far, the top evangelists, their shows, and the best estimates of their
yearly grosses rank like this:
Garner Ted Armstrong (The World Tomorrow) - $175 million
Benny Hine Ministries $175 million - $215 million
Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association - $160 million
Pat Robertson (700 Club and Christian Network) - $370.000 million
Jim Bakker (PTL Club and Network) - $51 million
Jerry Falwell (Old-Time Gospel Hour) - $146 million
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association - $140 million
Rex Humbard (Cathedral of Tomorrow) - $125 million
Jimmy Swaggart(Camp Meeting Hour) - $20 million
Robert Schuller (Hour of Power) - $116 million
James Robison (Man with a Message) - $115 million
"Rev. Ike" Eikerenkoetter (United Church) - $60-150 million
Ernest Angley (Grace Cathedral) - (secret)
Reach Deep Into Your Pocket for the Lord! -- and its Tax Free, Cha-Ching!
A young Californian, Timothy Goodwin of Long Beach, was
paralyzed in a car wreck that wasn't his fault. That was his first
tragedy. His second was religious. He later filed a fraud suit in Auglaize
County Court in Ohio, telling this pathetic story:
He was convinced by leaders of "The Way" Bible society,
a talking-in-tongues outfit, that his paralysis would be cured in a year
if he moved to the sect's headquarters in Ohio and donated large sums from
his accident settlement. He gave $210,000 -- and later paid $10,000 more
for a Cadillac for a Way leader, and $11,000 for a BMW auto for another
Way chief, and $13,000 for extraneous gifts requested by Way officials.
The healing didn't work, and Goodwin felt "took."
After he sued, The Way countersued him for slander. The
case was settled out of court in secret, and the quadriplegic moved back
to California. Goodwin's attorney, Craig Spangenberg of Cleveland, told me
that the sect refunded all of Goodwin's money on the condition that he
never discuss the matter. "He has kept his promise," Spangenberg said.
"Tim's a decent young man. He didn't want people to know he had been such
Another vein of the gold mine was worked by Bishop John
W. Barber of Alabama, a dazzler who wore white tuxedos and drove luxury
cars. He persuaded believers to buy $1,000 bonds in his Apostolic Faith
Church of God Live Forever, Inc. Oldsters paid $100 down and sent
installments to the Christian Credit Corporation of Nashville. His
operation spread over eight states and then abruptly folded, and Barber
moved to North Carolina. Lawyer Henry Haile of Nashville was appointed
U.S. receiver. Haile told me:
"It's unbelievable. He sold $1.5 million in worthless
bonds and also borrowed from 20 banks, but I can't imagine why anyone
trusted him. He testified under oath he didn't file income tax returns for
six years; yet he always had a new Lincoln and a big home."
Among Barber's victims were members of Highway Church
of Christ at Marion, S.C., who lost $57,000. Their pastor, Raymond Davis,
told me: "He sounded like an angel of the Lord, and my people thought he
was rich. He told us the bonds would be worth twice what we paid for them.
We trusted him to open us a bank account at Huntsville, and we sent our
money to it. Later I flew to Huntsville, and there wasn't a dime left."
Highway Church filed a fraud suit.
The Ernest Angley television miracle crusade, The Way
International, and the Apostolic Faith Church of God Live Forever, Inc.,
are three eddies in the much-publicized gospel flood swirling over
Old-time magical religion has become our chief cultural
phenomenon as we enter the 1980s. Celebrity evangelists in lavish hairdos
have won followings that alarm mainline churches. The Gallup Poll says 45
million Americans now consider themselves "born again," and they shell out
enough money to support a booming fundamentalist industry. Sales of gospel
books, magazines and records have soared to $1 billion a year. A million
families have removed their children from public schools and pay for them
to attend 5,000 new evangelical schools. A consortium of born-again
businessmen has joined with the Campus Crusade for Christ to raise $1
billion for the world's biggest advertising campaign to prepare everyone
for the Second Coming.
Revival tents of yesteryear are forgotten relics. Now
the action is in astrodomes and multi-million-dollar gospel television
studios. Four fundamentalist "networks" keep broadcast dishes aimed at
fixed-orbit satellites, bouncing programs over the continent 24 hours a
day. Competing evangelists buy $600 million worth of radio and television
time a year, paid for by their followers. At last count, the United States
had 1,400 all-gospel radio stations and about 30 gospel television
stations, some operated by born-again folk, some run by shrewd businessmen
who know where the money is.
