Posted Nov. 8, 2007 – For many Black Americans – particularly elderly Blacks – TV preachers represent the ultimate Negro 401K plan: Pay now, and cash in later. Under this special plan, you might be poor and disfranchised today, but you’re guaranteed a future payoff. And, unlike most retirement plans, you get to keep right on reaping rewards, even after you die.
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But at least one member of Congress is challenging the gospel of prosperity, suggesting that televangelists are the ones cashing in while their followers, and the rest of taxpayers, get the shaft. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who heads the Senate Finance Committee, says that his office has been bombarded with tips about preachers whose often poor followers keep them cruising Rolls-Royces and private jets, living in mansions and garbed in expensive suits and jewelry.
The lawmaker says he’s beginning his investigation with six of the biggest names in televangelism, two of whom are African American: The Lithonia, Ga.,-based Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, who has been questioned about his fat salary, as well as a $1.4 million land deal, of which he, not the church board, holds total authority; Creflo Dollar, another Georgia mega-church pastor, whose name literally spells money, heads the World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries with his wife, Taffi. Dollar, responding to Grassley in a statement, called his ministry an "open book" and vowed to cooperate. Long says he too will comply with Grassley’s demands, pointing out that his ministry has "several safeguards" to protect against financial improprieties.
Others getting a letter from Grassley, who's seeking all records on the use of private planes and luxury cars, salaries and compensation, gifts and “love offerings” to visiting ministers, and composition of ministerial boards, are:
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"The allegations involve governing boards that aren't independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls-Royces," Grassley said. I don't want to conclude that there's a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code." Under federal tax laws, churches are not required to file tax forms that are open to the public.
But Grassley’s targets certainly aren’t the first prophets turning profits. And, if they are ultimately found to have taken advantage of their congregations, they would join a legendary legion of finaglers.
Among the many historic humbugs, consider the Right Reverend Dr. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, a.k.a. the Rev. Ike. The flamboyant Black preacher with the pompadour hair style and liquid tongue put the “B” in bling with his diamond rings and cufflinks, pricey suits and opulent mansions. His ministry reached its apex in the 1970s, when more than a thousand radio and television stations carried his program; the TV show featured the “blessing of Cadillacs.” Touting such catchy principles as “the lack [not “the love”] of money is the root of all evil” and “the best thing you can do for the poor is to keep from becoming one of them,” Rev. Ike boasted about having a fleet of Rolls-Royces – a different color for every day of the week, appointed in mink. At 72, he’s still raking in, by some estimates, up to a half-million a month via a direct-mail campaign that encourages believers to send donations of faith for such items as miracle prayer cloths, lucky coins, "blessing" shower caps and prosperity bracelets.
But perhaps the most infamous of the televangelists exposed for fleecing their flock are Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. At its peak, their world-famous PTL Club ministry reportedly earned $1 million a week. By the time the PTL empire was crushed under the weight of a juicy sex scandal and an elaborate investment con job, Bakker was accused of bilking believers out of $120 million. The world learned in 1989, following a trial that got him a 45-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine, that he had 47 bank accounts, six luxury homes, a $1.9 million annual salary, and Rolls-Royce and Mercedes Benz cars. The sentence was later deemed too harsh and reduced to 18 years. He was released on parole after serving five years.
He admitted recently that his prison stint afforded him an opportunity to read the Bible all the way through for the first time in his life. Now, the man who once proclaimed “God wants you to be rich” admits perpetrating a fraud. "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. My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray.''
Do you think the government should monitor the fund-raising activities of televangelists more closely? Or do you think closer scrutiny infringes on freedom on religion?