Faking It.

Faking It. November 17, 2014

The young man had a shaved-bald head and oxygen lines around his nose, and apparently was suffering a serious form of terrifyingly aggressive cancer–but the well-fed 20something was still managing to belt out Christian worship music at the top of his clearly-quite-functional lungs with absolutely no trouble.

Something wasn’t right about that image at all.

English: The healing of the paralytic : wall p...
English: The healing of the paralytic : wall painting in the baptistry of the domus ecclesiae in Dura Europos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And indeed, quite a few things weren’t. This young man, a youth pastor and son of a noted local pastor, claimed he had been battling cancer for two years. His own parents and wife believed he had cancer, as did area churches. In those two years he’d made plenty of money off the experience. He testified before thousands and thousands of Christians, preaching to them about his disease and how his god was helping him through it. He’d even written a song, “Healer,” about his experiences battling cancer–and it’d landed on a dizzyingly high spot on the Christian music charts, winning him lucrative royalties.

It would have been quite an inspirational story if it’d been even a little true.

I don’t live in Australia so a lot of the news there takes a bit to get to my neck of the woods. Even so, and even being used to liars-for-Jesus, I was downright shocked by just how egregious this whopper was.

Michael Guglielmucci, youth pastor of Planetshakers City Church, had a long history of faking ailments and injuries and then receiving miraculous divine “healing” for them–from broken bones to weirdly specific and rare forms of cancer. I’ve got a friend who was around him at the time and has mentioned a few of those injuries–“glandular fever” and burst ear drums and the like. At one time apparently he was faking a broken leg from a supposed hit-and-run driver, which got miraculously healed at a prayer service.

Apparently not a soul ever asked for proof of his claims, much less evidence he’d been healed. They just took for granted that “Pastor Mike” was telling the truth. And why shouldn’t they? Their church believed wholeheartedly in healing and never questioned anybody else’s stories. Their pastor even said during a service my friend John attended that if anybody didn’t believe in healing they should “get out.” So there’s no reason to suspect that a healing fraud would be discovered. Adding to the problem of gullibility was a serious additional one: a number of the people around the liar claimed to have gotten visions and prophecies about him that corroborated his story. This church also believes in visions and prophecies, so these supposed supernatural blessings were seen as additional marks of credibility.

I really don’t know what “Pastor Mike” expected to happen with his cancer claim. Maybe he was always expecting to pull a “miracle healing” at the end and triumphantly declare himself fully cured. I once knew a young woman who made up a pregnancy scare under similar terms, ending with a “miscarriage” to explain why she wasn’t showing at six months’ gestation. But he might even have gone into this long-con with an ending in mind.

When I look at photos of the guy during the fakery, all I can see are the big huge smiles-for-Jesus plastered on his face. When I see videos of him singing his song “Healer” in concert, I see a man who is all but basking in the attention and adulation he’s getting. Maybe he’s also wondering how much money is being tossed into all those collection baskets at his church. Indeed, “love offerings” (that’s Christianese for “give till it hurts”–a sort of monetary donation that’s over and above the 10% tithe) were taken up for him at his performances and sermons.

Once the game was finally up, the disgraced youth pastor took to the television airwaves to tell his side of the story to a clearly-skeptical journalist. Here’s the interview below; see if you can spot all the signs of a pathological liar who still hasn’t quite come to grips with what he did wrong, much less is genuinely concerned about any victims of his fraud and lies:

If you’re still kind of fresh out of Christianity, you might not see all those signs, so let me walk you through them:

* Talks about how he feels a lot, but doesn’t dwell much on those he’s hurt. I think I only heard one single sentence–a nicely-coached-sounding one at that–about those victims. Otherwise, it’s all about him. Always.

* Blames this whole scam on his addiction to pornography rather than taking responsibility for himself. He has a lot of crocodile tears for that, all right. Poor little him! He had to do something to distract people from this thing he liked that really wasn’t hurting anybody by perpetrating a scam on tens of thousands of people and lying to the faces of the people he loved most, terrifying them and hurting his own family and wife by scaring them into thinking he was dying and suffering! What else could he do, after all? Not to put too fine a point on it, but what do you suppose he blames for all the other fake injuries and illnesses he had? He doesn’t seem to understand that the glory and attention (and money) he got for lying are probably a lot more to blame for his lies.

* Talks often about his weird symptoms and tries to deflect from his long campaign of lies by suggesting that nobody ever fakes vomiting and other such symptoms (at around 5:40). Yes, actually, people do. It’s not actually that hard to force oneself to puke. Even if these symptoms were legitimate, which they may well be, everything he describes could easily be coming from simple stress if he was that upset about viewing pornography and masturbating. Dude’s a bit of a lump compared to his very high-achieving father and mother, so I wouldn’t be really surprised if he learned that faking illnesses and injuries got him attention and esteem he couldn’t achieve otherwise. Insisting that nobody ever fakes those sorts of symptoms is a mark of a fraudster–and Christians have been doing it ever since their religion got rolling. It’s just a way to artificially inflate a story’s credibility.

* Tries to make his two-year-long fraud seem like it was just a momentary lapse in judgment. But he faked phone calls, hospital visits, and tests. He somehow got oxygen tanks and lines to wear around to convince people. He had to shave his own head, for goodness’ sakes. Just imagine the elaborate network of lies and frauds he had to be able to maintain to keep all that stuff going! He even, I’m told by John who saw this stuff firsthand, got a wheelchair toward the end. He showboated himself constantly, flaunting his “disease,” and getting magically “healed” of it over and over again. Does that really seem like a guy who was hiding in the shadows in shame and trying to distract people from a porn habit?

* Constant duper’s delight smiles. Check out the little half-smirk at 2:55 after he confesses to being a hypocrite. He does that a lot. Could it be just simple self-deprecation? Or could it be he’s thinking he’s putting one over on that reporter just like he got away with lying to his family and loved ones? (Pro-tip to him: he’s not.)

The upshot: it wasn’t totally his fault… poor little fella. Don’t you feel sorry for him?

What’s truly astonishing is that so many people in his church and his dad’s took a view of “oh, well, we all sin, so what the hey” toward the whole thing. Some people sound like they were deeply hurt by these lies, but a lot of others seem ready to forgive and forget. Well, it’ll be hard to do that now that an oversight board in Australia has stripped him of all credentials, which will make it harder for him to get another church gig. My friend John doesn’t even know if he’s working now, much less if he’s working in a church capacity.

I can’t help but think how similar he sounds to people I knew in Christianity. I saw people exaggerate symptoms of diseases and injuries all the time and then say they were healed of them. Biff began his experience in Christianity with an “exorcism” and as you know lied constantly on the pulpit about stuff he’d seen and done.

I’m open to the idea of magical healing, but I’ve just never seen evidence that it happens. Hell, I’ve never seen one actual credible miracle. That said, I’ve seen more frauds and lies from religious people than I can count.

A pity Mike Guglielmucci’s god doesn’t actually heal people of addictions and injuries and diseases. If he did, then maybe there wouldn’t be quite so many stories like this out of the religion. Maybe there wouldn’t be entire blogs devoted to exposing religious fraud.

I’ve heard that his church’s culture has been blamed for creating an atmosphere where people were discouraged from thinking critically and were encouraged to just believe anything their leaders told them. But I don’t think the blame can be laid entirely at this one church’s feet. The entire culture is like that. Any time a Christian speaks up against a questionable story, accusations of “divisiveness” get trotted out and hurled at the speaker. And it sounds like this church’s culture was a lot worse than a lot of other ones; authoritarian structure and an intolerance for questions and challenges made it way too easy for “Pastor Mike” to prey upon those he wanted to deceive.

Given how unlikely it is that anybody will challenge a seriously questionable story, and given how much people reward Christian liars who can spin a good story, I’m not sure why anybody’s surprised that Christian liars turn up as often as they do. The entire religion teaches people to believe things that are unlikely–and their mythology is filled with stories of healing like that–thousands of years of magical thinking all fed to them as children.

That’s why it is important to me that when I hear questionable claims put forward, I challenge them and demand evidence for them. Nobody ever did that when I made claims as a Christian. I had to wonder where that evidence was for myself. And eventually, I did, but I’ve got to wonder what would have happened if someone had said right from the get-go: “Hey, Cas, I heard that story was an urban legend–are you sure it really happened?” or “Cas, Jack Chick makes a lot of unsubstantiated claims and buys into a lot of conspiracy theories. Is there some other source for that assertion?” Eventually I think it would have sunk in. But I had to do all that myself, and it took a lot longer as a consequence.

Meanwhile, every single Christian fraud I see is just another bit of evidence that Christian claims are simply not tenable or credible. Indeed, one of the only really good things to come out of this story is that a great many Christians have realized a few important things about their religion’s church culture:

First, that all those visions and prophecies had been flat-out wrong. That’s a big thing, folks. I know it seems small, but it’s HUGE. And we’ll talk more about why next time. For now, just know (if you’re not from a right-wing evangelical background) that it’s almost impossible to falsify a vision/prophecy. They’re supposed to be from the Christian god himself. So if suddenly one turns out to be wrong, that throws all of them into doubt.

Second, that people lie in that religion. Jesus isn’t changing anybody for the better. Bad people fish off those docks and they can be indistinguishable from the good people.

Third, that yet another healing has turned out to be a fake. How many fake healings will one of them need to see before wondering if any healings are real?

And fourth, that the reaction of quite a few Christians–in real life as online, in that Planetshaker Insider blog I’ve linked you to–is to point fingers at the people raising these concerns and questions rather than at the guy who strung them along for two years and stole their money and sympathy under false pretenses and at the church culture that made it all possible. I strongly suspect that their accusations and anger at the messengers rather than at the message’s source has been noted by more folks than just me.

In the end, we should be paying attention to these frauds. Not every cancer sufferer is lying, obviously. Quite a few aren’t. But before we donate our hard-earned money to them or go out of our way, we should be asking for evidence that suffering is occurring. In this world, there are a thousand thousand plays upon our attention and appeals for our money and time. And unfortunately, for most of us this is a zero-sum game. Every shred given to one claimant is that much that cannot be given to someone else.

If Christians refused to give money and attention to every single person making a claim that tugs at their heartstrings, then there will be a lot fewer liars tugging at their heartstrings. It’s that easy. They’ve created a system that allows predators and conjobs to thrive, and now they’re just shocked–shocked!–that there are predators and conjobs among them.

My friend John ended up losing some money he’ll likely never see back in his wallet on this conjob’s crocodile tears. I’m not sure I could be as philosophical as he is about losing that money. I admire someone who can deal with irritations so gracefully. I guess there isn’t much else one can do at this point. The good thing about a hard-won lesson is that it will be far more easily remembered in the future. How many trusting Christians like John was do you suppose there are in the religion? How many more are left? How many leave in disgust after each great disappointment? If Christians can’t figure this problem out in time, simple attrition will take care of what all the education and activism in the world couldn’t manage.

(And either way, sing along with me…)

We’re going to talk more about visions and stuff and I hope you’ll join me! See you next time.

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