The boom has political power. Coalitions are trying to
mobilize fundamentalists into the nation's strongest voter bloc to pass
"moral" laws and elect "moral" candidates. In March, Anita Bryant and
revivalist Jerry Falwell launched a "Clean Up America" drive against
pornography, abortion and homosexuals.
Other gospel big guns summoned 200,000 born-again
believers to the April "Washington for Jesus" demonstration to back
"pro-God" legislation. Evangelist Pat Robertson declared: "We have enough
votes to run the country. And when the people say, 'We've had enough,' we
are going to take over." Anti-abortion groups defeated U.S. senators Dick
Clark of Iowa and Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire, and have targeted
others for elimination. And fundamentalist uprisings against "ungodly"
textbooks have forced several school systems around the United States to
The gospel boom is under intense study by pundits.
Author Jeremy Rifkin says it's "the single most important cultural force
in American life" and might lead to fascism. Some sociologists think it's
a backlash to the radicalism of the 1960s. Some say it's a breakaway from
insipid conventional churches. Some say it's a search for security as the
economy worsens. Some say it's part of the "me generation," in which
people focus on themselves.
But one aspect has hardly been mentioned: rip-off. Part
of the billion-dollar industry is cunning fraud, or bald opportunism, or
exploitation of the superstitious, or tyrannical misuse of donated money
by weirdo leaders. In my job as newspaperman and religion writer, I've
covered the territory for 20 years and watched it grow.
While the born-again bandwagon gathered momentum
through the 1970s, gospel scams and abuses surfaced with increasing
frequency. In the past two years, they've become an epidemic. For
-- Dapper Oklahoma evangelist James Roy Whitby was
known in the gospel world for saving Anita Bryant when she was a Tulsa
schoolgirl. In 1978 he was convicted of swindling an 83-year-old religious
widow out of $25,000. In 1979 he was charged with selling $4 million in
worthless Gospel Outreach bonds. Accused with him the second time were
three convicted swindlers, including the Rev. Tillman Sherron Jackson of
Los Angeles, who had previously bilked the born-again in the Baptist
Foundation of America -- a $26 million fraud that caused a congressional
probe in 1973. In the widow case, Whitby's appeals ran out in 1980, and
he's in prison. The Gospel Outreach case ended in acquittals, but U.S.
attorney John Osgood took it philosophically. "Their kind usually show up
again," he told me.
-- America's all-time champion evangelist was Garner
Ted Armstrong, whose national broadcasts drew $75 million a year to the
Worldwide Church of God run by Garner and his father, Herbert W.
Armstrong. (That's double the amount collected by Billy Graham.) Money
poured in from followers, many of whom met in secret groups and donated 30
percent of their incomes. Garner lived like a maharaja in a California
mansion with his own private jet, elegant sports cars -- and, allegedly,
female believers in bed. Trouble hit in 1976 when some members published a
protest. They accused Garner of sex and Herbert of self-enrichment. Chess
champion Bobby Fischer said the elder Armstrong had used "mind control" to
take nearly $100,000 from him. In 1978 the father fired the son, who
started a new television religion.
In 1979 the California attorney general filed a
receivership suit accusing Herbert and treasurer Stanley Rader of
"pilfering" at least $1 million a year for themselves. Gold bullion owned
by the sect was reported missing. Financial records indicated that Herbert
and Rader each got salaries of $200,000 plus fabulous expense accounts.
Garner accused Rader of taking $700,000 from the church in one year.
