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The God Biz - part 2

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More religion frauds:

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. 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".) Later, Humbard and his sons bought a $650,000 vacation-home complex, in addition to their mansions in Akron.

In 1974 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 came out of prison and ran 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 recent 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.

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 in recent years) 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 videotape 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 millions 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 pays 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 become 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 pre-written 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:

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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