The Associated Press had a story that caught my eye last night:
Randall W. Harding sang in the choir at Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, Calif., and donated part of his conspicuous wealth to its ministries. In his business dealings, he underscored his faith by naming his investment firm JTL, or "Just the Lord." Pastors and churchgoers alike entrusted their money to him.
By the time Harding was unmasked as a fraud, he and his partners had stolen more than $50 million from their clients, and Crossroads became yet another cautionary tale in what investigators say is a worsening problem plaguing the nation's churches.
Billions of dollars has been stolen in religion-related fraud in recent years, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association, a group of state officials who work to protect investors.
Between 1984 and 1989, about $450 million was stolen in religion-related scams, the association says. In its latest count - from 1998 to 2001 - the toll had risen to $2 billion. Rip-offs have only become more common since.
The article tells us of one scam for $3 million, another for $50 million, and "in a dramatically broader scam, leaders of Greater Ministries International, based in Tampa, Fla., defrauded thousands of people of half a billion dollars by promising to double money on investments that ministry officials said were blessed by God."
How do people get away with this and why are churchgoers such ripe pickings? Patricia Struck, president of the securities association and administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, Division of Securities, told AP, "The scammers are getting smarter and the investors don't ask enough questions because of the feeling that they can be safe in church." As the article reports, another factor is in play here:
Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation Inc. in Dallas, which investigates fraud and televangelism, partly blames the churches themselves for the problem. Anthony contends that the "prosperity gospel" - which teaches that the truly faithful are rewarded with wealth in this life - is creeping into mainstream churches.
Prosperity Gospel is a new bunch of crap being floated out there. It's a cross between megachurch televangelism and infomercial hucksterism. The biggest booster of prosperity gospel out there is a Texas preacher named Joel Osteen from Lakewood Church. At one time, he was said to be the next Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. He's a lot more like toothy infomercial icon, Tony Robbins.
"I believe those are times of testing and I can tell you, God did prosper us more than we could ask or think," Osteen told Beliefnet in a 2004 interview, "On some of these real estate deals, it’s just again, God’s favor and God’s blessing. I believe you’re sowing seeds for that when you’re doing the right thing when the wrong thing’s happening." If you got enough people to believe that crap, how hard would it be to soak them for all they're worth?
Like so many of the evangelists out there, Osteen practices what's called 'prooftexting'. This is the belief that every word in the Bible is true, regardless of context - so you can take things out of context and use them deceptively without lying. Osteen looks through the Bible and cherrypicks verses that 'prove' that he worships a god of prosperity, while ignoring verses like Matthew 19:21-22, "Jesus said to him, 'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,'" or Matthew 19:23-24, " Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.'" 1 Timothy 6:10 reads, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows."
Finally, there's Luke 16:13, "No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon [wealth]. "
And, other than kings, there aren't a lot of wealthy jews in the Bible and even fewer rich christians. Most of the wealthy are the bad guys, like Pharaoh. Like so many hucksters, Osteen and other scam artists use their own wealth as proof their system works. And they don't urge members to read the Bible - you need to buy books and CDs and DVDs explaining the Bible to you. If people knew what the Bible really said, the televangelists' scam would fall apart.
In the meantime, people send them tons of money in the hopes of reward both in the here and now and in the hereafter. Is it any surprise that other con artists want in on the action?