As a card carrying atheist, I am a little fuzzy on the teachings of the Christian church, or for that matter, any church. Like most of us who grew up in the South I went to church as a kid. Like many of us, I quit. Somehow I got the message during my early forced indoctrination at the Clinton Methodist Church that one of the attributes to which we should aspire was to help those less fortunate than yourself. We should also pay alms to the church in the form of a tithe[i]. I cannot believe that my mother was able to convince me that I should give 10% of my meager allowance to the church. My naiveté was astonishing, although I suspect not much different from many of my contemporaries.
I remember sitting through boring sermons, incoherent to a 10 year old, hymns sung off key by a congregation that never posed a threat to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, sitting on church pews that seemed to inflict their own kind of purgatory, as well as the little wooden boxes attached to the pew in front. These little boxes held the offering envelopes and cards for you to sign in as a visitor. Remember those little manila or white envelopes that asked for all sorts of personal information including your name and how much you were giving, and the two little pencils that were inserted at the sides of the holder? I guess churches used pencils without erasers so you couldn’t alter your gift at the last minute, although it is possible that they were the cheapest writing tools available.
Forgive me, I digress. Today there is a revival of an old scam first perpetrated by Oral Roberts immediately post WWII in the US. Roberts was the first to talk about a “blessing pact” with God, who returns donations “seven-fold.” A. A. Allen published The Secret to Scriptural Financial Success in 1953 and was the first to claim that faith could solve financial problems. As evidence, he claimed that God miraculously changed $1 bills into $20s so he could pay his debts. In the early 1960s, the prosperity gospel blossomed with the rise of televangelists. Reverend Ike was one of the first of these ministers to be known for his flashy style and love of material possessions. The tradition continued in grand style by Jim Bakker and Robert Tilton. Today these scam artists are ably represented by Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, Paula White, and Atlanta’s very own Creflo Dollar.
Instead of pleas for money to improve the sanctuary or support missionaries’ efforts to brainwash people in other lands, we have the Prosperity Gospel (PG). Until recently. my knowledge of PG was limited to glimpses of practitioners exhorting the teachings of the Gospel, “Thank you Jesus!” on television. The only reason I saw that much of them was that I was scrolling through channels looking for something more entertaining. Had I stopped long enough to watch and listen I would have learned how these televangelists scam their audiences/congregations into giving them money.
Why do we need more words about these ruthless, predatory practitioners of mind control? Clearly, the PG movement has caught the attention of the media in the past for its share of sex scandals, shootings, and tax evasion. Recently, a case of unparalleled profligacy has surfaced, with the tasteless and immoral appeal by Creflo Dollar for contributions to buy a $65M Gulfstream 650 jet for his use. More about that in a bit.
Creflo Dollar, along with other televangelists and leaders of megachurches, preach a gospel that if done successfully, is a guaranteed money maker for the proselytizers. In this blog I offer my interpretation of what the Prosperity Gospel is, why it is successful, who are the believers, why this scam has such appeal, the rewards of preaching PG, and finally, evidence that it works.
What Is Prosperity Theology or Prosperity Gospel?
The entire doctrine is an entrepreneurial wet dream. The message is cleverly crafted and executed to entice, cajole, and intimidate congregants into making large and repeated contributions to the Church of the Almighty Dollar, or other similar churches. The message is delivered by snake oil salesmen par excellence, and is only five easy steps:
- Congregants are told that all they have to do to be saved and ensure a spot in heaven is to verbally declare that Jesus is their Lord and died for our sins. Thank you Jesus!
- To recite the sinner’s prayer.
Heavenly Father, I recognize and admit that I am a sinner. I turn away from my sins, confess with my mouth and believe in my heart that Jesus is Lord. I believe that He lived, died, and was raised from the dead for my salvation. I receive my salvation and all of its benefits right now. Lord, thank You for saving me this day. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen!
- Bingo, you’re saved and a member of the club.
- To complete the ritual, one must be endure a water baptism.
- To submit to the leadership and teaching of the church as revealed in the Bible and interpreted by, guess who, the pastor.
