By James A. Haught
Ironically, victims of a gospel rip-off rarely realize that they’re victims. They usually stay devoted to their preacher, no matter what, and view all accusations against him as tricks of the devil.
I learned that truth years ago as a cub reporter. A faith healer named Dr. Paul Collett came to Charleston, started a radio revival in an old movie theater, and proclaimed that cancers were dropping onto his stage. He said he turned water into wine and might resurrect the dead if bodies weren’t embalmed. I wrote a warning article about his multitudinous collections to “build the biggest tabernacle in West Virginia.” But his followers weren’t warned. Instead, 40 of them stormed the Charleston Gazette newsroom, looking for me. Luckily, I was out. Dr. Collett later moved away, leaving no tabernacle or residue of the collections. But his adherents didn’t complain. They bickered over doctrines and eventually scattered to other churches.
I learned it again in 1973 when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and West Virginia Securities Division issued cease-and-desist orders on $12 million worth of gospel bonds sold by TV evangelist Rex Humbard of Akron. The authorities warned that — despite his $4 million cathedral, $250,000 mansion, private jet, $10 million office tower, church-owned girdle factory, and other holdings — Humbard lacked enough assets to back up the bonds. I interviewed investors, and they said they’d gladly double the amount “because it’s an investment in souls.” Humbard begged emergency donations and reaped enough millions to lift the government freezes. (He also sold the unprofitable girdle factory because “panty hose killed us.”) Humbard and his sons bought a $650,000 vacation home complex, in addition to their mansions in Akron.
I learned it in 1974 when the Rev. Marvin Horan led an army of Charleston fundamentalists in violent protest against “atheistic” school books. Horan got three years in prison for helping to bomb elementary schools. Trial testimony said he suggested wiring dynamite caps into the gas tanks of cars in which parents were taking their children to school during a boycott. The Ku Klux Klan held a rally for the convicted preacher on the state capitol steps. His followers stuck by him. He’s out of prison now and running as a 1980 candidate for school board in Charleston.
While I mixed among crowds at the PTL Club in North Carolina, I talked to supporters of evangelist LeRoy Jenkins, who had just gone to prison across the line in South Carolina. They said cryptically: “Satan attacked his ministry.” (I don’t know whether they meant that Satan had led Jenkins into sin, or that Satan falsified the arson charges against him.)
Over the years I’ve covered only one gospel news event in which believers turned against their leader. Radio preacher Charles Meadows testified before the West Virginia legislature in support of the death penalty and ran for the Charleston school board to fight “lewd-minded” sex education. After losing the election, he started his own fundamentalist school. But his flock was stunned when he dumped his wife and departed with a gospel teacher.
Because of my job, religious folks write me letters and phone me. Some samples: (1) Bobby Cremeans said she and her husband sent $1,000 to PTL and soon were blessed with an unexpected $710 tax refund and a large profit in a land sale. “We didn’t expect anything when we gave the money to PTL — so I know PTL is of God.” (2) Zella Jarrett told me her 28-year-old son was drawn into a Milwaukee Pentecostal sect that controlled his life and took his money. “He earned $6 an hour making sink tops at Lippert Corporation, but they let him keep just enough to get to work. When we sent him checks, the group prayed and the answer always was for him to sign the money over to the church.” She said her son “finally escaped” and lives in Virginia but wants his whereabouts kept secret because he fears reprisals. (3) Jim Young told me: “The money my wife and I send for the work of the Lord far exceeds our grocery bill each month, and I am thankful for every penny.” He said he supports about 10 television evangelists including Rex Humbard, “who got 554,000 people in Brazil and Chile to accept Jesus Christ. It’s the only way we can obey the last commandment Jesus gave” to proselytize the world. (4) Rita Schott said she was “caught up for six years” in a tongue-talking church in which the preacher received such divine prophecies as “five members are going to give $5,000 each.” She told me she felt “brainwashed, unreal,” but finally broke loose from the group.
