How the “prosperity gospel” convinces poor people to give everything to grifty millionaire preachers

By Rob Beschizza | 30 May 2019
Boing Boing

Joel Osteen is one of the most famous preachers associated with the prosperity gospel.

The “prosperity gospel” (previously) is a religious doctrine that encourages poor people to send specific amounts of cash (usually in the hundreds of dollars) to charismatic preachers, an act the preachers characterizes as “seed giving” — and the preachers promise that God will reward these gifts by making the givers rich.

It’s arguably the most predatory form of mainstream religion in practice today, and it benefits from the US tax code, which enables churches to accept donations without paying taxes on them, like nonprofits do, but unlike nonprofits, the preachers who exhort their followers to send them their millions never have to account for the money they raise, nor disclose how much of it lands in their own pockets and the pockets of their inner circles.

The BBC follows some prosperity gospel donors who gave to preachers (notably the convicted fraudster Todd Coontz, who is out of jail pending appeal and giving Periscope sermons from the front seat of his Mazzerati) out of desperation as their finances were hitting rock bottom — often through a combination of catastrophic health bills, layoffs, and mortgage or rent increases — and then ended up even poorer, sometimes homeless. Then, when they wrote to the preachers they’d sent so much money to, asking for help, the preachers either ignored them, or their flunkies told them to f*ck off (“You know we get six or seven of these calls a week and if we help you, we are going to have to help everyone”).

One factor that has galvanized opposition to these grifters is an excellent John Oliver report on the incredible personal wealth they have accumulated. Oliver got much of his research through the Trinity Foundation, a scrappy religious organization devoted to exposing the con-artists at the top of these evangelical pyramid schemes.

The Trinity Foundation and its founder, Ole Anthony, have been at it since the 1970s, keeping detailed dossiers on the net worth of the top prosperity gospel preachers and sharing them with journalists. Anthony even went undercover, helping Diane Sawyer expose Robert Tilton, leading to Tilton losing his TV show and being reduced to a shoestring operation.

Anthony sounds like an incredible character, stymied by the GOP’s unwillingness to cross the super-rich preachers and the flocks they command. In the meantime, the believers are lambs to slaughter, and the preachers are sitting on millions.

During a four-year investigation, prosecutors dug up all sorts of irregularities, ruling that Coontz had been underreporting his income and exploiting expenses claims.

He had developed various ploys, such as flying economy but sending fake first-class invoices to the ministries he was freelancing for, so he could pocket the difference. He would also claim expenses twice, once from his own ministry and once from his client. He claimed for thousands of dollars spent on clothes (suits are not a permitted business expense) and for 400 cinema tickets, which the IRS also considered unreasonable.

On 26 January 2019, Coontz was sentenced to five years in prison for failing to pay taxes and assisting in the filing of false tax returns. He was also ordered to pay $755,669 in restitution.

He reported to jail in early April, but was freed by the judges, pending appeal.

Coontz did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment, but he has previously denied wrongdoing. On his website, he also claims to have given more than $1m to charity.

His Twitter account is still posting daily (with no reference to his jail sentence) and he has taken to preaching – via the Periscope app – from the front seat of his Maserati.

“Are you calling to sow your $219 seed today?” was the immediate response when the BBC called Rockwealth’s hotline. The operator was not able to share the significance of that figure and would not answer questions about how many people had called to pledge. “Not so many today, but there are several of us answering calls,” she said. It is not clear whether the switchboard was serving only Rockwealth or other churches too.

The Trinity Foundation has recently filed a long report to the IRS, calling for Rockwealth to lose its status as a tax-exempt church. As always, it feels like a shot in the dark and it does not expect to hear back.

The preachers getting rich from poor Americans [Vicky Baker/BBC]

(via Naked Capitalism)

Full Interview: Preacher Kenneth Copeland Defends Lavish Lifestyle

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Televangelists: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

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44 COMMENTS

    • Maybe because the GOP and these con artists formed an unholy bond during the Reagan administration and have only tightened the bond since. Trump just introduced a bleached blond grifter as his personal minister who is known for her hucksterism. They feed on the same constituency: low education, low information, from historically racialist states, and all but exclusively white.

  1. Strange the way these “Mega Preachers” fail to grasp the fundamental Message of Jesus. They quote Scripture, yeah. But not the true Message. Interestingly, it all boils down to The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So simple, yet so precise. No exceptions, no “escape” clauses. Lotsa kindness. No condemnation. No bigotry. Amen to that!

