God’s Profits

How The Religious Right Uses The ‘Prosperity Gospel’ To Win Foot Soldiers And Continue Its ‘Culture War’

Researcher Sarah Posner has been following the Religious Right for several years and writes a blog called The FundamentaList for The American Prospect. Her new book, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters (PoliPointPress, 2008) examines the role advocates of the “prosperity gospel” play in the Religious Right.

Posner talked recently with Church & State about her research and the status of the Religious Right today.

Q. Many people think of the prosperity gospel as a movement that attempts to link Christianity to hyper-capitalism and the collection of wealth. You assert these ministries play a political role as well. What role does the prosperity gospel play in the Religious Right?

A. When George H.W. Bush was preparing to run for president in 1988, his evangelical advisor, Doug Wead, prepared a list of 1,000 “targets” – religious leaders of influence worth courting for the votes of their followers. The list included a lot of names you’d expect – Robertson, Falwell, and other household names, but also included some of the most prominent prosperity gospel evangelists, notably Kenneth Copeland and Paul Crouch, the head of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. The courting of these prosperity televangelists by politicians continues today, as we have seen Mike Huckabee touting his close relationship with Copeland, and John Hagee and Rod Parsley campaigning with John McCain. In tune with the Religious Right, they take ultra-conservative positions on issues like abortion, gay marriage, separation of church and state, and other social issues, and actively encourage their followers to vote.

Q. In your new book, God’s Profits, you discuss Ohio pastor Rod Parsley, who has labored to make an impact on statewide politics. Parsley’s favored candidate for governor, Ken Blackwell, was soundly defeated in 2006. Does this mean Parsley has lost political influence? What are his goals and what are the chances he could become a national figure as well known as the late Jerry Falwell?

A. It’s certainly Parsley’s goal to be a successor to Falwell. He proudly accepted an honorary doctorate from Liberty University last year. (Parsley doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree, so this was quite an honor, to say the least). He has said he sees his Center for Moral Clarity, the political arm of his church, as the successor to Falwell’s Moral Majority.

Certainly many observers thought Parsley’s influence was on the wane after Blackwell was trounced in the 2006 gubernatorial race. And although Blackwell’s defeat could be chalked up to other factors – particularly the raft of corruption scandals plaguing Ohio Republicans – there was a group of prominent moderate Republicans who came out against Blackwell because of his religion-baiting.

That said, Parsley’s name is still on the tips of conservative tongues as a religious kingmaker in the race for the White House, and McCain campaigned with Parsley, whom he called a “spiritual guide,” in Ohio in March.

Q. A spate of new books asserts that the Religious Right is a spent force politically. What is your view? Have we truly entered a “post-Religious Right” America?

A. Many kingmakers on the Religious Right have seen their political influence wax and wane. Pat Robertson and James Dobson, for example, do not wield the cult of personality that they once did. Yet while the movement appears rudderless at the moment, literalist conservative Christianity runs very deep in our country. Although the public face of the movement is in transition, and many centrist evangelicals are striving to spread a less divisive message, the Religious Right’s basic doctrine continues to resonate with a significant segment of the population. Because of the movement’s organization, any new leaders who emerge over the next few years will have a formidable and well-funded political and media infrastructure to build on.

Q. The continued survival of the Religious Right depends on the cultivation of a new generation of activists. In your chapter titled “Generation Next,” you discuss efforts by Religious Right leaders to raise up a new generation. How successful have these efforts been?

A. Surely, polling data shows younger evangelicals less interested in focusing exclusively on gay marriage and abortion as hot button issues politically, and increasingly interested in combating global warming, alleviating poverty and ending the war in Iraq. Yet many of the Generation Next efforts among Religious Right organizations, such as Ron Luce’s Teen Mania, focus on the Pentecostal/charismatic imperatives of personal purity and holiness and getting tight with Jesus. It’s hard to measure how many of the kids attending these events stick with it for the long term, but Luce often fills stadiums all over the country, and many charismatic churches (including prosperity gospel churches) dedicate many resources to youth outreach efforts.

Q. While writing the book, you traveled around the country and visited many large fundamentalist churches. What observations can you share with us about the average person who sits in the pews and listens to prosperity gospel rhetoric week after week?

A. They believe in and are waiting for signs and wonders, hints they think God is giving them about the future and miracles they believe their faith can bring to them. They trust their preachers and teachers are anointed by God and that God speaks through them. They are remarkably credulous about the inerrancy of their preachers and teachers, about the force of their own faith to bring about miraculous healing and abundance. Interactions are viewed through the prism of “spiritual warfare” – the idea that godly forces are perpetually in battle with satanic forces. As a result, the secular media’s reporting on current events – particularly when it is critical of their pastors – is to be distrusted and disregarded.

Q. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa is investigating allegations of financial misconduct at six large ministries affiliated with the prosperity gospel. Many of ministries have refused to turn over information requested by Grassley. In your travels, what did you observe about the lifestyles of some of these preachers? Are they really building personal fortunes on the backs of non-profit entities?

A. Yes, and the real extent is unknown because they are not legally required by the Internal Revenue Service to file tax returns. Whereas non-religious tax-exempt organizations must file a tax return that is publicly available, churches are not required to do so. The lack of transparency and accountability is at the heart of Grassley’s investigation – not, as the televangelists contend, a disagreement about doctrine.

In many cases, public records tell at least part of the story – how big and valuable their houses are, what other real estate they own, how many for-profit companies they control, or whether they own a private jet, for example. But many details remain hidden, and that is why Grassley launched his probe.

Q. You write about the Texas Pastor John Hagee. Hagee does not receive as much media attention as some other ministers on the right, yet he seems to have a good amount of political influence and even has the support of some Jewish organizations because of his backing of Israel. Hagee claims to be moderate. What are his views really like?

A. Hagee was recently thrust into the spotlight after he endorsed John McCain for president. McCain came under criticism for embracing Hagee, particularly because of Hagee’s anti-Catholic statements. But the picture of Hagee, who is extremely popular especially among Pentecostals/charismatics as well as Christian Zionists, is bigger than that. He views the world through the prism of “spiritual warfare,” preaches the prosperity message, and believes the Bible foretells a series of events leading to the ultimate showdown at Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus. Connected with the neoconservative foreign policy establishment, his view of biblical prophecy informs his position that, for example, a military attack on Iran is prophesied in the bible and will lead to the apocalypse.

Q. Advocates of the prosperity gospel assert that the First Amendment gives them the right to believe whatever they want about Christianity. How do you respond to claims that the prosperity gospel is just another version of Christianity that is fully protected by the First Amendment?

A. Well, sure, from a theological perspective, anyone is entitled to their beliefs, and have constitutionally protected rights to free exercise of their religion and free speech. But when questions arise about whether these churches are exploiting their tax-exempt status for personal profit, that’s a question for the Internal Revenue Service and congressional oversight of the IRS. That’s not an intrusion on anyone’s free-speech rights.

Q. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy are dead. James Dobson and Pat Robertson aren’t getting any younger. Who will lead the Religious Right in the coming years? We’ve talked about Parsley. Are there other contenders our readers should know about?

A. Watch Mike Huckabee. His career is far from over.