An Episcopal priest who does social work in Michigan said that poor families often tell him they send part of their welfare checks to evangelists. “We taxpayers are subsidizing it,” he said. “In the old days, people complained about the poor blowing their welfare money on whiskey — but now it’s on evangelists.”
Whistle-blowers of the sort who denounced the Armstrongs in the Worldwide Church of God or Timothy Goodwin, who sued The Way, are rare. But a few exist. More consumer lawsuits by disgruntled believers have hit the courts. Julie Titchbourne, 21, of Portland, Ore., won a $2 million verdict against the Church of Scientology in 1979. Her suit said the church’s claim that it could raise her I.Q. was fraudulent. In February, jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo of Los Angeles sued the church, saying leaders had embezzled $15,000 from him, kidnapped him, and forced him to undergo a $12,000 “life repair course.”
Scientology is a controversial religion started by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who netted millions from members around the world. He was convicted of fraud by a French court in 1978. His wife and eight of his followers were sentenced to prison for conspiring to steal U.S. documents in Washington. A grand jury at Riverside, Calif., investigated reports that Scientologists obtained millions through fraudulent bank loans. (When I wrote about a West Virginia coal millionaire who gave $110,000 and a farm headquarters to Scientology, the church sent my newspaper a bound, indexed, 52-page “falsehood correction.”)
Also, Douglas and Rita Swann of Detroit sued the Christian Science Church, saying that two church healers allowed their baby son to die. Their suit doesn’t claim malpractice (three other malpractice suits against the Christian Science Church have been lost) but accuses the two healers of failing to follow proper miracle cure procedures.
Redneck religion has always been part America — since the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, since Carry Nation smashed the saloons, since Aimee Semple McPherson was buried with a live telephone in her ornate coffin in case God resurrected her. The United States always had a fringe of scripture literalists obsessed with sin, of one-preacher denominations, of Pentecostals who spout “the tongues,” of faith healers who grab the lame, of hillbilly congregations picking up rattlesnakes, of Adventists who periodically announce the end of the world, of sex-haters who burn books and rock albums, of tabernacle-goers who “dance in the spirit” and writhe on the floor, of Bible prophecy fans who think that the Lost Tribes of Israel moved to England and became American settlers.
Why did they cease being a fringe and seize the foreground with such numbers and money? What — besides changes in the national mood — caused the billion-dollar gospel boom? Much of it was created by three electronic marvels: (1) superslick production that gives a “class” look to television shows, (2) fixed-orbit satellites that relay broadcasts all over America for pickup by stations and cable systems, (3) computerized fund-raising centers able to receive miliions of letters bearing $10 and $20 checks and to mail back machine-written responses selected by coding and disguised to appear personal.
As television’s drawing power grew apparent, a crowd of celebrity preachers took to the air, competing for listener-donors. Today more than 1,000 different gospel shows are bounced off the satellites or distributed by radio tape and videotape to stations and cables. It’s a bonanza for the broadcast industry. A typical clear-channel radio station, WWVA of Wheeling, sells $1 million worth of evening half-hours to revivalists annually. Billy Graham paid up to $25,000 per television station per hour for his prime-time crusades.
Listeners foot the bill. Most shows work like this: Watchers are invited to write for a free gift, such as a four-cent “Jesus First” lapel pin. Once a viewer’s name and address go into the computer, he gets letters urging him to beome a “faith partner” and send monthly donations. The computer keeps track of big givers and little givers — and ejects names that don’t produce after three mailings. (Some evangelists raise extra money by selling their donor lists to others.) Computers also dispatch monthly newsletters and sometimes choose prewritten replies to viewers who write about spiritual or personal problems.