The newly saved are admonished to “renew their minds.” Simply put, this means that the only true guide for behavior is the Bible. All other sources of information about life as we know it are actually the work of Satan and are designed to undermine the word of the pastor and hence, the Bible. In Dollar’s words, “Maintaining your salvation and enjoying its benefits is done by living according to God’s Word (Proverbs 3:1-4; 1 John 5:3). Make His Word the final authority by which you live. Make sure every decision you make in life is biblically based. The Word must be your foundation.”
The critical piece of PG is this final point. It sets the stage for the real million dollar sleight of hand trick, the “Name It and Claim It” hoax. Like any good charlatan, Dollar has mastered the technique of redirecting the audiences’ attention to some fakery while slipping his hand into your pocket and taking your wallet. The critical diversion is the promise that if one believes, then there is an immediate financial payoff. First, God wants every Christian to be rich, successful, healthy, and attractive. And second, a Christian receives blessings from God by “sowing seeds” of money as proof of his faith. In exchange for a 10-100 fold increase in investment, congregants eagerly hand over 10% of their earnings (tithe) to Dollar. Giving the minimum amount guarantees not only happiness but financial gain as well. You must give to get. Financial generosity toward a minister will unlock God’s blessing on relationships, material gain, debt reduction, and healing.
Dollar interprets Bible verses as a spiritual contract. God will pay back multiples (often a hundredfold) on offerings by the congregation. The underlying theme is that of empowerment allowing Believers to exercise power over their own destiny and material objects around them. The oft-cited Biblical justification for prosperity theology can be found in the Book of Malachi in the Old Testament (Malachai 3:10).
“Bring to the storehouse a full tenth of what you earn so there will be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord All-Powerful. “I will open the windows of heaven for you and pour out all the blessings you need.
If It Walks Like a Duck…
When I started reading about PG it reminded me of the history of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church recognizes indulgences as a “get out of jail free” card for temporal punishment of sins. Indulgences are valid only in the short term, for long term forgiveness come through confession. Given that there is an expiration date associated with them, it should be no surprise that these were ripe for exploitation. During the Middle Ages, indulgences were popular and by the late Middle Ages, con artists had developed an indulgence scam. Commissaries of the Church were sent into the countryside and tasked with the collection of alms for worthy church sponsored projects (e.g., temple construction, missionary work, operating expenses, etc.). Does this sound familiar? By giving alms, followers were granted pardons for their sins. Professional pardoners were quick to realize that a few forged documents certifying that indulgences had been given was a quick way to make a buck, a denier, dinero, pfennige, or penny. Call it what you will so long as it was silver.
The Pardoner’s Tale is one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written at the end of the 13th century and is a morality story about greed. The Pardoner boasts of duping his victims for his own gain. The Pardoner preaches Radix majorum est cupiditas “Greed is the root of [all] evils (Timothy 6:10). It was well known among the people that the Pardoner was out for personal gain, but he nonetheless preached against avarice and greed. The Pardoner admitted extortion of the poor, pocketing of indulgences, and failure to abide by teachings against jealousy and avarice. He admitted that he tricked sinners into buying fake relics and cared little what happened to the souls of those he swindled. Instead of selling genuine relics, the bones he carried belonged to pigs, not departed saints. The cross he carried appeared to be studded with precious stones that were nothing more than bits of common metal – all a ruse to extract money from the sinners. So it seems that the con game has a history extending far beyond any of the Pentecostal movements we see now.
The Lifestyle of Biblical “Used Car Salesmen”
The fundamental contract is not only give now and reap the benefits in heaven, but also give now and become prosperous, healthy, and attractive in this life. As prima facie evidence Dollar uses himself. Look at me, I have two Rolls Royces, million dollar homes, hand-made suits, a private jet/s, and have a net worth of over $28M. Dollar and his colleagues preach that if the pastor’s platform and bank account grow, the members of the flock should celebrate as if the prosperity were their own. Believers say that, “If my pastor is living large, he’s paving the way for me and my family to live large.”
No one need live in poverty; just ask Creflo Dollar and the other PG purveyors. All that stands between an individual and financial blessing is the faith that the Bible is the only guide for life, the unquestioning acceptance of Dollar’s interpretation of the Bible, and regular gifts to the church. Once you have done that, all you need to do is to demand whatever you want. ‘God’s blessing of prosperity belongs to me since I am a believer in Jesus Christ. I will receive it.’
