In America, there’s a disturbing phenomenon still at work to this day, and it’s the ultimate fusion of religion and greed. Televangelists have been around for quite a while, but they didn’t become quite as popular as they are until the 1980’s, following the establishment of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. The growth of mass media gave televangelists an effective platform to preach their conservative, doom-laden beliefs, while also presenting an extremely lucrative opportunity to extract money from gullible viewers.
Hence, televangelists became incredibly popular throughout the 1980’s, and used their power and influence to rally Christians against anything they hated (video games, Dungeons & Dragons, and heavy metal records were particularly targeted), while also urging viewers to send them money. Preachers like Robert Tilton, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker went on to make a killing on this business model, and are famous (or perhaps infamous) because of this. However, by the turn of the decade, these televangelists began to get caught up in various scandals and exposes. In 1988, Jimmy Swaggart was caught soliciting sex from prostitutes, prompting him to make a sobbing confession and resign. In the same year, Jim Bakker got convicted of fraud, and his ministry was taken over by Jerry Falwell. In the early 1990’s, Robert Tilton became the subject of numerous investigations, and was eventually sued by several people who donated to his TV ministry.
With that said and done, you’d think that televangelism was a relic of the 80’s, but unfortunately, the televangelists not only survived the various scandals, but are also thriving more than ever before. To this day, they continue to preach fundamentalist Christian doctrines such as creationism, healing through faith, the rapture, and perhaps more importantly, the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel (sometimes known as the health-and-wealth gospel or “seed faith”) teaches the idea that wealth is a sign of God’s favour, and that by donating to TV ministries, you may one day get to reap huge returns from them. Every televangelist does this, including James Payne, Creflo Dollar, Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland (and his wife), Todd Coontz, and Mike Murdock (the guy who’s in this article’s featured image).
The problem is that the prosperity gospel has no spiritual grounding whatsoever, and the very idea directly contradicts Christian theology. Think of televangelists as like the money changers in the Bible, and you might get some idea of what Jesus would think if he were around today. Of course, the prosperity gospel only benefits the televangelists who use it. They’ll ask for donations insisting that they go to a good cause, but what actually happens is that if you donate to them, you’re sending your hard-earned cash right to their wallets, and they use the money to fund lavish lifestyles.
There also appears to be a recurring pattern of preachers buying private planes. For example, Creflo Dollar launched a fundraising campaign to raise $65 million for a private plane to replace a plane that fell off a runway in London. Kenneth Copeland has a private plan that he claims is a “preaching machine”, which he uses go on leisure trips around the world. Mike Murdock apparently has two planes, which he boasted about having paid for in cash in front of his studio audience. That televangelists spend donations on a lavish lifestyle isn’t even a new thing. In the 1980’s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker spent their money on a $600,000 mansion and built a 2500-acre Christian theme park (also known as Heritage USA).
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss televangelists as little more than right-wing kooks, which they are. However, it’s not so easy once you wrap your head around the core concept of their business model. Remember, the prosperity gospel practically encourages viewers to donate to guys like Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland, and Henry Fernandez on the basis that they will one day get to harvest your tithings. Of course, it’s painfully obvious that this is a scam, and they’re taking money away from poor people, all while promising them things that they can never hope to deliver on.
With all that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that televangelists represent something horribly wrong. They get up on a soapbox preaching an obvious snake oil philosophy while leeching off of decent, hard-working people. They are obviously the poorest representation of American Christianity in a nation trying to evolve (Pat Robertson in particular now sounds like the cliché old racist grandpa), and yet they still maintain influence over the faithful, and somehow it’s completely legal for them to keep making money this way. Not only are they dated relics of a bygone culture war, but they’re also exploiting the faith of millions of Christians, and the ironic thing is that, because they use faith as a platform, they’re probably the most successful con artists who ever lived, because even if they get jailed or caught with their pants down, they always bounce back faster than most criminals. Sadly, due to how lucrative the industry is, I doubt we’ll see the last of them.