The end of the 1980s was a bad time for TV preachers.
One moment, men like the PTL Club’s Jim Bakker and television’s Jimmy Swaggart seemed bigger than life, supermen blessed with an uncanny ability to attract followers and money. The next instant, they were only men — fragile, flawed and the butt of barroom jokes and newspaper cartoons.
In many ways, it seemed like the beginning of the end for big-time TV religion. Look, the critics said, the emperors really do have no clothes.
But Americans, at least many of them, seem to have forgotten and forgiven. TV’s salvation shows are still here, bigger and flashier than ever, thanks to the proliferation of the internet and the continued spread of satellite and cable TV.
The names may have changed — Juanita Bynum, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, T. D. Jakes, St. Louis’ Joyce Meyer and a dozen others have replaced Bakker, Swaggart and Oral Roberts at the top of the evangelical mountain — but the message remains virtually identical.
Believe with all your heart and soul, they tell the faithful. And give, give, give until you can’t give any more.
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God, they say, loves a cheerful giver.
In the late 1980s, when the sex-and-fraud scandals boiled over into America’s living rooms, Joyce Meyer’s little radio ministry was scarcely a blip on the evangelical radar screen.
Today, Meyer heads a ministry fast approaching $100 million a year and is among a dozen or so evangelical superstars headlining a revived, and very healthy, industry.
The prosperity gospel also has been called the “name it and claim it” theology. God wants His people to prosper, evangelists like Meyer maintain. Those who follow God and give generously to his ministries can have anything, and everything, they want.
But critics, from Bible-quoting theologians to groups devoted to preserving the separation of church and state, abound. At best, they say, such a theology is a simplistic and misguided way of living. At worst, they say, it is dangerous.
Michael Scott Horton, who teaches historical theology at the Westminister Theological Seminary in Escondido, Ca., calls the message a twisted interpretation of the Bible — a “wild and wacky theology.
“Some of these people are charlatans,” Horton said. “Others are honestly dedicated to one of the most abhorrent errors in religious theology.
“ I often think of these folks as the religious equivalent to a combination of a National Enquirer ad and professional wrestling. It’s part entertainment and very large part scam.”
Sociologist William Martin of Rice University said that most people who follow TV religious leaders put so much trust in them that they want them to thrive. Martin is a professor of sociology at the university, specializing in theology.
The preachers’ wealth is “confirmation of what they are preaching,” Martin said.
Ole Anthony’s Trinity Foundation, best-known for working with the national media to uncover questionable activities involving TV evangelists, often resorts to digging through preachers’ trash to find incriminating evidence. Anthony said that most of the preachers begin with a “sincere desire to spread the faith. But the pressure of fundraising slowly moves all of them in the direction of a greed-based theology.”
Even J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma & Christian Life magazine has become alarmed at what he sees as the excesses of some TV preachers.
Grady defends the principle that if you are stingy with your money, you will lack things in life; and if you are generous, you will get things in return.
“But that doesn’t mean you can treat God like a slot machine,” Grady said in an interview.
Bakker, who spent five years in prison for defrauding Heritage USA investors, says he has had a change of heart about the prosperity gospel.
The same man who once told his PTL coworkers that “God wants you to be rich,” now says he made a tragic mistake.
“For years, I helped propagate an impostor, not a true gospel, but another gospel,” Bakker has said in his 1996 book, “I Was Wrong.”
“The prosperity message did not line up with the tenor of the Scripture,” he said. “My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray.”
While Bakker may have changed his tune, many more TV preachers are steadfast in their conviction that if you give money, you will receive it many times in return.
Meyer spends most of her three-day conferences on lessons in giving, and she is blunt when she addresses what the critics say about her seed-faith interpretation of the Bible. She says that those preachers who believe that to be godly is to be poor are the ones who have it wrong.
“Why would He (God) want all of His people poverty stricken while all of the people that aren’t living for God have everything?” Meyer said. “I think it’s old religious thinking, and I believe the devil uses it to keep people from wanting to serve God.”