For opponents of corporate Christianity and fans of schadenfreude, the last week has been a good one. Two high-profile stories put the entire for-profit Christianity enterprise up for public scrutiny. HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver aired a segment chronicling the shameless charade of televangelism – still a lucrative American enterprise – and Sam Rader, a popular Christian YouTube celebrity, was outed as a paid client of AshleyMadison.com, a site that seeks to help married people carry out an affair.
The Ashley Madison leaks are a complicated story in their own right. Taking glee in the release by hackers of names of the site’s patrons – many of whom have turned out, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be influential members of the business, entertainment and political classes – is in itself a kind of puritanical shaming, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out. But some names have been of interest.
Rader, a YouTube celebrity whose channel with his wife went viral when the couple announced a pregnancy and then, a short time later, announced a miscarriage, released a video addressing the leak called “FORGIVEN.” In the video, Rader declares, “I have sought forgiveness from God, and he has forgiven me, so I have been completely cleansed of this sin.” He blames his “sinful curiosity” for getting himself into the mess in the first place, and his wife stands by his side throughout the video.
The couple’s YouTube channel is of zero significance. But the hypocrisy is foul. A video declaring forgiveness from God would only be necessary from someone who needed to remain in a position to judge others or, at the very least, someone desperate to be seen as pure by his audience.
It is, of course, laughable to imagine that God reached down to Rader and granted him forgiveness. What makes a video like Rader’s so cruel, though, is that countless numbers of Christians are racked with guilt for their own sins and shamed by church doctrine, preachers, and Christian authority figures. Rader makes no mention of God extending the same forgiveness to other Ashley Madison users; in fact, he implicitly throws them under the bus. What makes Rader any better than thousands of others?
Rader is a small microcosm of a much bigger epidemic. Americans adore good, honest, clean-living Christians, and just about anyone who insists they are one can get away with it, personal life and preaching notwithstanding. None are more brass-balled, though, than the televangelists – particularly, those who preach the “gospel of prosperity.”
While making money has ever been the purpose of Christian broadcasters and megachurches, this new breed convinces gullible Americans to send in “seed” money that will somehow grow in the church. For their contribution, God will one day reward them with riches and vast wealth. According to this gospel, God shows favor to his most devoted followers by making them wealthy – in stark contrast to Matthew 19:24.
The scam is so shameless that one pastor, Creflo Dollar, told listeners to send in money so that he could purchase a private jet, which he claimed was necessary to help spread his gospel. Televangelist Mike Murdock, in addition to bragging about his own private jets, also tells his listeners that sending him seed money can wipe out their credit card debt. Robert Tilton claims to rid his listeners of maladies ranging from arthritis to lupus – provided their faith in him is strong enough to send lots of money.
What these pastors are selling is a blatantly fraudulent product, but because it’s packaged as “faith” it’s difficult to receive reimbursement. Worse, churches are tax-exempt and the the requirements to register as a church are so thin, all of these pastors qualify. Private jets, huge mansions, and television networks can all be considered part of a church, provided the fraudster has no sense of social responsibility, let alone Christian virtue.
All of this could be laughable and dismissible if it weren’t for for-profit Christianity’s enormous influence on American culture and politics. As a complex, its networks intrude into and corrupt science classrooms, swindle and sell lies to gullible Americans, and are front-and-center behind the bullshit attempt to defund Planned Parenthood.
Fortunately, between the John Oliver segment and pushes from groups like the religious fraud watchdog, the Trinity Foundation, there is increased pressure on the IRS to look into prosperity gospel televangelists. These charlatans should not be making millions of dollars and appearing on national television, they should be locked up. Fraud is one thing; a good conman can even be respectable. But these pastors are the lowest of the low. Any week that’s bad for them is good for the rest of us.