A great many of these television ministries adhere to [the] prosperity doctrine. ... [in] this type of theology, this little faith, prosperity theology, poverty is seen as a curse. The person who is in poverty is seen as not having enough faith, and that's why they're poor. So it fits in very nicely with Republican economic ideology in the sense that, it's up to you to become rich.
-- Sarah Posner, investigative journalist and author, God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters
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This is America, and there's money to be made everywhere we are told, even in hawking Jesus Christ as salvation for all the problems in one's life.
There's not a leading high-profile evangelist we know of, to put it succinctly, who has taken a vow of poverty. Religious institutions may be non-profit, but it doesn't mean that many of the "name brand" leaders in the Armies of Christ aren't living high off the hog. This is called the "prosperity gospel."
Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist covering the activities of conservative evangelicals. She has written for The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, The Washington Spectator, and The Gadflyer, among others.
Michelle Goldberg calls "God's Profits" "a fascinating and important investigation into the sordid nexus between religious zealotry and run-amok capitalism. Sarah Posner has given us a vivid account of a new generation of spiritual hucksters whose venality is nearly matched by their political influence. The story she tells is appalling, but the way she tells it is enormously compelling."
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BuzzFlash: We've talked with other writers who have specialized in following the fringe Christian right, including Michelle Goldberg and Esther Kaplan and Max Blumenthal -- all people who praise your book. How did you come to specialize in this area?
Sarah Posner: In college I actually did my senior thesis about the emerging Christian right. Later, when I became a journalist, it seemed like a natural area for me to cover.
BuzzFlash: I probably didn't think much about the Christian right until Pat Robertson beat George Herbert Walker Bush in the Iowa primary in '88. Has it changed, or has it just fully emerged?
Sarah Posner: I think that it's fully emerged. I don't think the ideology has changed much since Robertson burst onto the political stage. But the way that it organizes, and who the big players are -- some of that has changed.
BuzzFlash: Let's talk about your new book. It sheds a different light than a lot of the books that have come out before because it particularly focused on, as your title said, God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. Recently Senator Grassley held hearings in the Senate on whether or not many of these mega-church leaders and televangelists should have tax-exempt status, because they're really functioning as corporations. This is kind of at the heart of your book. Some are running virtual corporations now.
Sarah Posner: That's right. Grassley focused on the televangelists who preach the "prosperity gospel," who put pressure on their congregants and their viewers to "sow a seed" with their ministry so that their followers can "reap the harvest," meaning that they'll get a financial return on the investment, so to speak, with the ministry. Grassley's been pretty clear that he's not looking at doctrine or theology, and not questioning the theological underpinnings of the prosperity gospel. He is just concerned that in certain types of TV ministries, the money isn't being used for ministry purposes or tax-exempt purposes, but rather to fund lavish lifestyles -- or, in the case of Ken Copeland, for example, funding for-profit companies that benefit Copeland and his family.
BuzzFlash: Who is Ken Copeland?
Sarah Posner: Copeland is probably the preeminent purveyor of the profitability doctrine. He is a televangelist based right outside of Dallas, Texas, and he's had his TV ministry for about forty years. He is seen as the successor both to Kenneth Hagin, who was the founder of what's known as the Word of Faith Movement, and Oral Roberts, who was the brainchild behind the Seed Faith theology.
BuzzFlash: Copeland flies around in a $20 million jet, has lavishly appointed mansions and expensive cars and so forth. The son of Oral Roberts, who was in a very similar situation, was charged with using the ministry's money for personal gain. And this does not seem at all to be an uncommon occurrence.
Sarah Posner: The other thing with respect to this issue and the Grassley investigation is that because they're organized as churches, they're exempt from having to file tax returns with the IRS. Other types of nonprofits -- nonreligious nonprofits -- do have to file tax returns with the IRS. It's open to the public. Anybody can take a look at it.
BuzzFlash: We should tell the readers, the 990 also provides summaries of the top-ten executives of that nonprofit.
Sarah Posner: That's right. And it shows how much money came in, how much money went out, how much the executives made in salary and other perqs. Churches don't have to do that. A lot of churches voluntarily open their books to their congregants, just because they want to be transparent to their donors. A lot of churches belong to the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, which was formed in the wake of the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal in the 1980s to ensure greater transparency and accountability in these types of ministries. But none of these prosperity preachers either voluntarily opens their books to their congregants or belongs to the ECFA.