Garner's sister said Rader had three homes, a horse stable, a Maserati, a
Mercedes and a limousine. On June 2 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the
attorney general's right to investigate the church. Meanwhile, little is
left of perhaps $1 billion of believers' money that was squandered over
-- Handsome, tuxedo-clad, faith healer LeRoy Jenkins of
South Carolina grossed $3 million a year by selling miracle water and
prayer cloths and healing T-shirts to believers who watched him on 67
television stations. He made an emergency appeal for $300,000 to pay
church debts and then bought himself a $250,000 home two weeks later. He
heavily insured a vacant cathedral just before it was hit by a mysterious
In 1979 Jenkins was sentenced to a 12-year prison term
for conspiring to (1) burn the home of a state trooper who had given his
daughter a speeding ticket, (2) burn the home of a creditor, and (3) mug a
newspaperman who had exposed his money abuses and drug arrests. Evidence
came from a police undercover agent in the evangelist's staff. (The
reporter, Rick Ricks, told me that police had warned him in advance he was
to be "set up" by an anonymous telephone offer of information; so when the
call came, he didn't go to meet the informant.) After Jenkins entered a
South Carolina state prison, his staff distributed rerun tapes of his
"Revival of America" show. For several months in 1979, the preacher still
looked out of television screens around the United States and begged "love
offerings," although he actually was in a cell.
-- The Justice Department filed suit in March to force
the PTL ("Praise the Lord") Club of Charlotte, N.C., to open its books on
$51 million it grossed last year. The suit said the FCC wants to know
whether the gospel television show broadcast "fraudulent and misleading"
appeals by begging money for overseas missions but spending it on
overhead. During a 1978 crisis, PTL leader Jim Bakker announced that he
and his singer wife were "giving every penny of our life savings to PTL,"
but they soon bought a $24,000 houseboat, and their salaries and benefits
rose to $90,000 a year. Because of PTL's enormous cash intake, a Charlotte
radio station mockingly advertised a "Pass the Loot" Club.
(PTL attracts all varieties of fundamentalists because
the show's superslick production conveys clean-cut, happy, old-time faith.
But I spent a week at PTL's $20 million national headquarters last year
and saw bizarreness not revealed on-camera. A worship leader gave
incantations to "bind demons" and bind a "prince" devil in charge of
Charlotte. She also sang in the unknown tongue and distributed written
incantations to exorcise demons through miracle anointing oil. A
distraught young man leaped down a stairway beside me, yelling "I'm Jesus
-- The Rev. Hakeem Abdul Rasheed (alias Clifford Jones)
and a young woman aide were convicted of mail fraud in California in
February 1980. They had operated a $20-million-a-year church in an Oakland
movie theater. Members who donated $500 became "ministers of increase."
Then, periodically, the pastor called them forward to receive $2,000
"increases from God," while the congregation cheered. Bigger gifts drew
bigger returns. Spreading excitement caused joiners to donate as much as
$30,000 each. The church collected up to $350,000 a night. Rasheed-Jones
had ankle-length mink coats, diamonds, a $100,000 Rolls-Royce, and a
million-dollar yacht. His downfall came after he reported to police that
four armed robbers took more than $300,000 from him aboard his 100-foot
boat, and detectives began wondering why a minister had so much money. It
turned out that his church was a "Ponzi scheme," using new donations to
pay former donors.
-- The Rev. Robert Carr of Durham, N.C., was sentenced
to 10 years in prison in April for taking paychecks, food stamps, and
welfare checks from members of his Church of God and True Holiness. He and
other church leaders kept believers like slaves in a dormitory, forced
them to work in a poultry plant, and pocketed their earnings. Carr's
daughter and son-in-law also got prison terms, and a fourth church
official is a fugitive. U.S. attorney H.M. Michaux Jr., told me that Carr
was arrested by state police, but the case was turned over to him for
prosecution under a federal slavery law.
-- Bethesda Christian Center at Wenatchee, Wash. -- a
gospel church, radio station, school, magazine publishing house, college,
and gasoline station -- was jolted in January 1980, when more than $1
million was reported missing and administrator James Eyre was jailed on
embezzlement charges. About $340,000 that members lent to the church has
vanished, authorities said. So has nearly $1 million that members put into
deals such as diamond investments.
-- American Consumer Inc. was indicted on 1,000 counts
of mail fraud for selling the "Cross of Lourdes" at $15.95 each, falsely
claiming that the crosses had been dipped in France's miracle pool and
blessed by the pope in Rome. The company was fined $25,000 in 1979 in U.S.
District Court at Philadelphia and ordered to refund $103,000 to buyers.
