves, because I knew that in the wake of the natural disasters rocking the Western world lately, there’d be Christian opportunists crawling out of the woodwork to make divine claims in relation to those disasters. Even I couldn’t have predicted the extent of that opportunism, however–though I could easily have told the Christians involved here just how badly these ploys will backfire. Meet the Disaster Opportunists of Christianity, and see how their attempts to grab power for themselves through extortion fail epically.

they'd rather a god who destroys them than no god at all
There is one thing we can say for 100% sure about this picture of Irma, and that is that there are no gods involved anywhere in it. That’s a good thing, but good luck getting Christians to realize that. (Antti Lipponen, CC.)

Prosperity Gospel.

We can trace these opportunists’ roots to Prosperity Gospel, I suspect. Prosperity Gospel is a common and popular form of Christianity that tells believers that if they obey their leaders and send them obscene amounts of money, that their god will give them tons of goodies that non-believers simply can’t obtain. The more money is sent and the more extreme the obedience shown, the more “blessings” these followers will receive.

It’s a very simplistic come-on, but it does suffer one very serious flaw: it’s completely not true. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any deity is up there doling out “blessings” to these Christians in careful accordance with their obedience to the excessive demands of greedy preachers with megalomaniacal tendencies. But it’s proven to be a very popular come-on all the same, particularly with the more wackadoodle of religious people–who are used to believing preposterous things despite reality contradicting those ideas, and who aren’t bothered when a claim turns out not to bear fruit in reality. (It’s hard to imagine a group better-groomed to become the prey of conjobs and hucksters.)

This new kind of “Good News” has infiltrated even churches that outwardly claim that they totally don’t go in for that obvious cash grab. My own church thought that someone who did well in business, for example, was “blessed” by Jesus for their obedience. We thought that someone who was healed magically got that healing because they’d been obedient.

And we subscribed to the darker side of Prosperity Gospel as well: someone who was struck by horrible luck or a serious downturn in health or finances was, well, not-blessed.

Cursed, maybe even.

Punished.

When some terrible thing struck a Christian family’s children, the parents wondered if their sin perhaps had caused it. If a Christian was terribly sick but magic healing didn’t happen, that Christian wondered if some secret sin in their heart was keeping them from “claiming their healing,” as we used to say. And they were not the only ones wondering it. It doesn’t take much for the human heart to translate “obedience = good things coming” into “bad things coming = disobedience.” Even on those occasions when we didn’t dare speak the formula aloud to those suffering, we wondered it. We always wondered it. We walked in a world full of portents and symbols and shadows of divine will expressed in secret code awaiting discovery–to an extent that even an ancient Greek would have mocked for being so superstitious.

We didn’t realize what our beliefs had turned our god into.

Some of us, perhaps, objected to the idea of making our god into a divine ATM–roll up, worship and enter tithes, receive huge dividends as “blessings.” But I don’t remember anybody laying out the real problem with prosperity gospel’s crueler cousin.

Hopefully in the wake of the disasters we face and have faced, the antics of the hucksters of this lower form of Prosperity Gospel will be laid out clearly for at least some of the Christians who buy into this bullshit.

The Lowest of the Low.

The Facebook group operated by our channel, Patheos Nonreligious, has been busy collecting my colleagues’ documenting of these grifters. For days now I’ve been following it and noticing a trend regarding the hurricanes in particular: There is a certain kind of lowest-of-the-low Christian opportunist that’s willing to ride upon the back of a natural disaster to grab attention and power.

Some of these opportunists are quick to declare that these storms represent “the last days,” which is Christianese for the end of the world. Disgraced fraud artist and huckster-for-Jesus Jim Bakker, for example, is busy telling anybody who’ll listen that we indeed are living in “the last days.” Last month he invited Matt Hagee, the son of the equally-disgraced fraud artist John Hagee (who he lauds as “a man of God,” which I mockingly concede completely), to talk about the signs of the end of the world. Unsurprisingly, Bakker’s declared that Hurricane Harvey is his god’s punishment to Houston. Yes, indeed. The storm has killed dozens of people and left many thousands of people homeless; it’s caused billions of dollars of damage across the state of Texas. That’s his god’s “judgment” — that the flooding is “from God” for the “perversion of our times.”