BuzzFlash: Well, particularly in the current Bush wing of the Republican Party, prosperity is taken as a sign that you are in the good graces of God. It's wrong to be poor.
Sarah Posner: Right. A great many of these television ministries adhere to that sort of prosperity doctrine. Something that I discuss in the book is that within this type of theology, this little faith, prosperity theology, poverty is seen as a curse. The person who is in poverty is seen as not having enough faith, and that's why they're poor. So it fits in very nicely with Republican economic ideology in the sense that, it's up to you to become rich. You have it within your power. It doesn't matter what else is going on in the world. And it doesn't matter whether the institutions or anything else standing in your way -- you have the power to have economic prosperity within you.
BuzzFlash: If you don't, and you're left behind, and don't have a job and can't get welfare because your benefits have run out, and you haven't got a job, that's a sign you're not in God's good graces.
Sarah Posner: Not only that, but that you haven't undertaken yourself to have that faith. It's your choice, really, to have that faith, to speak your financial abundance into existence. That's one of the main tenets of the little faith doctrine, that they call "positive confession," meaning that you can confess it with your tongue and call it into existence for yourself. They believe that people who have enough faith can call not only spiritual abundance, but material abundance into existence, as well.
BuzzFlash: How does this relate back to our Puritanical ancestors who came to New England?
Sarah Posner: I'm not sure that it does. This was really a product of Pentecostal revivals meeting an emerging middle-class America -- Pentecostal tent revivals in the Bible Belt where people were realizing that, hey, there is stuff that we can have. We don't have to be poor. Believers in Jesus Christ can have these things. I think it was sort of a collision between that sort of Pentecostal tent revival, where people were very much imbued with the Holy Spirit, and speaking in tongues, and that was sort of capitalistic theology. They sort of merged together, and that's what you see now in these prosperity churches.
BuzzFlash: It's the perfect Republican coming together of religion with capital wealth.
Sarah Posner: And also laissez-faire. You don't need the government to give you any social entitlements. You don't need the government to help you out of poverty. People who have enough faith will get out of poverty themselves.
BuzzFlash: Maybe we can look at different elements of the Evangelical movement. Someone like Tim LaHayis an active preacher and leader of a certain faction, but specializes in these end of times books.
Sarah Posner: Right.
BuzzFlash: Someone like James Robson, who was a fairly charismatic and was a mentor to Mike Huckabee. Then you have the dialing for dollars preachers. Sometimes they overlap. But you're talking about a specific segment of the industry, so to speak.
Sarah Posner: Yeah, it is a specific but large segment. And it was interesting that you brought up Robson, who at some point in his career, got filled with the Holy Spirit and began exhibiting more extra charismatic religious expressions, speaking in tongues and so forth. He sort of fell out of favor with some Southern Baptists who don't like speaking in tongues. There was a big dispute within the Southern Baptist Convention about that.
While a lot of these people might share the same beliefs about the end of days or, whether America is a Christian nation, or on gay marriage, or abortion, or any of those things, within the religious expression, there are a lot of distinctions and differences. There's also a lot of criticism within conservative Evangelical Christianity about whether this prosperity gospel is actually Christian. A lot of conservative Christians think that it's a hoax and heretical. So a lot of the disputes are not over the big political issues, but more about theology and church doctrine.
BuzzFlash: Where does Pat Robertson fit in?
Sarah Posner: Well, Robertson, does use a lot of the prosperity language and a lot of the prosperity preaching. I would put him in the prosperity category, too, because he's definitely charismatic and engages in things like Biblical practicing. But he's far less influential than he was twenty years ago.
BuzzFlash: So he is "less influential," perhaps as a national spokesperson, but he still has a very large business empire.
Sarah Posner: Absolutely.
BuzzFlash: Pat Robertson has the Clear Channel Broadcasting Network. What else does he have?
Sarah Posner: Well, for example, there's the Trinity Broadcasting Network. All of the televangelists in my book appear on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. People may be familiar with Paul and Jan Crouch, the couple that runs it. It also is a nonprofit, but has over $300 million in assets. They have the jets and the cars and the real estate, and, again, they have access to the airwaves. They have the ability to put all this broadcasting on the airwaves, and they're sitting on top of a lot of cash and assets.