-- Frost Brothers Gospel Quartet of Columbus, Ohio,
launched Consumer Companies of America, a 20-state chain. Born-again
families who paid $534 for orders of merchandise were entitled to enlist
others and collect commissions on their orders. When enough were signed
up, CCA was to build discount stores and give each member a share of the
earnings. Evangelist Bob Harrington, "the chaplain of Bourbon Street,"
boosted the plan, saying, "God wants his people to succeed... and I thank
God I'm identified with CCA." (I interviewed several CCA leaders --
ex-gospel singers in flashy suits and high-rise hairdos.) The Frost
Brothers lived like kings. President Alvin Frost bought a $1 million
mansion. But they were convicted of stock violations, sued for fraud,
slapped with a $370,000 tax lien, and charged with running a pyramid
scheme. CCA collapsed in 1979 with losses for all.
-- The Rev. Jerry Duckett of Williamson Church of God
in West Virginia was indicted last February on charges of stealing $40,000
from his church's building fund. (His denominational superior swore out
the embezzlement warrant and then was chagrined when I made the theft
public.) Earlier, Duckett was fined $100 for pulling a pistol on a service
station aftendant who wouldn't put leaded gasoline into his unleaded-only
-- Before the Rev. Jim Jones went entirely nuts, his
People's Temple was a money machine. He required members to give 40
percent of their income and sign over their homes, insurance policies,
savings accounts, welfare checks, and Social Security checks. To hook the
credulous, he staged cancer cures, dramatically seizing the ill, who were
stooges in disguise, and pulling out tumors -- chicken gizzards. While his
Temple still was in San Francisco, two disillusioned members, Al and
Jeanie Mills, led defectors in leaking to New West magazine that
Jones's cures were fake and he was milking followers. After Jones moved to
Guyana -- and led 900 believers in the cyanide horror that stunned the
world -- troves of money were found. More than $7 million was discovered
in two Panama banks, $3 million was in Guyana banks, and $200,000 was in
other Caribbean banks, while $700,000 cash and $2 million in real estate
were still in California.
In 1978 Al and Jeanie Mills started a refugee center
for Jonestown survivors, amid reports that Jones had left behind a "hit
squad" to kill defectors. In 1979 the Millses published a book about the
minister's abuses. On Feb. 26, 1980, the couple and their 15-year-old
daughter were executed by being shot in the head.
-- The Rev. Roland Gray of Bethel Missionary Baptist
Church in Chicago was convicted in 1979 of theft, fraud and corspiracy. He
reported his income was only $20 a week so he could falsely collect
$43,000 in welfare checks and food stamps -- while he concealed that he
had $46,000 in cash, several luxury automobiles, expensive furs, and three
homes. He also engaged in insurance fraud, collecting $56,000 from 73
bogus insurance claims. He's serving two years in prison.
-- Marjoe Gortner, an aging boy evangelist, confessed
in 1972 that his exuberant revivals were a moneymaking fraud, carefully
rehearsed and timed to suck big offerings from the yokels. He said his
parents pocketed $3 million from his boyhood tours. To expose the racket,
Gortner made a documentary movie of himself milking congregations and
gleefully counting piles of money in motel rooms, whooping, "Thank you,
Jesus!" Gortner went on to be an actor, and fundamentalism went on
-- At the start of the 1970s, America's top
faith-healer was pugnacious A.A. Allen, who toured the land with his
miracle tent. He displayed jars of small embalmed bodies he said were
demons he had removed from the ill. Some observers said they were frogs. A
California newspaper said he should be prosecuted for running a racket.
Time magazine said he grossed $2.7 million a year plus personal "love
offerings." Allen vanished during a tour, then rejoined it at Wheeling,
W.Va., then vanished again. He was found dead in a San Francisco hotel
room, with $2,300 in his pocket. Cause of death: acute alcoholism. (Gortner
said that Allen once advised him how to know when a revival is finished
and it's time to move to the next city: "When you can turn people on their
head and shake them and no money falls out, then you know God's saying
'Move on, son.'")
-- The Rev. DeVernon LeGrand, who headed St. John's
Pentecostal Church of Our Lord in Brooklyn, recruited many teenage "nuns"
who solicited money for his church. In 1975 the pastor, age 50, was
convicted of raping one of the 17-year-old nuns. In 1976 the bodies of two
more of the girls were found in a pond at LeGrand's farm in the Catskills.