He means that Texas, the land forcing fundagelical ideas into schoolbooks, electing governors and other officers of government who are unabashedly fundagelical in nature and focus, allowing groups to trick their way into public schools to evangelize kids, and generally being as regressive regarding human rights as any fundagelical culture warrior could ever possibly want, is somehow not good enough for Yahweh, while California and Oregon, states that are pretty much the polar opposite of Texas in every conceivable positive way, are somehow escaping “judgment” by, well, not being in the path of hurricanes generally. The best response to such a notion is found on this site about midway down.

Another grifter preacher, Kevin Swanson, is busy telling everyone that if America bans abortion outright in the next day or two, as well as equal marriage, then his god will totally turn Hurricane Irma away from America. She’s already devastated several islands whose governments don’t support either human right, but America is his god’s special land, you see. Oh, and ignore all those hurricanes that happened before abortion and equal marriage were allowed in America. Those don’t count because Jesus reasons.

Lance Wallnau, yet another odiously-opportunistic preacher, released a video of himself intoning a magic spell–sorry, a prayer–demanding that his god turn the hurricane away from America. The language used in the video, transcribed by Hemant Mehta, is very familiar to anyone who’s ever had to tangle with a self-important, puffed-up fundagelical (hoo boy does he ever have the sonorous, ponderous, brickable expression down pat too!):

… We command that storm… in the name of Jesus, you will go off to the ocean, you will bounce off in a direction away from the coast… we don’t have to accept this destruction. And we’ll see it wobble and [sound effect] off to the ocean it goes, out into the open ocean it goes…

Kirk Cameron is busy declaring (in an airport in his video, where he was waiting to fly away from all harm with his family since he can afford that since his god has blessed him so much, you see) that the hurricane “is a spectacular display of God’s immense power.” He goes on to tell us in his misguided little impromptu sermonette that such a display is “never without reason.” He smirks as he declares that the reason of course is that people need “to respond to God in humility, awe, and repentance.” Yes. His god wanted some abasement from his ant farm, so he decided to murder a bunch of them and destroy entire islands, causing billions of dollars’ damage to homes and businesses. That’s how he rolls. Don’t ask questions. Just obey.

Christian feel-good preacher Max Lucado informs his readers that his god will totally save them from Irma, which he is “sovereign” over of course. It’s pure feel-good pablum, and offensive in the extreme considering the devastation that Irma has already caused in the Caribbean. It’s also, of course, a sign that the world is coming to an end, he declares. One wonders if he’d have had that opinion had Irma never threatened America–and if he hops onto the backs of non-American disasters in the same way. He’s not alone, of course; a number of other religious wackjobs are claiming the same thing.

Religion News Service, which is normally way better about this sort of thing, gives a good summary of all the different times in recent memory that fundagelicals have declared that a natural disaster or man-made atrocity was the will of their god, a punishment or an exhortation or a message of some kind. They hadn’t yet heard of the many shameless opportunists leaping onto Hurricane Irma, but maybe they’ll update soon. They can take some notes from the British news site The Independent, which gathers together a number of names of fundagelical preachers and talking heads who have blamed the usual culture-war scapegoats for the damage done by the storm.

These Christians all say the same things. They couch it second-hand by claiming that it’s really their god talking, but nobody’s fooled. What they are demanding is unlimited political power and a return to the days when they enjoyed a free ride on the gravy train without anybody squinting sidelong at their use of the funds. They look across their flocks of followers, and they tell those followers:

Do what I say, do what I demand, and you will be safe. Continue to defy me, continue to disobey me, and you will be punished. You will be destroyed, even killed, for this defiance.

That is the god they peddle.

That is the god they serve.

Most of all, that is the god they’ve created.

Their god is one who murders children and destroys lives out of petulant rage, who is willing to destroy both the just and the unjust to make his power known, who could save the innocent–but usually doesn’t, who cares nothing for life or property but everything for obedience shown to his chosen agents. And oh, this god just loves his Chosen People 2.0, his TRUE CHRISTIAN™ followers. They are exactly what he wants.

When someone tells you who they are, believe them.

a god that can't save children from a flood is no god i need around me
A photo of Florida’s Satellite Beach on Saturday, August 9, 2017. (Michael Seeley, CC.) I hope all of those people will be okay tomorrow.

