How Are Televangelists Still Able To Scam People Out Of Their Hard Earned Money?

I might be the anti-televangelist.

I’m not on TV.

And I generally don’t like talking to strangers about me working in ministry.

It’s not that I’m embarrassed by it. Far from it. In everyday interactions with people I actually know, I’m more than happy to talk about it. But especially when I’m traveling or talking to somebody for the first time, I really don’t like bringing up the ministry stuff because the conversation usually takes one of 2 turns: either 1)things get really awkward and they immediately stop talking to the religious weirdo, i.e. me or 2)things get really awkward because they suddenly can’t stop talking about their faith and it’s clear that the two of us are on two very, very different theological pages.

Case in point: a fishing trip last month.

I was in Florida vacationing with family and had the chance to go fishing with my brother. Not knowing the area very well and not being in possession of a boat, we hired a local guide to take us fishing.

Our guide was great. We had a wonderful time and caught a lot of fish.

But about halfway through our trip and in the context of talking about website design of all things, I made the mistake of mentioning my background in ministry. At which point our nice relaxing fishing trip suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a full-on revival. Don’t get me wrong. I sincerely appreciated his willingness to share his testimony with us. That was a genuine privilege. It was his impromptu sermon on Christians not fully embracing the gifts of the Spirit that made things a bit awkward.

But just a bit.

It was his disclosure that he had recently sown a seed of faith in the amount of $1,000 to Jimmy Swaggart that made things really awkward.

Although, maybe awkward isn’t the right word.

Heartbreaking might be more appropriate.

I obviously know next to nothing about our fishing guide. To be honest, I can’t even remember what his name is, but what little I do know about him and the life of anyone running their own single boat fishing charter business in a small town on the Gulf Coast is enough to tell me that he didn’t have a $1,000 to throw around. In fact, he had told us earlier in the day that our trip was almost cancelled because his motor had gone out and he had to scrape together (coincidentally?) nearly $1,000 to get someone to fix it ASAP or he would have had to close up shop until the repairs were done. Which meant no fishing charters. Which meant no income for who knew how long.

His life, like the lives of so many of us, is lived pay check to pay check, scrimping and saving whatever he can just to get by.

I couldn’t help but think of our fishing guide this morning while I watched John Oliver’s masterful exposé of the continuing plague of televangelists that target and then rob in the name of Jesus countless hard working men and women around the world every single day.

If you haven’t watched it yet, please do.

It’s worth your time and I’ll still be here when you’re done.

After letting myself enjoy the possibility that maybe, just maybe that Robert Tilton “we’ve seen midgets” grow clip is from a video I posted on YouTube a couple of years ago and shouting more than one “amen” as Oliver dismantled these crooks, I kept coming back to the same question over and over again in my mind,

How are these people still around?

After years and years of exposés revealing where all of this “faith seed” money is really going, how are these televangelists still able to scam so many people out of their money?

I’m not sure there’s one easy answer to that question. If there were, maybe we could have gotten rid of them years ago.

Legally, as John Oliver points out in his clip, they aren’t doing anything wrong. They’re protected by the IRS as a religious organization and therefore can solicit donations from whoever is willing to send a check their way. (To drive home just how ridiculous this legal loophole is, Oliver decided to become a televanglist himself and designate his television studio as a church.)

I don’t know if or even how the law could be changed to prevent this sort of thing, but either way, legal loopholes are just one part of the equation that continues to allow scamgelists™ to extort money from the faithful.

More than the exploiting of legal loopholes, I think a much bigger driving force behind the success of scamgelists™ is the simple fact that desperation and need still exist in the world in profound ways.  I mean, it’s not a coincidence that it’s usually the poorest among us give the most to these sanctified scam artists. Desperation drives desperate action.

People need an income, they need jobs, they need healing, they need [fill in the blank], and, sadly, as long as there is desperate need there will always be people willing and able to exploit that need for their own financial gain.When you bring God or faith into that equation and convince the desperate faithful that divine intervention is on the way if they only do this one “simple” thing, it’s hard to say “no” when you’ve seem to have no where else to turn – and believe that God can and will do anything for you, including sending you cash.

That’s what so repugnant about the prosperity gospel.

It’s not just the fact that it stands in fundamental contradiction to the life and teaching of Jesus.

It’s utterly repugnant because it uses faith to manipulate and exploit the least of these in the name of God in order to strip them of what little they have so that those who have much can have even more.

Which is why the Church must do more to speak out against the utterly evil nature of the prosperity gospel.