He and a son were convicted of murdering them. In 1977 the pastor was
found guilty of murdering his former wives, who died in 1963 and 1970.
He's serving life in prison.
-- Bishop Lucius Cartwright and Pastor Albert Hamrick
of St. Phillip's Pentecostal Church in Washington, D.C., were sent to jail
in 1976 for embezzling $250,000 while administering food stamp
distribution. They used the money to buy a car, an ice cream parlor, and a
-- A white revivalist, the Rev. James Eugene Ewing of
Los Angeles, acquired thousands of black followers around the United
States through an odd promise: If they sent him monthly donations, God
would bless them with Cadillacs, color televisions, Mark IV Continentals,
new homes, etc. "God's Gold Book Plan for Financial Blessings," it was
called. Those who mailed their Gold Book pledges faithfully could expect
"power to get wealth," Ewing said. His monthly newsletter was filled with
photos of pledge-payers beaming over new Eldorados or stereos. Followers
were also urged to buy "miracle billfolds" and "golden horn-of-plenty neck
charms." (An architect friend of mine sent a fake name to Ewing and
collected his mailings to pass around the office as funny-sad reading.)
The Los Angeles Times said Ewing grossed $4 million a year.
Newsweek said he spent only 1 percent of it on charitable work. Even
so, his church filed bankruptcy in 1977, and he moved to Atlanta.
-- The Children of God enlisted 5,000 teenagers to
testify for Jesus in city streets. Members were required to give the sect
all their income for life. New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz
issued a report in 1974 accusing the group's leaders of fraud, tax evasion
and bizarre forced sex.
-- Dr. Billy James Hargis was the king of the
anti-Communist preachers after the McCarthy era. He denounced socialism,
sex and satanism -- and drew millions from right-wing supporters. He lived
in a $500,000 Tulsa mansion, had a farm in the Ozarks, and enjoyed the
national spotlight. But he was ruined in 1976 when Time magazine
revealed that he sodomized male and female students at his tiny
fundamentalist college. (The truth leaked out after Hargis performed a
wedding of two students and on their honeymoon each told the other of
going to bed with their spiritual leader.)
-- The Rev. Guido John Carcich was convicted in 1978 of
embezzling $2.2 million from the Pallottine Fathers in Baltimore. The
Catholic group collected $20 million in donations to help "the starving,
sick and naked," but only 3 percent of the money reached charitable work.
Incoming contributions were handled at a secret warehouse, where Carcich
told workers to throw away prayer-request letters unless they contained
money. He was sentenced to a year of prison counseling work.
-- Flamboyant "Reverend Ike" Eikerenkoetter of New York
wears $1,000 suits, his fingers drip with diamonds, he has 16
Rolls-Royces, and he enjoys luxury homes on both coasts. From his palatial
church, a converted Broadway theater, and over 85 radio stations, he tells
a million black believers to "do what the rich do: start thinking big." He
demands "silent offerings" of paper money and chides his adoring flock:
"Be proud of the way I look, because you spend $1,000 a week to buy my
clothes." His United Church and Science of Living Institute keeps its
income secret, but it has been estimated at $6 to $15 million a year.
Ironically, victims of a gospel rip-off rarely realize
that they're victims. They usually stay devoted to their preacher, no
matter what, and view all accusations against him as tricks of the devil.
I learned that truth years ago as a cub reporter. A
faith healer named Dr. Paul Collett came to Charleston, started a radio
revival in an old movie theater, and proclaimed that cancers were dropping
onto his stage. He said he turned water into wine and might resurrect the
dead if bodies weren't embalmed. I wrote a warning article about his
multitudinous collections to "build the biggest tabernacle in West
Virginia." But his followers weren't warned. Instead, 40 of them stormed
the Charleston Gazette newsroom, looking for me. Luckily, I was
out. Dr. Collett later moved away, leaving no tabernacle or residue of the
collections. But his adherents didn't complain. They bickered over
doctrines and eventually scattered to other churches.
I learned it again in 1973 when 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. The 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.") In June, Humbard and his sons bought a
$650,000 vacation home complex, in addition to their mansions in Akron.