The Divine Extortionist.

These preachers could have left well enough alone by stopping at the far-less-malevolent description of bribery regarding what they were demanding of their flocks: Give me money, and then you will (probably, hopefully, maybe) get this thing you want or need. Obey, and you will (probably, hopefully, maybe) be rewarded. Any parent who’s ever offered a kid a Jolly Rancher to behave in a grocery store understands that equation–and so do the kids who reap the benefits of that transaction. The transactional nature of Christianity, particularly fundagelicalism, is something that eludes most Christians even as they explicitly outline their purely-transactional relationship with their imaginary god (remember that one Christian who did that one Easter? fun times, fun times).

But then they carried this prosperity gospel to its logical conclusion: if obedience brings rewards, then disobedience brings penalties.

At that point, the god of love, that wishy-washy lovey-dovey bullshit, warps and shrinks down to a simple extortion demand to appease the Mad Blood God of the Desert. It rarely takes much, either, to scratch the surface of hippie Jesus with his simpering half-smile and open hand to find that ancient godling beneath, raging and roaring incoherently and beating his chest with both bruised fists.

When we behold the truth of Christianity, we rapidly realize that we’ve already got a word for someone who threatens to hurt or kill another person for disobedience.

That word is extortionist.

We use the same word for someone who demands money and power to prevent terrible events, like for someone who holds children and innocents hostage to ensure parents’ compliance.

We do not consider these people to be good guys in any sense of the word. They are enemies, villains, evil-doers. We do not negotiate with people like that. We do not consider them any kind of friend to humanity. We do not admire them or look up to them or consider them good examples for our children.

We do not stop fighting people like that, ever, even if it’s totally futile, because not to fight would be to give even an appearance of complicity to such villains’ schemes and evil desires.

There exists only one appropriate response, and that is rejection.

Christians cannot sway us with reason and evidence, because there is none that actually supports their claims. The lovey-dovey stuff isn’t working anymore for a whole host of reasons. So instead they trot out the threats because that literally is the only thing left in their toolbox. The more gruesome the threat, the more effective it is–in their world. When a Christian tells us that his or her god will destroy us for disobedience, know in your heart that once, that Christian saw that threat–or experienced it–and saw its effectiveness. We are seeing that fear on display–someone who is begging us to fear what they fear, for us to cower as they have cowered, to give in as they have given in. Only by allying ourselves with the same divine schoolyard bully that they have can we be spared, they tell us. They may sound arrogant, they may seem shockingly giddy at the idea of our destruction, but behind that bluster there’s fear. See beneath the threat for the mechanism that gave rise to it.

I feel no sympathy, however. Lots of people have been afraid and managed not to act like inhuman jackasses toward others. I pity those who are swayed by Christians’ threats. I pity as well those believers who are simply stumbling for some explanation that’ll square the circle of human suffering with an omnimax god. I understand that struggle; I’ve been there. But for the threat-issuers themselves? Oh, I wouldn’t shame myself by even writing what I would see happen to them. It ain’t civilized.

All these Christians deserve is our vehement rejection and our sustained mockery. Ten years from now, I hope we’re still shaming them for their words this week, even if they themselves lost their sense of shame years ago. I hope with all my heart that this week marks a fresh downturn in membership and credibility for the religion.

I hope that my tone conveys here. I hope I’m adequately communicating my utter and complete white-hot contempt for anybody who even whispers such a threat, who even tries to make someone afraid like that, who is so desolate of soul and dissolute of spirit, so blackened of heart and lacking in compassion, that they would ever say such terrible things to people who are already afraid of and suffering from real things that are coming their way or wreaking real havoc in their lives.

I hope that my disdain for and disgust at such Christians is crystal-clear because they will get nothing else from me right now.1

(CityofStPete, CC-ND.)
(CityofStPete, CC-ND.)

An Obvious Debasement.

I wouldn’t call myself a naive person except in jest, but the obscenity I behold in these gathered-up entries surpasses anything I ever saw in Pentecostalism.

I will clarify and expand upon that observation: I never, ever, ever beheld anything like this when I was Christian. No preacher would have dared. I think that they’d have been afraid of getting tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail for daring to suggest what these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are suggesting with their big wide Jesus Smiles2 and their earnest gazes and sonorous intonations.