The more magnetic a revivalist is, the more watcher-supporters he draws, which allows him to buy time on more stations, which draws more donors, which buys more air time, which draws more donors, etc. His operation also can expand by sale of books, records, magazines, gospel novelties, and tape cassettes. A big entrepreneur usually starts his own gospel college and creates an overseas mission. So far, the top evangelists, their shows, and the best estimates of their yearly grosses rank like this:
Garner Ted Armstrong (The World Tomorrow) – $75 million
Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association – $60 million
Pat Robertson (700 Club and Christian Network) – $58 million
Jim Bakker (PTL Club and Network) – $51 million
Jerry Falwell (Old-Time Gospel Hour) – $46 million
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association – $40 million
Rex Humbard (Cathedral of Tomorrow) – $25 million
Jimmy Swaggart (Camp Meeting Hour) – $20 million
Robert Schuller (Hour of Power) – $16 million
James Robison (Man with a Message) – $15 million
“Rev. Ike” Eikerenkoetter (United Church) – $6-15 million
Ernest Angley (Grace Cathedral) – (secret)
Established, mainstream denominations worry that one-man television sects are siphoning off members and money that would otherwise go to hometown churches. Dr. Martin Marty, a Lutheran scholar, says the “ruffle-shirted, pink-tuxedoed pitchmen” are formidable rivals, and “the loser is the local church.” Presbyterian Survey magazine sneers at “show-biz religion” and “TV salvation for sale” and “the hucksterism of big-time religious broadcasting.” Everett Parker, communications chief of the United Church of Christ, says, “They are on television to make money so they can expand their television exposure and make more money.”
Paul Stevens, retiring communications director of the Southern Baptist Church, announced last year that he plans to start a committee to force financial disclosure by wealthy “glamour boys of religious broadcasting.” Stevens said many Christians feel “a mass revulsion against these charlatans…. Something has to be done. Morally and spiritually, these people are doing wrong…. A man who collects, as one did, $71 million in a year and, as far as we can tell, bought only $10 million worth of [broadcast] time, leaves $61 million unaccounted for.” Later Stevens told me he had to postpone his retirement and creation of his committee.
Dr. William Fore, assistant general secretary of the National Council of Churches, told me he doesn’t think all radio-television evangelists are swindlers — only some of them. He sent me a paper in which he wrote that most broadcast preachers are dedicated, but “some are in the lunatic fringe…. Some are con artists and manipulators. And a few are just plain crooks and frauds.” He said television religion is “great show business, a great audience-grabber, a great moneymaker…. But it’s lousy religion.”
Even Billy Graham remarked on a national telecast: “Because of the great evangelical awakening in America… there are some charlatans coming along, and the public ought to be informed about them and warned against them.” Jimmy Swaggart, an unschooled but shrewd tongue-talker from the Louisiana backwoods, wrote in his autobiography that he “detested the trickery” of “radio evangelists who specialized in selling so-called miracle billfolds, prayer cloths and anointing oil over the airwaves.” Swaggart sold $30 “Jesus Saves” pen-and-pencil sets on his show.
The suspicions, the talk of charlatans, arise partly from the fact that U.S. evangelists are allowed to keep their finances as secret as they wish. Under federal law, anything that calls itself a church is exempt from taxes and disclosures. (Even a saint might be tempted if he handled secret money every day. A revivalist always begs, “Give to God,” but he knows God’s name isn’t on the bank account; he knows who gets to spend the money.) Michigan passed a state law requiring churches that solicit from the public to file financial disclosures, as charities do. The Michigan law was challenged in court as a violation of freedom of religion. Reader’s Digest published an appeal for a U.S. law to force disclosure of all church money. it wouldn’t harm reputable denominations, the Digest said, but actually “would help them by exposing the spiritual con artists who cast shadows on all religious fund-raising.”
Such a disclosure bill was introduced in 1977 by born-again Congressman Mark Hatfield and others, but it failed. In 1979, Billy Graham and three dozen other revivalists launched a voluntary disclosure plan. They created the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which will require members to issue public audits. Revivalists who refuse to join presumably will be stigmatized — if their followers notice.