BuzzFlash: And one might ask, what is their goal, and is money a part of it? Is it so intermingled that it is "faith prosperity"?
Sarah Posner: In their way of thinking, having that much stuff is a sign that they are faithful and that they've been rewarded. One of the arguments they make is well, you know, what are we supposed to do? Preach the gospel of poverty? They believe that God wants Christians to be rich. They take certain passages out of the Bible and prove that. Any time the word "prosper" is used in the Bible, they take that as meaning that God wants us to have this huge empire that we do have, and they believe that Jesus was wealthy. I've had followers of the prosperity gospel tell me that. They'd say, yeah, Jesus was a wealthy man.
BuzzFlash: Do they find biblical passages that justify this interpretation?
Sarah Posner: Most of the scripture that they cite is just about how God wants you to be rich. They go back to the covenant with Abraham, where God tells Abraham that He wants him and his descendants to prosper. They take that and say it must mean that God wanted us to have all of this. They go through the Old and New Testament to establish that this is the way God wanted it to be. This is the way Jesus wanted it to be. And they have many, many pieces of scripture that they cite. Their critics say they take this out of context or they're just not using hermeneutics so they take it out of context, and that's not what the translation from the original language really meant.
BuzzFlash: Well, and that's partially a crossover into the dominionist category, meaning that God gave us this creation to use to our full delight and advantage.
Sarah Posner: Certainly there are dominionists who agree with the prosperity doctrine.
BuzzFlash: I've studied the New Testament. And I'd be hard-put to find anywhere in there that Jesus could be called a wealthy person. He began by overturning the table of the money-lenders in the Temple, and then preached the gospel of mercy for those who were less fortunate. It seems rather difficult to paint him as a wealthy person.
Sarah Posner: Right. That's absolutely true.
BuzzFlash: If I recall, the word for speaking in tongues is "glossolalia."
Sarah Posner: Yes.
BuzzFlash: And I did witness it once at Oral Roberts University and it is quite remarkable.
Sarah Posner: It is. It's pretty remarkable. And when I was doing the reporting for the book, I witnessed it quite a bit. Actually I talked to a lot of charismatics who speak in tongues and don't believe in the prosperity gospel. It's just that most of the prosperity preachers are charismatic and into speaking tongues, and exhibiting what are called charismatic gifts like prophesying and so forth. I've really come to believe that it's a real religious experience that a lot of people have.
BuzzFlash: The press release promotion for your book quotes Matthew 9:24. Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. ... it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Sarah Posner: Right.
BuzzFlash: So you have a quotation like this from Matthew, where did you ever get this idea that driving around in a gold Cadillac gets you into heaven?
Sarah Posner: Well, one of the things about their scriptural interpretation is that the vast majority of them never went to seminary, never even went to college. So they don't have a background in hermeneutics, or the evaluation and translation of the Bible from the original Greek or original Hebrew, to give it its most accurate meaning, rather than taking an English translation. They may go to later translations to support their already preconceived idea how those guidelines should be reached.
BuzzFlash: Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and the Bible was written later in other languages. So there's another issue there about how literally he was recorded, since the recollections of Jesus came after his death in other languages.
Sarah Posner: Right. One of the verses in the gospel of John that the prosperity preachers point to is "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in good health, even as thy soul prospereth." So they say this must mean that God wants believers to be rich. Critics of the prosperity gospel have shown that this was basically just a standard greeting in antiquity -- that people would just say I wish that thou mayest prosper. And I hope things go well for you. It didn't mean that I really want you to be rich.
BuzzFlash: So enjoying prosperity was not to say you're running around in a $20 million Lear jet or something. It's just that you have food on the table. You have a roof over your family's head and so forth and not be sleeping out in a manger like Jesus was.
What about the followers of televangelists? Does this prosperity message give them a meaning in life that they can't find in a fast-changing, technologically baaed world? Many of them have been displaced out of jobs and so forth, and here's a doctrine that tells them, well, if they believe, they will become wealthy and be in good graces with God. If they give some money and keep this church going, it's going to help them reach their goals.