But such is the debasement of Christianity in its final days that the power grabs by opportunists are growing this obscene, this monstrous, and this, well, obvious.

Yes. Obvious.

In a way I suppose we could say that Christians’ desperate efforts are a sign that the religion is indeed in its final days–that they wouldn’t have had to do this stuff if they’d felt secure in their dominance. The hippie Jesus vision that most people think of when we think of Christianity lasted as long as it did because it could. More extreme measures weren’t needed. When the nice stuff doesn’t work, only then do the really ugly parts of Christianity show themselves. We are now seeing what the very worst Christians do when the hippie Jesus lovey-dovey bullshit doesn’t work to keep people’s butts in pews and their wallets opened. It’s ugly, it’s evil, it’s horrific, it’s nonsensically nasty, but it’s simply the end-game in view. It’s their version of that thing Biff said to me once when I asked him why he thought stalking and threatening me would bring me trotting meekly back to his side: I’ve got to try something, don’t I

And people’s reactions to these Christian opportunists will be very similar to the one Biff got out of me when he said that.

I have no doubt of it, either.

At least a few people in each greedy opportunist’s flock are going to realize with a start of shock what they’ve signed onto, and that’ll be the last straw that will make them finally walk away in disgust. I know it happens because I’ve read a lot of ex-Christians’ stories and many feature such a moment of realization. Non-Christians who read about or see these opportunists in action will become even more convinced that they’re doing the right thing in staying away from the religion–making Christian salespeople’s jobs of evangelizing those people even more difficult. One of the places where Christianity fails the very hardest is during disasters and atrocities like those we’ve beheld this past month and are awaiting in the coming days. The more Christians blather to try to justify why these events are happening, the more they reveal that they really have no idea what they’re talking about–and the more they show us what their religion’s really all about.

And our patience is wearing thin with these people–and with the other Christians who disagree with them completely but somehow can’t rein them in with any number of appeals to human decency and compassion.

They’ll realize what my friend Neil Carter outlines in a recent post of his: that there are just so many problems with the idea of a god involved with the natural disasters that hit us in this world. And as time goes by, more and more of us notice those problems–because the stuff Christians say just doesn’t line up with reality. The more Christians push themselves at people and try to grab power at our expense, the more glaring that lack of reality-consensus is going to seem to us, and the harder we’re going to push those hucksters away.

What we’re seeing are the death throes of a religion. Those flailing struggles happen in the face of a coming downfall that itself is as massive and as unstoppable as a summer storm.

I’m super-mega-gonzo-pissed, but I’ll recover. Please, those who are in the path of these storms, stay safe and don’t take chances. I’ll see you on Tuesday–be there or be square!


1 In Southern parlance, I have had just about enough of their shit.

2 A while ago I began to notice that Christian extremists and hucksters have a very particular way of smiling. It’s like they’re trying to make themselves look as harmless, gormless, and guileless as they possibly can–as earnest, honest, sincere, childlike, goofy, and innocent as possible. Men get extra points for having smiles that are totally lopsided or toothy, which they think looks more boyish and thus more innocent. It’s simply not like any other kind of person’s smile. It’s as distinctively fundagelical as a Pentecostal pouf is for UPCI women. For an illustration, any Kirk Cameron picture should do, but the first time I really identified the phenomenon in the wild was a few years ago when a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ group decided to hold an extended fast to strong-arm their god into outlawing equal marriage in their state. It was sorta a hunger strike but with Jesus flavoring, though they ended up declaring that participants didn’t have to actually skip meals to join them because fundagelicals can’t stand putting themselves through actual hardships of any kind. (Weirdly, “God” turned out not to care how long they starved themselves; equal marriage happened anyway and they vanished from the scene like morning mist in the noonday sun.) And in their promo picture, they were holding up this big banner declaring their intentions, and all of them had these very weird smiles on their faces: like look at how Jesus-y they are, while they threaten to hold their breaths because same-sex couples wanted the same rights they had! I think I’d heard the phrase “big ol’ Jesus smile” before–I think JT Eberhard came up with it originally, or at least his blog is where I first saw it–but damn, it sure fit what I was seeing. And so the phrase entered my lexicon forever. And now it is yours too.

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