Corruption in Televangelism and Paganism in the American Church

A speech presented Sept. 23, 1994, at the Philadelphia Conference on Cults, the Occult and the Word Faith Movement

By Ole Anthony, President, Trinity Foundation Inc.

Television, for all its faults, does one thing well. It looks into the soul of a society or community and amplifies and highlights whatever is hidden there, whatever is lurking beneath the cliches and the values people give lip service to. What television has exposed at the root of our society, and especially in the American church, is paganism-- personified in the televangelists.

The same thing happened in the 1500s in Europe with a different technology-- the printing press. A grotesque form of paganism in the church was revealed by the new technology, and it led to the Reformation.

Mercenary Bankers

The Dominican monk Johann Tetzel was only one of many sent out by the Pope to sell indulgences in an attempt to raise money to rebuild St. Peter's Cathedral and pay off some debts. His message was simple: give money and your sins will be forgiven. The printing press allowed what used to be a small-time operation to go into mass production. The Pope's representatives were instructed to enter a city with a showy procession and all the pomp possible, carrying the printed papal bull explaining the new indulgences. Like the televangelists, Tetzel went overboard. His appeals were so vulgar and mercenary that everyone was appalled, not just the monk Martin Luther. There was also a sleazy bank connection, as there is with some of the televangelists we have investigated. The Fugger firm of bankers in Augsburg had its representative who accompanied Tetzel and took charge of the receipts.

Luther , who had been moving toward reform anyway, exploded with his Ninety-five Theses. The result was the Reformation, and the battles were fought largely through the new technology of printed tracts and pamphlets. Is the same thing happening with the televangelists? Many of the current word-faith televangelists are certainly Tetzel-like outrages, as were Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker before them. The church should be shocked by the televangelists' blatant parade of pagan ideas and their "gimme gospel of greed." The church should be ashamed for allowing a $2.5 billion business to prey on the elderly, the poor and the desperate and do it in the name of God. I'm calling this paganism, because if you take the cross out of Christianity, nothing is left but paganism--even if it looks like a church. And the cross is nowhere to be found in these broadcasts. Sadly, the only picture many people have of God is through these televangelists' TV circuses.

Modern tentacles

Trinity Foundation has been monitoring the activities of these "men of God" since 1973. For the first 15 years, our efforts were mostly concerned with analysis of the listening audience and its demographic makeup, the doctrinal positions of the broadcasters and the percentage of broadcast time they devoted to raising money. We found there are over 500 televangelists and about 350 religious television stations that are members of the National Religious Broadcasters Association. There are also approximately 750 radio evangelists on 1,550 religious radio stations who are NRB members. There are many more, such as Robert Schuller, Robert Tilton and Gene Scott, who are not members. Our estimate of the total number of television and radio evangelists in the United States is 2,500. We found these TV and radio evangelists are vying for a donor pool of about five million people. Fifty-five percent of these people are elderly women. Another 35 percent is made up of what we call the desperation pool. These are the poorest and neediest members of society.-- those whose child has AIDS, whose spouse has cancer, those about to be homeless, those who are experiencing the worst kinds of suffering. Some are so needy that they often send in their food stamps or their wedding rings. The remaining 10 percent are those who might be classified as upper-middle class, who want a spiritual justification for their greed.

We found that many religious broadcasters devoted almost no time to what they said they were doing-- "preaching the gospel." We helped bring to light that many city and state solicitation statutes were being broken by preachers who broadcast appeals on radio or television and then followed up with direct mail campaigns asking for money, without ever applying for or obtaining the required permits and licenses for that jurisdiction. In the 1980s the foundation further monitored those who used the airwaves and their tax-exempt privileges to bolster their own political agendas and to financially support friendly candidates. After the fall of Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, the foundation was invited to testify before a Congressional subcommittee investigating televangelist abuses.

Tragic stories

During the last few years Trinity Foundation has repeatedly been asked to help major television news teams such as PrimeTime Live, CNN, Inside Edition and A Current Affair investigate televangelists like Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, Bishop Earl Paulk, Larry Lea, W. V. Grant and others. We established a toll-free hotline for victims of televangelist abuses that has received more than 5,000 calls. But we stumbled over some of the most shocking abuses of televangelists almost by accident. In 1988 we began The Dallas Project, a program to challenge churches to meet the needs of the homeless by members taking needy people into their homes. The attendant publicity resulted in our being swamped with homeless people. We discovered that many of them had given their last dollars to one of the "word-faith" televangelists, betting on a spiritual roll of the dice to get them one last break. We also received calls from many other ministries that had become the dumping ground for the discarded fruit of the televangelists. One woman, we learned, had received an inheritance of $53,000. Over time she had sent one of the word-faith televangelists $49,000. When she fell on hard times, she came to his church and asked for help. He told her to go to a social service agency. We couldn't understand that kind of callousness from someone naming the name of God. But also, we wondered how any scripturally grounded believer could give money to these empty purveyors of cotton candy theology.

One blade of grass at a time

But we saw that Christians are no different from other people in the way we can be blinded by unexamined assumptions. It's simple, really. Individually, and as a people, the move to paganism is like a sheep nibbling a tuft of grass. It finds a hole in the fence and keeps nibbling until finally it's nibbled itself right out of the sheepfold and into unbelief. We move furiously from one tuft of activity to another, not noticing how far we have moved from the truth. In one way, the televangelists have done us a favor by showing us how far we've strayed, what's permissible, what kind of activity the church has come to tolerate. The excesses of corruption by the televangelists should cause us to closely examine ourselves.

