The Abuses of Televangelism
Man on a mission to root out false prophets
DALLAS — For as long as anybody can remember, spiritual con-artists have ripped off the faithful, preying on the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the desperate.
They offer miraculous cures. They promise financial windfalls. They live in oceanside mansions and fly in private jets — and pay their multi-million-dollar mortgages with nickels and dimes sent by devout Social Security recipients.
It’s the ugly side of evangelical Christianity. The government is loath to monitor the abuse because of first-amendment concerns. Many religious groups are unwilling to intervene.
But there is at least one organization that is successfully exposing spiritual chicanery — the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation.
On Saturday, I visited the Dallas headquarters of Anthony’s Trinity Foundation and learned about its work. Foundation members not only expose spiritual fraud, they also run a ministry for the homeless and publish The Wittenburg Door, which bills itself as “The World’s Pretty Much Only Religious Satire Magazine.”
Over the years, it has offended just about everybody.
“We named Beavis and Butthead ‘theologians of the decade’ and we were canceled in every Christian bookstore in the free world and we still are,” Anthony told me.
The Door was likely the first publication in the history of evangelical Christianity to publish a nude centerfold — a picture of W.V. Grant’s hairy backside which was snatched from the Pentecostal preacher’s trash can. Borrowing the Playboy format, it included Grant’s age (51 at the time) measurements (purportedly 50-inch waist) and turn-ons: “feet tickling, long sermons, chastisement followed by gentle touch.”
Dumpster raids turn up some of the most damning evidence against preachers. Anthony sifts through the trash of televangelists, their bankers and their attorneys, looking for signs of fraud or of extravagant spending.
Trinity Foundation members also go undercover, getting jobs with ministries that are suspect.
The sleuthing doesn’t earn Anthony many friends in the world of Christian broadcasting.
“Half the church world thinks I’m the anti-Christ personified,” he said.
The pipe-smoking, 67-year-old activist has a toll-free hotline. People who have been harmed by shifty spiritual advisers can call 1-800-229-VICTIM.
So far, Anthony has opened files on more than 400 preachers nationwide. He also collaborates with journalists at Primetime Live, Dateline, 60 Minutes, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the BBC.
Because Anthony is now something of a celebrity (he was written up in a lengthy and glowing New Yorker profile), his name strikes fear in the hearts of many. He’s now able, sometimes, to help victims recover their money. Preachers would rather refund the donation than have to deal with Anthony. Evangelist Robert Tilton sued the Trinity Foundation, repeatedly, without success.
Anthony says he’s been offered bribes — $100,000 a month for his ministry — if he’ll just stay quiet. “Five million dollars cash — if I’d disappear.”
But he’s not going anywhere, he says.
Anthony lives simply. In exchange for his work, he receives $55 per week, plus room and board. He resides in a quiet neighborhood in east Dallas and opens his home to those in need. It’s a commitment to hospitality that other Trinity Foundation supporters share.
“We take the homeless in, but we take them into our homes — not into a shelter,” he said. A few ended up on the streets after giving their money to TV preachers, Anthony said.
Some evangelists have concocted a spiritual pyramid scheme of sorts, promising that God will reward followers a hundred-fold or a thousand-fold for their financial gifts.
The tactics are unconscionable, Anthony says. “They say ‘Write a hot check. God will fill your checkbook. Take out a loan. God will pay your loan. Pay your tithe and offering before the baby is fed — as a show of faith.’ That’s heresy,” he said.
But he grew disillusioned with what he saw.
Now he works to protect the 5 million to 6 million people he says donate to religious broadcasters.
The investigator has no savings account, no private health insurance, no retirement plan.
“When we started, we had to live with the poor — that means in all ways,” he said.
Anthony doesn’t worry about living on the edge — financially or anywhere else.
“If there’s a safety net, there’s no faith,” he says. “You have to live on the knife edge between soul and spirit.”
Many Trinity Foundation supporters have taken a vow of poverty. They’ve formed small house churches and observe traditional Jewish holidays, such as Yom Kippur and the Feast of Tabernacle.
They meet for daily Bible studies and dine in the foundation’s dining room, a couple of doors down from Trinity Foundation headquarters on Columbia Avenue.
Suellen Short, a Floyd County transplant who lives in Dallas, found refuge here in October 2004 after she lost her job and her home. Trinity Foundation members welcomed her — and her four cats and three dogs. Today, she prepares lunches and oversees the salad bar for Trinity Foundation diners.
She remains grateful for the help she received.
“Some of where they’re coming from theology-wise I don’t understand, but they’re committed to putting their beliefs into action and they try so damn hard,” she said.
Anthony, who was briefly homeless himself in the 1970s, says Christianity is about self-sacrifice, not financial success.
Christians should be skeptical of evangelists who claim to be speaking for God — especially if they want you to write them a check, he said. Quoting an ancient Christian discipleship manual, Anthony says,
“If somebody comes to you in the name of God asking for money, shun him. He’s a false Apostle.”
If you haven’t visited Bible Belt Blogger, you haven’t seen “God’s Private Detective” — a story about a Dallas man who helps expose crooked religious leaders. Faith and Values reporter Frank Lockwood posts items seven days a week at www.spirituality.typepad.com.