What sorts of blessings can one expect? If you have drunk the magic Kool-Aid and believe, then what better model of success can there be than Dollar himself. Creflo Augustus Dollar, Jr. (born 1962) in College Park, Georgia was the son of Dollar, Sr., a policeman in College Park, and Emma Dollar, who worked at the Kathleen Mitchell Elementary School he would attend. He played linebacker at Lakeshore High School and also served as the student body president. He entered West Georgia College in Carrollton, Georgia with hopes of playing professional football. An injury cut short those plans. In 1984, Dollar graduated from West Georgia College with a bachelor’s degree in education. After graduation, he worked as a teen counselor at the Brawner Psychiatric Institute in Atlanta.In 1986, Dollar founded World Changers Ministries Christian Center and initially met in the Kathleen Mitchell Elementary School cafeteria with eight people. Dollar claims to have earned advanced degrees, but the only evidence is an honorary doctorate degree from Oral Roberts University (an intellectual center for the evangelical get rich movement). Nonetheless, he refers to himself as Dr. Dollar. No, I am not making this up.
Today, World Changers Church International (WCCI) has a membership of over 20,000, not including members at World Changers Church– New York, and World Changers Church–Español. Dollar serves as the Chief Executive Officer of World Changers Ministries, which he also founded in 1986, headquartered in College Park. The WCCI enterprise employs 350 and is anchored by the $18M, 8,500 seat World Dome. The campus contains the WCCI, a daycare center, television studio, bookstore, publishing house, and various outreach programs. The annual budget for Creflo Dollar Inc. is approximately $80M.[ii]
Dollar is said to be worth $28M. He has two multimillion dollar homes, drives two Roll Royces, and wears $7K custom tailored suits. One of his mansions sits on 50 acres, has over 17,000 ft2 of living area, and is valued at $2.9M. His other “in town” residence is a modest 10K ft2 mansion. With nine bedrooms, ten baths,a hair salon, indoor gym, and indoor pool, it is valued at a paltry $1.3M.
Now back to what caught my attention about Dollar in the first place: Dollar’s appeal to his congregation to buy him a Gulfstream 650 jet at the bargain price of $65M. Dollar claims the private jet allows him to “safely and swiftly share the Good News of the Gospel worldwide” in a way that commercial aircrafts no doubt just couldn’t. The campaign to purchase the jet, according to Dollar, is “standard operating procedure for people of faith” in “our community.”
“The mission of Project G650 is to acquire a Gulfstream G650 airplane so that Pastors Creflo and Taffi (his wife) and World Changers Church International can continue to blanket the globe with the Gospel of grace.” In particular, Dollar said those who tried to damn him to a life of TSA pat-downs and long lines were doing the work of Satan, and that one day he would ask God for a billion dollars to buy a spaceship so he can go to Mars. Wide-eyed and rabid, Dollar told his congregation: “I can dream as long as I want to! I can believe God as long as I want to! If I want to believe God for a $65 million plane, you cannot stop me! You cannot stop me from dreaming!”[iii]
Dollar focuses on transformation of the individual. As individuals change and decide to live their lives according to the will of God as he interprets it, the world will change accordingly. For Dollar, societal problems, including racism and poverty, will change with ever increasing numbers of individuals who accept his message.
Who Believes and Why?
In a recent TIME poll and data from the Association of Religion Data Archives, approximately 17% of Christians surveyed[iv] said they considered themselves part of evangelical movements; of that 17%, almost two thirds (61%) believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And nearly a third (31%) agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money. That means that there are over 50M Evangelical Christians in the US[v] and over 15M believe in the “Give to Get” gospel.
Initially, I thought that the “believers” were gullible, greedy, and naïve but in writing this blog I have come to appreciate a bit more about these people. Today there are millions who willfully give their money to pastors so that they, the pastors, can live in the kind of opulence enjoyed by Saudi Arabian princes. Greed may motivate the mansion-dwelling pastors, but the congregants are motivated by hope of a better life. This is the same hope that drives many Americans to throw away money on lottery tickets – $70.15 billion in 2014 alone – more than what was spent on sports tickets, books, video games, movie tickets, and music combined. Who buys those tickets? According to a 2011 study[vi], the highest rate of lottery gambling (61%) came from those in the lowest fifth of socioeconomic status, concluding that “males, blacks, Native Americans, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods” were more likely to play. These people place greater faith in the lottery and PG than in the tarnished legend of the American Dream. More about the loss of the American Dream in a future post.