The Better Business Bureau, which protects consumers from rip-offs, is doing its bit by citing evangelists who won’t open their books. The BBB lists 50 ministries as failing to meet BBB’s ethical standards.
The toughest crackdown, however, has been by the Federal Communications Commission, the watchdog of the airwaves. The FCC holds that it’s against the fraud-by-wire law for a broadcaster to beg money for one purpose and spend it for another. This legal basis is being used in attempts to revoke licenses of some church-owned stations. FCC Chairman Charles Ferris remarked last year: “They are public trustees. They use a public resource, the airways, and they have an obligation to stay within the perimeters of the law, with respect to the use of these airways, and to serve the public. Where there is fraud with respect to deceit, or improper use of those airways, you know, for fraudulent purposes, our obligation to investigate that and make recommendations as to who the proper licensee should be.”
The FCC busted the Rev. Eugene Scott of California, who grosses $4 million a year by marathon preaching over three television stations owned by his Faith Center. In 1977 when the license of one station was up for renewal, the FCC asked to see Scott’s financial records. He refused, saying the government can’t pry inside a church. In 1978 the FCC cited Scott for: (1) refusal to open his books, (2) possible fraud in fund-raising, and (3) failure to serve the public interest. FCC administrative judge Edward Luton ruled that Scott’s continued refusal to show records had forfeited his right to the television license.
Also, California Attorney General George Deukmejian demanded Faith Center’s records for an investigation of possible fund misuse. Deukmejian moved against a few California churches under a state law that requires him to protect donors to charity. Scott calls the bureaucrats “monkeys” and says that he’ll never open his books. “I’m either going to beat the hell out of the FCC or beat them into hell,” he declared. His attorney, Andrew Zanger, said the attorney general “isn’t even going to get to see a voucher for toilet paper.”
In 1973 the FCC defrocked a radio station operated by anti-Communist preacher Carl McIntire on grounds that his programs against American “subversives” were political “hate clubs” violating the fairness doctrine. The aging McIntire, head of multi-million-dollar fundamentalist centers in New Jersey and Florida, was sued in 1979 by a Virginia Beach widow who says he took $100,000 from her. After the Russians invaded Afghanistan, McIntire mailed appeals, saying his anti-Red career had been “vindicated.” He asked for donations of “$100,000, $25,000 — I am asking you to answer this letter with as large a gift as possible.” He included pre-written wills for supporters to sign, bequeathing their estates to his ministry. (I got one because I’m on Mclntire’s mailing list, but I didn’t will him my assets.) New Jersey officials said the “mail-a-will” plan probably isn’t legal.
The IRS tries to monitor 800,000 tax-free churches, charities, schools, foundations, hospitals, etc. By law, money of a tax-exempt organization cannot “inure to the benefit of” any leader. Ministers are limited to reasonable salaries, parsonages, and legitimate expenses, according to IRS spokesman Larry Batdorf. I asked him how Rev. Ike Eikerenkoetter can enjoy 16 Rolls-Royces, $1,000 suits, two mansions, diamonds and such luxuries. Batdorf replied that the IRS can’t discuss publicly any person’s income. “But I’m sure there are abuses,” he added.
The IRS sometimes revokes the exemption of a ministry that becomes more profit than prophet. It axed the Rev. Ralph Baney of Kansas City after he spent funds of the Holy Land Christian Approach Mission for a 236-acre luxury estate, a stable of Tennessee walking horses, and a yacht in Florida. However, at the National Information Bureau in New York, a charity data center, director M.C. VanDeWorkeen told me that the mission had reformed under new leadership and now operates reputably.
So far, all the turmoil hasn’t fazed America’s gospel boom. The evangelical bandwagon continues to roll, and the gospel gold mine continues to produce billion-dollar revenues, with no end in sight.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. This essay originally appeared in Penthouse, December 1980.)