We live like pagans, think like pagans and use the pagan view of the world to evaluate our own view. We forget that Jesus said, "that which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination unto God" (Luke 16:15). Remember, this paganism is not Satanism or some New Age religious ritual. It's the way common to the world and to natural man. My nibbling might first bring me to a place where I can legitimitize my self-interest. After all, doesn't Jesus want me to be happy and fulfilled? Jesus must want what I want. Alduous Huxley pictured this best in his novel The Devils of Loudun:

"A long religious training had not abolished or even mitigated his self-love; it had served only to provide the ego with a theological alibi. The untutored egoist merely wants what he wants. Give him a theological education, and it becomes obvious to him, it becomes axiomatic, that what he wants is what God wants."

What a contrast to the true gospel. To save one's life (or interests or desires) is to lose them, according to Jesus. "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it" (Mark 8:34,35). Paul echoed this in Philippians 3:7, "But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ."

The Isolated Self

The next tuft of grass will convince me of the salvation of the isolated self. It's become a dangerous assumption of American Christians to say, "It's just me and Jesus!" and forget about His body, His community. We obsess on "what is God's plan for my life?" Well, if I am an independent entity, then I can figure it out on my own. I don't have to listen to anybody's exhortation; I don't have to ask for help or be vulnerable; I don't have to lay down my life for my brother, daily. "Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular" (I Corinthians 12:27). That scripture is not just talking about being in the body of Christ in eternity. It is expressed in this present time and place by the community of the church. The more I separate my life from other believers, the less grace I can partake of. In essence, the believer sees himself as part of Israel, the Bride, the New Jerusalem. The pagan can only see himself alone.

By the time we've nibbled at the next tuft of grass, we've taken pain and suffering, depression and doubt out of God's hands and turned them into the enemy. We believe the pagan lie of duality, that God does only good things and any negatives in our lives come from Satan. We secretly believe that "real" Christians never have to experience any discomfort, any struggle or depression or period of doubt. But this belief robs us of the benefits of God's chastisement. And, "Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth." Receiving that chastisement rather than running from it is so important that those who don't receive it are called "bastards" (Hebrews 12:6-8). Peter reminds us to "think it not strange" concerning the fiery trial that will come upon us, to expect persecution and testing; to count it the highest joy when we do not get our way and are depressed. Because it we do not suffer with him, we will not reign with him (Romans 8:19). It is through chastisement that the seldom-seen fruits of perseverence, patience and long-suffering are developed.

Moral Absolutes

If we have come this far into the pagan field, it is an easy thing to discard moral absolutes. Oh, we have our opinions about things and our own standards that we apply on self and others. But we believe a thing is right simply because we believe it. We do not know the law, and therefore we do not understand grace. As a consequence, we are incapable of repentance. We never see ourselves as sinners, because we really don't believe in sin. We certainly don't see ourselves as the "chief of sinners" as Paul did, and therefore we can't abandon ourselves into God's mercy.

A few more steps, and we're almost out of sight of where we came from. We're blaming others for our own actions. If our child is not doing well in school, it's the teacher's fault, or the school system's. If Robert Tilton we fall on the sidewalk, we sue the city or the cement maker. More commonly, if you're depressed or feeling out of sorts, it's your wife's fault, or your boss.

Perhaps the last tuft of grass eaten before this sheep turns completely into a goat is the denial of consequences. Our conscience becomes seared as with a hot iron. Drunkenness, drug abuse, illicit sex, divorce, murder-- anything is possible. And therefore love has no foothold in our life. This tendency toward paganism that lies just beneath the surface in the Church in America is glaringly apparent in the activities of the televangelists. One reason is that there is no accountability for televangelists. They are insulated from their audiences, and many times surrounded by body guards. No one is able to compare their private lives with their preaching, to see if it matches. Sometimes their boards of directors consist only of themselves, their wife and the secretary.

Deception

Another of their hallmarks is that they lie a lot. They falsify testimonials on their broadcasts. They conceal their health problems, while preaching that to be sick reveals a lack of faith. I often wonder what Jesus or Paul would say to these men. The brazenness of these prophets of profit knows no end. One of their lawyers boasted that the U.S. Constitution gives them the "right to defraud" the public in the name of freedom of religion. But the Supreme Court covered this ground more than 50 years ago. In one of its rulings, it stated:

"Nothing we have said is intended even remotely to imply that, under the cloak of religion, persons may, with impunity, commit fraud upon the public."

This modern paganism is of the same kind that infected the church in the first century. It was spread by a heretic named Cerenthus, whose basic message was "gain is godliness." He promoted a vision of a sensual kingdom of God on earth. When this isn't realized in the lives of their followers, when they don't get what is promised, whether it's healing or prosperity, the televangelists claim that those people just didn't have enough faith.

Next, if you still complain, they tell you there is hidden sin in your life. If there's still no success, you must have a demon oppressing you. And finally, you will be diagnosed as demon possessed, and an exorcism will be prescribed.

The lives and messages of the televangelists reveal a progressively straying path toward paganism. But God has allowed them to come to prominence so the church can see the reflection of itself in them, and repent.