In a recent study of PG, researchers found that income did not correlate with adherence to the PG doctrine. This is somewhat surprising but this may be due to two entirely different underlying philosophies. The rich use PG as a way to justify their wealth, while the poor use PG as a possible way out of poverty. In the same study, researchers found that education level was negatively correlated with adherence to PG. Those less educated were more likely to agree that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Researchers found that blacks are disproportionately more likely to adhere to PG. This adherence is likely a historical artifact of limited opportunities for upward mobility in most black communities. The promissory note offered by PG and the lottery are often seen as the only possible sources of income sufficient to materially affect the standard of living.
Is there something about the cumulative cultural experience of blacks that creates an environment of acceptance for PG? During the civil rights era, pastors talked of seeking Zion as a metaphor for freedom and equality. Today, the purveyors of PG have transformed Zion into material wealth and preach about the next step in achieving equality, freedom from debt, ownership of property, a nice house, a nice car, etc. So the acceptance of PG may be seen by some as a way to take another step up the ladder of freedom and equality. Rather than being misinformed, the believers in PG may be realistically assessing their options and pursuing a strategy that they feel has the highest probability of success.
Emily Raboteah in her book, Searching for Zion, explores this idea in greater detail, but in doing so, she recounts her attendance at a rally held by Dollar at Madison Square Garden. Because it so vividly recounts the event and Dollar, I include an excerpt here.
A line of shiny buses from New Jersey stand outside the theater when I arrive. With the efficiency and practiced cheer of an airline steward, an usher hands me a prepackaged communion wafer and tiny foil-topped plastic cup of syrupy wine along with a powder blue collection envelope before escorting me to an empty seat. The place is packed all the way to the topmost of four balconies and almost everybody is black. There is a buzz in the air. The woman next to me introduces herself as Gladys. She wears a nurse’s uniform and tells me she’s come directly from her work shift, just as she’s done for a year of Saturdays, in order to get out of debt, praise the Lord. I watch her stuff a hundred-dollar bill into her collection envelope and lick the flap. I wonder how she’s going to pay for groceries.
The lights dim and the navy blue velvet curtains rise on the stage to reveal a thirty-member choir and two jumbo screens on which, after a chorus of hallelujahs, an image of a Wall Street sign and the American flag fades into the testimonial of an attractive, young, light-skinned woman with chandelier earrings and a burgundy weave. Her earrings twinkle as she confesses, “They shut down my credit on Black Friday but the next week, because I sowed in the faith, I experienced increase when God forced my boss’s hand to give me a raise.”
“Tell it!” shouts Gladys, waving her hand in the air.
The stage lights come up on Creflo Dollar, standing behind a Plexiglas podium in a pin-striped suit over a lemon-yellow shirt. He’s in his late forties but has the chipmunk cheeks of a child. A hush spreads over the rented hall.
“Ain’t nothing blessed about being poor,” Dollar intones.
“The poor man’s poverty destroys him. Satan is the enemy trying to convince you that prosperity is a curse. Satan has frightened people into believing there’s something inherently evil about money. He’s spreading lies. He wants you to believe poverty is noble. Millions have been taken by his deception. I don’t agree. Can I get an Amen?”
“Let’s look at some urban legends. There’s an urban legend that my real name isn’t Creflo Dollar but Michael Smith. That there’s ATMs in our church. That you have to show W2 forms to get into our church. So ridiculous. Satan’s spreading lies. There’s an urban legend that I’m stealing from my parishioners. Poor-minded, broke-minded church folk are contained in a prison of Satan’s making to keep them that way, fearful of a preacher named Dollar who will take your money.” He shakes his head, as if this pains him greatly. “When I came to you I came loaded already. You don’t need a board to determine the preacher’s salary. I’m proud to say I haven’t taken a dime from this church. To run for public office would be a demotion. I work for the King of Kings.”
Bless us, Pastor!
