There’s an article in the New York Times this morning that serves as an appropriate followup to my post yesterday. Because this level of deception and fraud is so vast that it makes fortunetelling seem inconsequential (hat tip to Friendly Atheist):
FORT WORTH — Onstage before thousands of believers weighed down by debt and economic insecurity, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and their all-star lineup of “prosperity gospel” preachers delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the luxurious lives they had attained by following the Word of God.
Private airplanes and boats. A motorcycle sent by an anonymous supporter. Vacations in Hawaii and cruises in Alaska. Designer handbags. A ring of emeralds and diamonds.
Because isn’t that what the Bible is all about?
But seriously, there really is no charitable interpretation of what the Copelands are doing: they are running an enormous scam that is preying on people that simply can’t afford it. They’re parading their own wealth in front of the very people that provided that wealth for them — in order to inspire them to make further donations. This is naked exploitation:
Many in this flock do not trust banks, the news media or Washington, where the Senate Finance Committee is investigating whether the Copelands and other prosperity evangelists used donations to enrich themselves and abused their tax-exempt status. But they trust the Copelands, the movement’s current patriarch and matriarch, who seem to embody prosperity with their robust health and abundance of children and grandchildren who have followed them into the ministry.
“If God did it for them, he will do it for us,” said Edwige Ndoudi, who traveled with her husband and three children from Canada for the Southwest Believers’ Convention this month, where the Copelands and three of their friends took turns preaching for five days, 10 hours a day at the Fort Worth Convention Center.
The Copelands certainly do embody personal prosperity: the New York Times reports that their Newark, TX based ministry has 481 employees and an annual budget around $100 million. They passed the collection buckets at least five times a day at the Fort Worth convention. Despite being under Senate investigation, they seem to be doing quite well!
But what about their followers? They’re not quite in as good a shape. The NYT reporter spoke to a few:
Stephen Biellier, a long-distance trucker from Mount Vernon, Mo., said he and his wife, Millie, came to the convention praying that this would be “the overcoming year.” They are $102,000 in debt, and the bank has cut off their credit line, Mrs. Biellier said.
And even though they are so deep in debt, it turns out that they have given thousands of dollars to the Copelands over the years:
The Bielliers were at the convention a few years ago when a supporter made a pitch for people to join an “Elite CX Team” to raise money to buy the ministry a Citation X airplane. (Mr. Copeland is an airplane aficionado who got his start in ministry as a pilot for Oral Roberts.) At that moment, Mrs. Biellier said she heard the voice of the Holy Spirit telling her, “You were born to support this man.”
She gave $2,000 for the plane, and recently sent $1,800 for the team’s latest project: buying high-definition television equipment to upgrade the ministry’s international broadcasts.
Let’s get this straight: They are now into six figure debt but still have given thousands to the ministry in recent years to buy a private plane and high definition broadcasting equipment!
That offends me to my very core as a human being. These people may be gullible, but that still doesn’t justify their exploitation by the Copelands. After all, faith is still very strongly built into American society. Even though the United States is now trending more secular than in the recent past, most people are still raised in households where they are taught that religious belief must ultimately hinge on faith rather than critical thinking. Indeed, I think that many believers and nonbelievers alike would agree that faith and critical thinking have many incompatibilities. The nature of God is supposed to be ineffable, right?
When you couple that with the fact that religions are interpreted here on earth by other human beings (emissaries direct from Heaven don’t actually show up at the Fort Worth Convention Center to preach, at least, as far as I know), then that is a recipe for exploitation by charismatic people acting with guile. Excessive credulity plus a pleasing message that simultaneously taps both people’s self interest and their desire to give and be charitable is toxic for the financial health of people like the Bielliers.
What’s the answer? As the NYT article mentions, the Copelands may be abusing their tax exempt status as a ministry, and if that is found to be true, then they need to be stopped. That is a short-term solution that may save some of their followers some money. But in the long term, we need to work hard to make critical thinking a centerpiece of education at all grade levels. A little healthy skepticism is the antidote to the prosperity gospel.