Sarah Posner: On one level, I've talked to people who have been caught up in this. Some people who used to be caught up in it say, hey, it justified my own greed. You know, if I want to have all this stuff, God wants me to have it, too. So that must make it okay. And then I've talked to people who felt very ripped off and abused by it, you know, like a woman who was making $26,000 a year and tithing the required 10% of her income to her pastor. Afterwards, she basically asked, how come he's living in this really nice house and I'm living in this teeny tiny apartment with subsidized rent and my kids sharing a room? And, you know, this particular person told me that, you know, she got very caught up in the atmosphere in the church, the way that it builds up the pastor as being anointed by God, and speaking for God, and that you shouldn't question the pastor at all. And this was a woman who was abused by her husband. She was eventually divorced.
I think that she was looking for a sense of belonging. She was looking for affirmation. She didn't go in there looking for money, but she went in there looking for friends and for family and looking for spiritual fulfillment. For a long time, she thought she had found those things. She thought she found a spiritual leader. Then when she realized what was really happening, she was obviously very disenchanted. But for someone who is missing those things in their lives, these churches really provide a kind of environment where you're taught this is your family, and God loves you, and if you give a lot of money, that means that you have a lot of faith in God, and God will have favor upon you. You won't be living under a curse anymore. So many people really are looking for that in their lives. They've been failed by the economy. They've just been failed by their community. And all of these things draw people in.
BuzzFlash: We have this religion where the New Testament is being tied into a condoning of prosperity, and government not helping anyone who hasn't attained wealth or a level of economic comfort on their own. How does that tie in to the Armageddon end times movement?
Sarah Posner: They do very much believe in the end of days, and are preparing for the end of days. They believe that when Jesus comes back, we'll have a thousand-year reign of peace and everybody will be followers of Jesus. They also use that as a fund-raising tool because they convince their followers that they need to preach the gospel to as many people as possible before the rapture happens because you want to have as many Christians around, so that people won't be "left behind." Nobody wants to be left behind when the rapture comes. So you need to give me your money so that I can go around and preach the gospel, and get as many believers as I can before the rapture happens.
BuzzFlash: So it's an investment in saving people when they're judged at the end times.
Sarah Posner: Right.
BuzzFlash: Okay. The Republican Party is kind of growing disunited and has kind of fallen into three factions -- the neocons, the corporatists and the religious right wing. The religious right wing has been backing Huckabee. Where do you see this movement going politically? What happened with Huckabee was the wing that actually controls the Republican Party, the careerists of the Republican Party, so to speak, got all upset and basically said, you people, you took it seriously? Like you're going to get power? No, no, no. You're just there to vote for us. Forget about Huckabee. He's got too many crazy ideas. You just sit back there and vote for us. So what's going to happen now that the Evangelical movement is sort of being pushed back by the establishment types in the Republican Party, the neocons and the corporatists?
Sarah Posner: I don't think they're being pushed back. I think there are several things that are simultaneously going on. Many of the power brokers within the Christian right have resisted endorsing any of the candidates. That has, in part, led to a splintering of the grassroots vote. Huckabee is getting a lot of that, but Romney was getting a piece of it, and even McCain is getting a piece of it. So it's not like the entire grassroots of the Christian right has gone for Huckabee.
A lot of the religious right leadership is concerned about Huckabee for the same reasons that worried the Club for Growth group -- his not toeing the line on tax cuts and small government, for instance,or Rush Limbaugh thinking he's soft on immigration. The leadership of the Christian right is looking for not just a candidate who could be a pastor in chief, which is basically what Huckabee could be, but is also looking for one that embodies the rest of the pieces of the Republican base. That is why Huckabee hasn't really gotten the groundswell of support after Iowa. It's not because the Christian right has fewer voters or has any less political sway in the Republican Party. Ultimately, whoever becomes the nominee, just from an accounting standpoint, will need those votes in November to make a go of it. Which is why there's been a lot of speculation that if McCain got the nomination, he might pick Huckabee as his running mate.
BuzzFlash: Sarah, a wonderful book. We recommend it to everyone. We're selling it on BuzzFlash as a premium, and we encourage people to read it to learn more about what goes on with the ministers who preach God for profit. The book is God's Profits, and we thank you again for a great book and for the interview.
Sarah Posner: Thanks so much. I appreciate it.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters by Sarah Posner, a BuzzFlash premium.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW