(AP) — The message flickered into Cindy Fleenor’s living room each night: Be faithful in how you live and how you give, the television preachers said, and God will shower you with material riches.
And so the 53-year-old accountant from the Tampa, Florida, area pledged $500 a year to Joyce Meyer, the evangelist whose frank talk about recovering from childhood sexual abuse was so inspirational. She wrote checks to flamboyant faith healer Benny Hinn and a local preacher-made-good, Paula White.
Only the blessings didn’t come. Fleenor ended up borrowing money from friends and payday loan companies just to buy groceries. At first she believed the explanation given on television: Her faith wasn’t strong enough.
“I wanted to believe God wanted to do something great with me like he was doing with them,” she said. “I’m angry and bitter about it. Right now, I don’t watch anyone on TV hardly.”
All three of the groups Fleenor supported are among six major Christian television ministries under scrutiny by a senator who is asking questions about the evangelists’ lavish spending and possible abuses of their tax-exempt status.
The probe by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has brought new scrutiny to the underlying belief that brings in millions of dollars and fills churches from Atlanta to Los Angeles — the “Gospel of Prosperity,” or the notion that God wants to bless the faithful with earthly riches.
All six ministries under investigation preach the prosperity gospel to varying degrees.
Proponents call it a biblically sound message of hope. Others say it is a distortion that makes evangelists rich and preys on the vulnerable. They say it has evolved from “it’s all right to make money” to it’s all right for the pastor to drive a Bentley, live in an oceanside home and travel by private jet.
“More and more people are desperate and grasping at straws and want something that will alleviate their pain or financial crisis,” said Michael Palmer, dean of the divinity school at Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson. “It’s a growing problem.”
The modern-day prosperity movement can largely be traced back to evangelist Oral Roberts’ teachings. Roberts’ disciples have spread his theology and vocabulary (Roberts and other evangelists, such as Meyer, call their donors “partners.”) And several popular prosperity preachers, including some now under investigation, have served on the Oral Roberts University board.
Grassley is asking the ministries for financial records on salaries, spending practices, private jets and other perks. The investigation, coupled with a financial scandal at ORU that forced out Roberts’ son and heir, Richard, has some wondering whether the prosperity gospel is facing a day of reckoning.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
While few expect the movement to disappear, the scrutiny could force greater financial transparency and oversight in a movement known for secrecy.
Most scholars trace the origins of prosperity theology to E.W. Kenyon, an evangelical pastor from the first half of the 20th century.
But it wasn’t until the postwar era — and a pair of evangelists from Tulsa, Oklahoma — that “health and wealth” theology became a fixture in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin — and later, Kenneth Copeland — trained tens of thousands of evangelists with a message that resonated with an emerging middle class, said David Edwin Harrell Jr., a Roberts biographer. Copeland is among those now being investigated.
“What Oral did was develop a theology that made it OK to prosper,” Harrell said. “He let Pentecostals be faithful to the old-time truths their grandparents embraced and be part of the modern world, where they could have good jobs and make money.”
The teachings took on various names — “Name It and Claim It,” “Word of Faith,” the prosperity gospel.
Prosperity preachers say that it isn’t all about money — that God’s blessings extend to health, relationships and being well-off enough to help others.
They have Bible verses at the ready to make their case. One oft-cited verse, in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, reads: “Yet for your sakes he became poor, that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Critics acknowledge the idea that God wants to bless his followers has a Biblical basis, but say prosperity preachers take verses out of context. The prosperity crowd also fails to acknowledge Biblical accounts that show God doesn’t always reward faithful believers, Palmer said.
The Book of Job is a case study in piety unrewarded, and a chapter in the Book of Hebrews includes a litany of believers who were tortured and martyred, Palmer said.
Yet the prosperity gospel continues to draw crowds, particularly lower- and middle-income people who, critics say, have the greatest motivation and the most to lose. The prosperity message is spreading to black churches, attracting elderly people with disposable incomes, and reaching huge churches in Africa and other developing parts of the world.
One of the teaching’s attractions is that it doesn’t dwell on traditional Christian themes of heaven and hell but on answering pressing concerns of the here and now, said Brian McLaren, a liberal evangelical author and pastor.
But the prosperity gospel, McLaren said, not only preys on the hope of the vulnerable, it puts too much emphasis on individual success and happiness.
“We’ve pretty much ignored what the Bible says about systemic injustice,” he said.
The checks and balances central to Christian denominations are largely lacking in prosperity churches. One of the pastors in the Grassley probe, Bishop Eddie Long of suburban Atlanta, has written that God told him to get rid of the “ungodly governmental structure” of a deacon board.
Some ministers hold up their own wealth as evidence that the teaching works. Atlanta-area pastor Creflo Dollar, who is fighting Grassley’s inquiry, owns a Rolls Royce and multimillion-dollar homes and travels in a church-owned Learjet.
In a letter to Grassley, Dollar’s attorney calls the prosperity gospel a “deeply held religious belief” grounded in Scripture and therefore a protected religious freedom. Grassley has said his probe is not about theology.
But even some prosperity gospel critics — like the Rev. Adam Hamilton of 15,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, Missouri — say that the investigation is entering a minefield.
“How do you determine how much money a minister like this is able to make when the basic theology is that wealth is OK?” said Hamilton, an Oral Roberts graduate who later left the charismatic movement. “That gets into theological questions.”
There is evidence of change. Joyce Meyer Ministries, for one, enacted financial reforms in recent years, including making audited financial statements public.
Meyer, who has promised to cooperate fully with Grassley, issued a statement emphasizing that a prosperity gospel “that solely equates blessing with financial gain is out of balance and could damage a person’s walk with God.”