I learned it in 1974 when 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's out
of prison now and running as a 1980 candidate for school board in
While I mixed among crowds at the PTL Club in North
Carolina last summer, 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 recently. Julie Titchbourne, 21, of
Portland, Ore., won a $2 million verdict against the Church of Scientology
in 1979. Her suit said the church's claim that it could raise her I.Q. was
fraudulent. In February, jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo of Los Angeles sued
the church, saying leaders had embezzled $15,000 from him, kidnapped him,
and forced him to undergo a $12,000 "life repair course."
Scientology is a controversial religion started by
science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who netted millions from members
around the world. He was convicted of fraud by a French court in 1978 but
remains at liberty on his oceangoing yacht. His wife and eight of his
followers were sentenced to prison last December for conspiring to steal
U.S. documents in Washington. A grand jury at Riverside, Calif., is
investigating reports that Scientologists obtained millions through
fraudulent bank loans. (When I wrote about a West Virginia coal
millionaire who gave $110,000 and a farm headquarters to Scientology, the
church sent my newspaper a bound, indexed, 52-page "falsehood
Also, Douglas and Rita Swann of Detroit sued the
Christian Science Church last February, 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 miliions 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 beome 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 prewritten 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.
Established, mainstream denominations worry that
one-man television sects are siphoning off members and money that would
otherwise go to hometown churches. Dr. Martin Marty, a Lutheran scholar,
says the "ruffle-shirted, pink-tuxedoed pitchmen" are formidable rivals,
and "the loser is the local church." Presbyterian Survey magazine
sneers at "show-biz religion" and "TV salvation for sale" and "the
hucksterism of big-time religious broadcasting." Everett Parker,
communications chief of the United Church of Christ, says, "They are on
television to make money so they can expand their television exposure and
make more money."
Paul Stevens, retiring communications director of the
Southern Baptist Church, announced last year that he plans to start a
committee to force financial disclosure by wealthy "glamour boys of
religious broadcasting." Stevens said many Christians feel "a mass
revulsion against these charlatans.... Something has to be done. Morally
and spiritually, these people are doing wrong.... A man who collects, as
one did, $71 million in a year and, as far as we can tell, bought only $10
million worth of [broadcast] time, leaves $61 million unaccounted for."
Later Stevens told me he had to postpone his retirement and creation of
Dr. William Fore, assistant general secretary of the
National Council of Churches, told me he doesn't think all
radio-television evangelists are swindlers -- only some of them. He sent
me a paper in which he wrote that most broadcast preachers are dedicated,
but "some are in the lunatic fringe.... Some are con artists and
manipulators. And a few are just plain crooks and frauds." He said
television religion is "great show business, a great audience-grabber, a
great moneymaker.... But it's lousy religion."
Even Billy Graham remarked on a national telecast:
"Because of the great evangelical awakening in America... there are some
charlatans coming along, and the public ought to be informed about them
and warned against them." Jimmy Swaggart, an unschooled but shrewd
tongue-talker from the Louisiana backwoods, wrote in his autobiography
that he "detested the trickery" of "radio evangelists who specialized in
selling so-called miracle billfolds, prayer cloths and anointing oil over
the airwaves." Today Swaggart sells $30 "Jesus Saves" pen-and-pencil sets
on his show.
The suspicions, the talk of charlatans, arise partly
from the fact that U.S. evangelists are allowed to keep their finances as
secret as they wish. Under federal law, anything that calls itself a
church is exempt from taxes and disclosures. (Even a saint might be
tempted if he handled secret money every day. A revivalist always begs,
"Give to God," but he knows God's name isn't on the bank account; he knows
who gets to spend the money.) Michigan has passed a state law requiring
churches that solicit from the public to file financial disclosures, as
charities do. The Michigan law already has been challenged in court as a
violation of freedom of religion. Reader's Digest published an
appeal last November for a U.S. law to force disclosure of all church
money. it wouldn't harm reputable denominations, the Digest said,
but actually "would help them by exposing the spiritual con artists who
cast shadows on all religious fund-raising."
Such a disclosure bill was introduced in 1977 by
born-again Congressman Mark Hatfield and others, but it failed. In 1979,
Billy Graham and three dozen other revivalists launched a voluntary
disclosure plan. They created the Evangelical Council for Financial
Accountability, which will require members to issue public audits.
