[This article was originally published in Penthouse, December 1980.]
Gospel fervor gleamed in 3,000 faces at the $30 million city arena at Charleston, W.Va. People around me, arms upraised, jerked in spasms as they loosed the unknown tongue: “Shend-a-la-goosh-a-ma. Dee-dee-dee-dee.” A young woman beside me leaped and squealed. Others wiped tears, swaying and rocking.
Evangelist Ernest Angley from Akron, a squat dynamo in a toupee, evoked the passion like a symphony conductor building a crescendo. He chanted faster into the transmitting microphone concealed in his elegant three-piece suit. His voice boomed from huge banks of speakers on each side of the stage:
“You’ve got to have the old-time power at this final hour. How many want to be blessed during the Ernest Angley program?” All hands rose. “Just open up to God. Say, ‘I’ll take the anointing, Lord.’ Say it: ‘Lord!’ ” The crowd shouted, “LORD!” “All of you that God has spoken to at some time, raise your hands.” Two thousand hands went up. “See, we’re not so crazy. We’re in touch with heaven. It doesn’t matter what people say, because we’re on our way to heaven. The Lord’s with us! The Lord’s with us! Come on, everyone: The Lord’s with us! The Lord’s with us!” The chant spread over the arena. Vaguely, I recalled Gott Mit Uns on Wehrmacht belt buckles.
While the fever was high, Angley launched a 40-minute collection: “Everyone say, ‘Lord, tell me what to give in this offering tonight.’ It’s good to make a covenant with God. I’d rather give my money to God than to doctors and drugstores. I know there are some here who could make a $1,000 covenant, or $500. Don’t be afraid. God will stand by you.”
He asked a show of hands by all who would make a $100 covenant. Barely a dozen hands rose. He exhorted and pleaded: “Not a penny goes to me or the singers. It all goes for TV time. Your money will reach new souls. Through TV, I preach to more people every weekend than Christ did in his whole time on earth. Isn’t that wonderful? And you’re part of it…. Don’t worry about your finances. Put it all in the hands of God.”
Then he called for $50 covenants. About 100 hands went up. “All right, everyone who can make a $25 covenant, stand up and say, ‘Lord, I love you.’ Stand up for Jesus. Stand and say, ‘I love you, Jesus’…. Now $10 covenants: Stand up and say, ‘I love Jesus. I love him. I love him. I love him’…. Now $5 covenants….”
Finally, after all had stood, the stocky preacher told the crowd to sit and write checks to insert in envelopes that had been distributed. While the people wrote, Angley’s gospel rock combo — with electric guitars, trap set, and grand piano — sang about going to heaven when the Rapture comes.
Afterward, the evangelist asked everyone to wave the filled envelopes over their heads. Then he called for a second offering of dollar bills to pay $1,000 arena rent and stagehand cost. Angley asked everyone to wave envelopes in one hand and dollars in the other. An ocean of fluttering mammon engulfed us. Ushers gathered the money in buckets and took it to a locked room under the bleachers.
The show concluded with a healing line. A mother presented her brain-damaged little boy. The preacher seized him with a shrieking “Heeeaaalllll!!!” and then chortled: “He felt that, all right.” Arthritic crones and hard-of-hearing laborers went through the line, many failing backward in a holy swoon when they were grabbed.
Angley also bestowed healing upon various cripples in wheelchairs in the front row. After the service, relatives wheeled them away.
In the arena lobby, assistants sold Angley books and magazines containing endless testimonial letters from followers saying their cancers or diabetes or rheumatism or warts had vanished at the healer’s touch. Angley’s columns say that God gave him the power to “discern spirits,” thus he can see ugly demons inside the ill. Likewise, he says, he can see an angel beside him onstage at every arena, while other angels move through crowds, plucking out demons and curing ailments.
After the show, Angley’s troupe boarded two vista-dome buses and two tractor-trailers for the next city, and the next convention arena. On weekends the evangelist returns to his home base: a garish Akron cathedral that cost his followers $2.5 million. It has imported chandeliers, Italian statues, 24-karat gold veneer on the pulpit and piano, a red-lit “fountain of blood,” and side-by-side pictures of Angley and Jesus. The cathedral is dedicated to the healer’s late wife, who died of ulcerative colitis despite his demon-extracting powers. Her tomb is under a 23-foot-high, 20-ton marble angel on the church lawn.
The day after the Charleston revival, I interviewed several people who had been healed onstage. A retired roofer with only four teeth claimed that he had been cured of hardening of the arteries, diabetes and myriad other ailments. He lapsed into the unknown tongue while telling me about it. As for a deaf-mute young man, his mother said his condition was unchanged. A plump matron mistakenly thought I worked for the Angley organization. She said her nerve and stomach trouble was improved, and “an inch-long thing that flopped in my ear is gone, praise the Lord!” She promised to begin mailing money soon. She asked if Angley’s staff would pray for “my boy Jack, who has a demon in him.” When I asked the nature of the demon, she said: “Well, Jack got sent back to prison because he couldn’t stay out of fights while he was on parole.”
That’s one glimpse into the gospel gold mine that is producing billions — billions — of dollars in America. Angley keeps his revenue tightly secret, but the scope of his national tours and 100-station telecasts indicates a gross between $10 and $20 million a year.
Here’s a look down a different shaft of the gold mine:
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 a fool.”
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 America.
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 change books.
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 instance:
— 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 the years.
— 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 explosion.
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 Christ!”)
— 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 car.
— 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 unfazed.
— 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 bank building.
— 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 Charleston.
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 correction.”)
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. So far, the top evangelists, their shows, and the best estimates of their yearly grosses rank like this:
Garner Ted Armstrong (The World Tomorrow) – $75 million
Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association – $60 million
Pat Robertson (700 Club and Christian Network) – $58 million
Jim Bakker (PTL Club and Network) – $51 million
Jerry Falwell (Old-Time Gospel Hour) – $46 million
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association – $40 million
Rex Humbard (Cathedral of Tomorrow) – $25 million
Jimmy Swaggart (Camp Meeting Hour) – $20 million
Robert Schuller (Hour of Power) – $16 million
James Robison (Man with a Message) – $15 million
“Rev. Ike” Eikerenkoetter (United Church) – $6-15 million
Ernest Angley (Grace Cathedral) – (secret)
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 his committee.
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 followers notice.
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 standards.
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 reputably.
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 sight.
“The God Biz” is copyright © 1995 by James A. Haught. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of James A. Haught. All rights reserved.