  2. That is my biggest problem with the republican party, in that they lay claim to God and christianity and act like they are the party of the righteous and act like God’s grace and mercy doesn’t extend to democrats. They are hypocrites and it makes me want to puke! The GOP does support these predatory preachers and allow them to rob the poor and get away with it, but then accuse the democrats of being the immoral ones.

  3. I’d like the”news” to do an investigation on each person in the Senate and congress, on every employee in the white house. I’d like a financial statement of every dollar taken in and a paper trail of the taxes that each American gives. I’d like an expose of how much money is going where, and to whom, and for what, annually, please.

  4. Always strange to me how the greedy non-Christian sinners are always eager to cast the first stone? I have been to Joel Osteen’s church, I visited when his father was a preacher & never have I seen a single valid criminal charge be placed against him. People are quick to criticize him for his success, yet he does NOT TAKE ANY SALARY FROM THE CHURCH! He has made his money from paid speaking engagements and his many bestselling books. He has earned it! There are so many lies being promoted about him all of the time, I know the devil is hard at work.

    https://www.gotquestions.org/without-sin-cast-first-stone.html

  5. Joel gives millions to the poor and needy. He has brought millions to Christ. It’s Trump you have to be afraid of. He’ll take your money in a heartbeat in the name of God.

  6. Dear Anonymous, Osteen is a master of writing the word of God just as we’re the people Christ chastised for knowing the words but not the spirit of the scriptures.
    That’s why he ministered to thousands of Christ’s brothers and sisters by opening his church in the wake of hurricane Harvey(he did the opposite).
    You are anonymous because you are an instrument of Lucifer and probably get a paycheck from Osteen.
    True believers see through this sham as if it were a freshly cleaned window.
    I pray for your soul.

  7. Who the hell ever thought making religious organizations “non-profit” tax free was a good idea? Well of course we know that the original spiritual awakening at the foundation of in most religions was quickly co-opted and transformed into a way to gather power and control over free thought, science, and politics. Just look at the history of religions. Full of segregated “congregations”, the ”flock” (sheep ready to be herded by the priests through fear and false promises cultivated to prey on human frailty and misfortune). The founding fathers of our country recognized the dangers and said believe what you want, worship how you please, but it must be separated from our government and should be separated from tax subsides, Religions should be monitored for compliance like legitimate non-profits, and unable to promote their beliefs through unregulated political contributions, It’s time to tax these “religious” enterprises. I for one do not want to support them as a taxpayer who has to pays my fair share for security, infrastructure, and everything else, indirectly being forced to subsidize them. Time to wake up and push back.

  8. Despite Catholic Church problems this institution setup by Jesus Christ will last.

    Jesus said to Peter, Peter you are my rock and on this rock I build my Church.

    So Folks, all these other Churches are Fakes and False Prophets, belonging to these other Churches is a violation of Christs intentions.

    • I agree with Wise Australian. The one true church is the Catholic Church instituted by our savior LORD JESUS CHRIST. These televangelists prey on people who want to do the right thing. The one true faith is working to help the disadvantaged throughout the world. Other faiths Mormons, Lutheran,Baptist,etc. are off shoots of the one true faith. In His time and His own way He will sort this all out

  9. How many churches file 501c3 just get out paying taxes so I was wondering could I clean how much I gave to my church on my taxes which I was told I can’t do that because what I gave to God its for God.

    • You can absolutely claim them, that should be sending you a financial gifts statement every year, if they are not, and you aren’t just giving untraceable cash, then something is wrong at your church. It sounds like something is wrong st your church.

  10. This piece of garbage has some judgement day coming. He better pray the Buddhists are right and he can work himself back from a slug after this life.

    People., please listen to me. Do not give money to this man, give to St. Jude’s. I promise you he will look upon that donation with favor. Find a single parent struggling working 2 jobs to make ends meet, and help that person.

    The Bible doesn’t need to be spread across the globe by a gameshow host in a 1k suit coming off of a Gulf Stream. If they take in 100 million and give 25 of it to the needy, guess what giving in more of a direct fashion could accomplish. Not a dollar of donation should go to luxuries, when there are people who will starve to death tonight.

    Ready: $14,000 flight wastes a meal for over 14k starving souls. For this dude to go and play rock star reciting the Bible. And if you need to spread religion as a condition of your good deeds, fine print some paperback versions of the Bible and hand them out with some food, and it will still be better than standing in front of an arena of people fund raising so you can live like kings.

    Go on tv and tell everyone of your followers to cook a meal, find someone on the streets and give them the meal, let’s see how bored these preachers get with that concept

    Fight me , let’s hear why I am wrong ?

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