Revivalists who refuse to join presumably will be stigmatized -- if their
The Better Business Bureau, which protects consumers
from rip-offs, is doing its bit by citing evangelists who won't open their
books. The BBB lists 50 ministries as failing to meet BBB's ethical
The toughest crackdown lately, however, has been by the
Federal Communications Commission, the watchdog of the airwaves. The FCC
holds that it's against the fraud-by-wire law for a broadcaster to beg
money for one purpose and spend it for another. This legal basis is being
used in attempts to revoke licenses of some church-owned stations. FCC
Chairman Charles Ferris remarked last year:
"They are public trustees. They use a public resource, the airways, and
they have an obligation to stay within the perimeters of the law, with
respect to the use of these airways, and to serve the public. Where there
is fraud with respect to deceit, or improper use of those airways, you
know, for fraudulent purposes, our obligation to investigate that and make
recommendations as to who the proper licensee should be."
The FCC recently busted the Rev. Eugene Scott of
California, who grosses $4 million a year by marathon preaching over three
television stations owned by his Faith Center. In 1977 when the license of
one station was up for renewal, the FCC asked to see Scott's financial
records. He refused, saying the government can't pry inside a church. In
1978 the FCC cited Scott for: (1) refusal to open his books, (2) possible
fraud in fund-raising, and (3) failure to serve the public interest. On
March 17, FCC administrative judge Edward Luton ruled that Scott's
continued refusal to show records had forfeited his right to the
television license. An appeal is pending.
Also, California Attorney General George Deukmejian
demanded Faith Center's records for an investigation of possible fund
misuse. Deukmejian is moving against a few California churches under a
state law that requires him to protect donors to charity.
Scott calls the bureaucrats "monkeys" and says that he'll never open his
books. "I'm either going to beat the hell out of the FCC or beat them into
hell," he declared. His attorney, Andrew Zanger, said the attorney general
"isn't even going to get to see a voucher for toilet paper."
In 1973 the FCC defrocked a radio station operated by
anti-Communist preacher Carl McIntire on grounds that his programs against
American "subversives" were political "hate clubs" violating the fairness
doctrine. The aging McIntire, head of multi-million-dollar fundamentalist
centers in New Jersey and Florida, was sued in 1979 by a Virginia Beach
widow who says he took $100,000 from her. After the Russians invaded
Afghanistan, McIntire mailed appeals this year, saying his anti-Red career
had been "vindicated." He asked for donations of "$100,000, $25,000 -- I
am asking you to answer this letter with as large a gift as possible." He
included pre-written wills for supporters to sign, bequeathing their
estates to his ministry. (I got one because I'm on Mclntire's mailing
list, but I didn't will him my assets.) New Jersey officials said the
"mail-a-will" plan probably isn't legal.
Another federal watchdog, the IRS, tries to monitor
800,000 tax-free churches, charities, schools, foundations, hospitals,
etc. By law, money of a tax-exempt organization cannot "inure to the
benefit of" any leader. Ministers are limited to reasonable salaries,
parsonages, and legitimate expenses, according to IRS spokesman Larry
Batdorf. I asked him how Rev. Ike Eikerenkoetter can enjoy 16
Rolls-Royces, $1,000 suits, two mansions, diamonds and such luxuries.
Batdorf replied that the IRS can't discuss publicly any person's income.
"But I'm sure there are abuses," he added.
The IRS sometimes revokes the exemption of a ministry
that becomes more profit than prophet. It axed the Rev. Ralph Baney of
Kansas City after he spent funds of the Holy Land Christian Approach
Mission for a 236-acre luxury estate, a stable of Tennessee walking
horses, and a yacht in Florida. However, at the National Information
Bureau in New York, a charity data center, director M.C. VanDeWorkeen told
me that the mission had reformed under new leadership and now operates
So far, all the turmoil hasn't fazed America's gospel
boom. The evangelical bandwagon continues to roll, spanning all the way
from born-again President Carter to Manson cult killers Tex Watson and
Susan Atkins, now saved and selling paperbacks about it. And the gospel
gold mine continues to produce billion-dollar revenues, with no end in
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