“Jesus is abundant. The question you need to ask is, ‘How do I as a believer gain access to his resources?’ Can you tell I’m getting ready to operate on you? If you have a poverty spirit in you, I will drive it all the way to Queens! The most powerful spiritual force the devil has ever had to battle will be the church alive to God’s purpose for prosperity. I am here to tell you, the farmer that plants a seed gets a harvest. My point is pretty clear: that you prosper.”
Dollar’s innovation to the “seed-time and harvest” principle is that this act of devotion is a way to get out of debt. Before his lesson, a collection is taken up. I am accustomed to passing a basket, but at Dollar’s church, they pass buckets. I am also more familiar with the verse in Matthew 19, where Jesus says it’s harder for a rich man to enter Heaven than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye. It’s startling how quickly the buckets fill. I don’t want to think this is just vulgar materialism, or that Dollar is ripping them off, but instead that they are paying for sound practical financial advice.
When Dollar starts instructing us in the twelve steps to recession-proof our lives, everybody pulls out a notebook and joins me in taking notes. The first of the twelve steps is “I know my God will supply my needs. Not the government and not the state.” I worry about a platform that encourages us not to expect or demand anything of our elected officials, but the second step accords with me more: “I refuse to fear when circumstances seem to indicate failure.”
Fear, Dollar tells us, is Satan’s spirit holding us in an unsettled state from which we might be delivered through God’s true desire for us to experience heaven on earth. He wants us to stop listening to Satan whispering negative thoughts in our ear. [vii]
Does It Work? The Evidence
If you believe Dollar, PG works. Just look at Dollar as evidence. Other accounts of success are harder to come by. One of the most telling experiences is that of boxer Evander Holyfield who donated millions of dollars to Creflo Dollar ministries. If the claims of the prosperity preachers were actually true, then Evander Holyfield would be a poster child for peace, prosperity and tranquility. But, based on court filings that’s far from the truth. Evander Holyfield has given over $20M to date to Creflo Dollar’s World Changers Ministries.[viii]
In 2008, Evander Holyfield, who had amassed a fortune of over $250M declared bankruptcy. He was evicted from his 109 room, 54,ooo ft2 mansion[ix] for failure to make $14M in overdue mortgage payments . JP Morgan Chase foreclosed on the property situated in rock throwing distance of the Waffle House at 915 Evander Holyfield Highway and sold it for $7.5M. In 2012 Holyfield was involved in divorce proceedings and one of the key issues was the amount he gave to World Changers Ministries. The point of contention is that Holyfield has stated publicly that he tithes to the church before he pays any of this other obligations (child support, mortgage, etc.). Dollar was held in contempt by a Georgia judge for not disclosing his salary nor the exact amount Holyfield had contributed to his church. So if Dollar and the PG are right, why is Holyfield in such financial straits? Hmm.
Is there a take-home message here? Actually, I think there are two. First, it is the exposure of Dollar and those like him for what they really are, Biblical snake oil salesmen. Providing some details of the scam, the underlying message of PG, and details of the excessive lifestyle enjoyed by PG scam artists may be helpful in dissuading people not to give to such unscrupulous enterprises. Second, that the lottery and PG have so many followers is further evidence of how far out of reach the American dream has become for many people. It is a sad commentary that so many have greater faith in the long odds of winning the lottery and receiving wealth directly from God to ameliorate conditions of poverty. The gap between the haves and have nots in America today should give us all pause to reflect.
- Koch, B.A., Who are the prosperity gospel adherents? Journal of Ideology, 2014. 36.
- Mumford, D.J., Rich and equal in the eyes of almighty god! Creflo Dollar and the gospel of racial reconciliation. Pneuma, 2011. 33(2): p. 218-236.
- Rosin, H., Did Christianity cause the crash? Atlantic, 2009. 304(5): p. 38-48.
[iv] Includes Catholics, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal/Anglican, United Church of Christ, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, Church of God, Church of Christ, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, and Mormon.
[vi] “Gambling on the Lottery: Sociodemographic Correlates Across the LifespanJ Gambl Stud. 2011 Dec;27(4):575-86.
[ix] Complete with 12 bedrooms, 21 bathrooms, a 350,000 gallon outdoor pool, bowling alley, baseball field, indoor lap pool as well as an extra 4000 ft2 home on the 105 acre property.