RNB Roundup: Child Poverty, Televangelism, the Trinity Foundation, and J. Gordon Melton

“RNB Roundup” is a collection of clippings, snippets, links, commentary and other items that, in one way or another, relate to the topics normally covered in Religion News Blog.

Child Poverty

The book Freakonomics, by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levittt, has sold 3 million copies worldwide. To “keep the conversation going,” the New York Times established the Freakanomics blog. In a recent post, blog editor Melissa Lafsky notes:


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Dubner and Levitt have written quite a bit about parenting, both in Freakonomics and on this blog. In particular, they’ve focused on what parents can do to help produce “successful” offspring. The key, they’ve found, is this: be well-educated and successful yourself, and your children are more likely to follow suit.

But what about children from impoverished backgrounds? What steps can poor parents take to counterbalance the effects of poverty?

According to Rajeev Dehejia, an economics professor at Tufts University, one answer may be to join a church. Dehejia, along with Thomas DeLeire, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Erzo Luttmer and Josh Mitchell, from the Harvard economics department, have written a new working paper called “The Role of Religious and Social Organizations in the Lives of Disadvantaged Youth.” In it, they test the impact of religion on more than 20,000 children raised by “disadvantaged” families, as defined by factors like family income, the parents’ levels of education, and “child characteristics including parental assessments of the child.”

Their findings are summarized as follows:

Overall, we find strong evidence that youth with religiously active parents are less affected later in life by childhood disadvantage than youth whose parents did not frequently attend religious services. These buffering effects of religious organizations are most pronounced when outcomes are measured by high school graduation or non-smoking and when disadvantage is measured by family resources or maternal education, but we also find buffering effects for a number of other outcome-disadvantage pairs. We generally find much weaker buffering effects for other social organizations.

[…more at the New York Times…]

Televangelism leads to insularity

That’s the title of an insightful opinion piece by John I. Carney, city editor of the Times-Gazette (Shelbyville, Tennessee). Apparently in response to the recent events at Oral Roberts University, Carney writes:

The normal model for televangelism is that you ask your viewers for money, either directly or by selling them various books, videos and collateral products. This requires that you convince your viewers that what you are doing is unique and potentially world-changing. It requires you to convince your viewers that you are specially qualified to wield this tool. What happens at this point is that you begin tailoring your message towards the people who are most likely to give you money. You resist anything that would offend them, and in some cases you have consultants advising you on how best to cultivate them.

So, instead of changing the world, televangelism becomes the ultimate form of preaching to the choir. And it’s usually the ultimate in non-challenging preaching. If there is righteous anger, it’s directed, not at the viewers, but at some supposed external enemy — secular humanism, or depraved Hollywood, or the opposite political party. You’re not really changing the world, because your whole message is directed towards the people who are already within the circle.

Along the way, the self-aggrandizement required to beg for money becomes a tempting narcotic. You begin to believe your own publicity. If you have bought into the prosperity doctrine — an unhealthy fixation on material possessions as evidence of God’s provision and blessing — you may think that your increasing wealth is a sign of your approval in the eyes of God.
[…entire article…]

Trinity Foundation

The Trinity Foundation, led by Ole Anthony, is used to being in the news — usually in quotes regarding the shenanigans of TV preachers and their, er, ‘ministries.’ But lately independent media outlets and blogs have also turned the spotlight on the foundation and its founder.

Much of this attention follows the publication of I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult, in which author Wendy J. Duncan and her husband describe their cult-like experiences inside the group.

In going public, the Duncans have encountered some opposition and a somewhat surprising lack of interest from various parties — ranging from their local, big name newspaper (The Dallas Morning News, which does have a very good Religion News section), to Christian apologists and cult experts.

Their appears to be some relunctance to call Ole Anthony on his offbeat, and at time downright heretical, teachings — let alone on the cult-like characteristics of his foundation as recounted in both the book, and an article published in the Dallas Oberver (“The Cult of Anthony — Ole Anthony anointed himself the watchdog of America’s televangelists. But who was watching Ole Anthony?”)

Slowly but surely, however, the coverage increases — albeit largely from independent bloggers. An example is this post from the Independent Conservative, whose blog is subtitled, “Saying What Needs To Be Said:”

Nobody likes being disappointed. We don’t like hearing we’ve been misled by a false teacher. We don’t like hearing we tossed money to the service of something not of God while thinking God wanted us to do it. We appreciate the word of warning and thank the one who provides it. Which sometimes leaves us thinking that the one providing the warning can be trusted. Well it’s sort of a double disappointment when hearing that someone who helped stop the work of a pimp is running a cult. This is the case with Ole Anthony and his Trinity Foundation. While he’s called out pimps and exposed them for the benefit of us all, he’s running a cult and this can’t be ignored.
– Source: Ole Anthony (Trinity Foundation) Shades of a Cult!

Melton’s Latest

Among cult experts and Christian apologists, J. Gordon Melton is known as a cult apologist due to his enthusiastic support for all manner of cults (be they defined theologically and/or sociologically).

Generally, it appears he is good at collecting and organizing data, and poor at interpreting the data. His research occassionally looks like PR material for the groups he writes about.

While Melton claims to be a Christian minister he has also demonstrated an extremely poor grasp of Christian theology — making it possible for him to support, for instance, the Local Church — theologically considered to be a cult of Christianity.

Hence his encyclopedias are a mixed blessing. They are useful for the data they include, but you always wonder whether he left out — or misinterpreted — data that might reflect poorly on his topics.

With that ‘Buyer Beware’ in mind we note his latest work:

J. Gordon Melton is an authority on what academics call “New Religious Movements,” and his expertise shines from the pages of his book “The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena” (Visible Ink, $25). He takes on a broad range of topics: ectoplasm, the tomb of Christ, the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, Ouija boards and the Kumbh Mela festival in India. If you can’t learn an interesting bunch of facts from this book, you must already have a Ph.D. in the topic. But this is an uneven work. What’s a religious phenomenon, exactly? His introduction takes a swing at a definition but misses. But for its flaws, this is an entertaining and fascinating look at astonishing ways that people experience belief.
– Source: Jeffrey Weiss, The Dallas Morning News, via the Anchorage Daily News


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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday October 25, 2007.
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