Along with the legal loopholes and the desperation of those in need, I think part of the reason scamgelists™ are still able to practice their nefarious trade is the fact the Church doesn’t do more to confront, condemn, and counteract their wicked ways.

Sure, most people you and I know are quick to condemn scamgelism™ and its many high priests, but too often we too easily dismiss them without anything resembling a vigorous challenge. We laugh them off or in passing maybe brand them as heretics and then move on. For whatever reason – maybe because we’ve come believe they’ve already been exposed as frauds and aren’t as prolific as they once were – we usually don’t really give much effort into denouncing their sin and/or helping those they exploit.

But scamgelists™ are still as problematic as they’ve ever been and their prosperity gospel, you could argue, is even more prolific in its influence than ever before.

I’m sure you’ve heard that one of the few places on earth in which Christianity is actually growing is the Global South. What you may not be as familiar with is the form of Christianity that is often spreading in the Global South. Though it is not a monolithic movement, to be sure, the prosperity gospel is (understandably) fueling much of this growth and has been for some time. And who could blame people for embracing it? If you’ve got nothing and someone finally shows up promising you everything or at least something – in the name of God no less – wouldn’t you take them up on their offer?

I’m sure I probably would.

But what this means is much of the Christianity that is spreading rapidly around the world is not that different from the scamgelism™ we see on TV every day and give little thought to. Which means while most of us in the States go on with our lives confident in the knowledge that the prosperity gospel has been thoroughly debunked and its victims protected or at least their numbers dramatically minimized, in reality countless millions of people living in some of the most desperate conditions on earth are being exploited by scamgelists™ both on TV and in their homeland who promise prosperity and success and health and well-being and every dream they can imagine if their audience will just come to Jesus…and sow a monetary seed of faith.

The least of these are being preyed upon like never before, but most of us are either oblivious to their exploitation or too concerned with their conversion to care.

Which leads to the other root cause of scamgelist™ plague: bad theology.

On the surface, this one is kind of a now brainer. Obviously the prosperity gospel is bad theology.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. Or at least not exactly what I’m talking about.

Absolutely, there is bad theology at play in the formation and acceptance of the prosperity gospel. You can only arrive at the conclusion that God wants you to be rich by completely ignoring or cleverly manipulating the life and teaching of Jesus (and the rest of Scripture). Again, this seems obvious, but when you’re desperate for help, it suddenly becomes much easier to overlook bad theology.

But there’s an even more problematic theological issue at play.

Theology should shape our lives, but too often theology is the end goal. In other words, what matters most is believing the right things, the everyday things of life are a distance second in importance in light of eternity. Therefore, as long as people are getting saved, we tend to give a free pass to the people doing the saving (and their methods) by saying things like “God works in spite of…” or “Well, at least some people are getting saved.”

Absolutely, God does work in spite of people and their bad intentions, but when it comes to scamgelists, this sort of rhetoric is just a euphemism for something we don’t want to admit: we don’t really care all that much about the victims of scamgelists and their prosperity gospel.

All we really care about is the chance to add another convert to our eternal ledger.

We don’t really care about their day-to-day lives because if we did, we wouldn’t be so Machiavellian in our faith.

We would be Christian.

If we actually cared about the least of these and the lives they live, the possible end (conversion) wouldn’t be enough to justify turning a blind eye to the millions being exploiting by scamgelists™ and their prosperity gospel every single day,

If we were really Christian, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick would be every bit as important to us – as it is for Jesus – as whether or not the person we’re caring for has had a moment of intellectual assent.

And maybe therein lies the biggest reason scamgelists™ continue to be so successful.

We as a Church just aren’t doing enough to meet the needs of the people they exploit.

Think for a moment how radically different the Church of Acts was from the Church today.

The Church of Acts “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Who would bother “sowing a seed of faith” to a sleezeball on TV if all of their needs were already met? I can’t imagine there would be very many.

While the Church today certainly does a lot for those in need in our communities, the sheer volume of time and energy and money we devote to the least of these around us pales in comparison to the amount of money and energy and time we pour into building construction, worship production, and a never-ending number of ever-better programing that often does more to entertain those with much than it does to serve those in need.

So, given how radically the focus has shifted in the Church in the past 2,000 years from caring for needs to caring about right ideas and how little the level of desperation has abated for those in need over that same period, is it really any surprise that scamgelists™ are still able to peddle their prosperity gospel even though they are continually exposed as frauds?

Again, I do believe there are a multitude of factors that ultimately come together to drive people to finance private planes for sleazy televangelists.

But I can’t help but think that if we as a Church did a better job of meeting the needs of those they exploit, it would go a long way towards putting scamgelists™ out of business for good.