Longtime readers know that I have something of a niche fascination with how the evangelical Christian community uniquely attracts charlatan media personalities.
In a recent post, I discussed how Jerry Falwell Jr.’s spectacular fall from grace (which took the reputation of Liberty University down with it) fits a well-established pattern of folks constructing and maintaining financial empires based off of feigning conversion and divine authority. Watching some miscellaneous Christian celebrity announce that they are an atheist, or never actually believed in God to begin with, happens so often now it has become blasé. Another one bites the dust, I think as I read the papers.
I think the lack of seriousness and authenticity in Christian media is one of the biggest threats to the survival of the church in the United States there is. The constant drumbeat of believers turning out to be frauds is even worse than attacks by non-believers.
I have also written about the respective net worth of various televangelists, which can easily run into hundreds of millions of dollars. The richest televangelist, Kenneth Copeland in Texas, has a net worth of almost a billion dollars. The annual tax break (for being a minister!) on his lakefront mansion alone is over $150,000. You think private jets are posh? This man of God has a fleet, including his own Gulfstream V, which he bought from filmmaker Tyler Perry.
These folks are walking proof that there is nothing more corrupt than what counts as a “nonprofit” under the federal tax code.
In my opinion, there are two features of the evangelical community that makes it susceptible to these kinds of swindlers. The first is the evangelical community has an expansive, but still culturally insular, marketplace for mixed media that other Christian denominations do not have. (The Traditional Latin Mass crowd within the Catholic Church was starting to give evangelicals a run for their money before the pope nixed their communities, however.) This started decades ago with networks of Baptist bookstores that proved to be very good business, to the point that even relatively small southern towns each had competing brick-and-mortar Christian bookstore franchises. The region is saturated with them, and they even have a considerable pull on private colleges and universities. That evolved into thriving Christian music and public speaking industries. And in the age of social media, we now have Christian influencers on blogs and various networking sites.
Becoming an influencer in evangelical circles can make someone a multi-millionaire virtually overnight with little actual work. To the extent that their “ministry” has some measure of crossover influence with conservative political media circles generally, that ascent is even easier and more lucrative. These content mills essentially create a bunch of Kim Kardashians for Jesus.
The second feature of the evangelical community that makes it particularly susceptible to fraud is the legacy of Martin Luther – they don’t believe in good works. In fact, the more sensational or unlikely someone’s faith is, the more compelling it is from a marketing standpoint. “We are all sinners” has become something of a placeholder for actually behaving like a Christian. It’s how they reconcile that a person with a Gulfstream V doesn’t need to practice charity, as commanded by Christ, or how a guy who screws around on a series of wives secretly supports “family values.” “You can’t know what’s truly in someone’s heart – God even uses prostitutes” becomes “no prostitute talking about Jesus can be a liar.” Basic common sense is totally out the door.
Folks who consume a lot of content from these spaces basically live in some alternate reality, and all they care about is whether someone is “in” or “out” of that reality. This trait of administering communicative litmus tests is very useful for con artists, because it means their marks will never let a competing voice in on the conversation. They deny over and over again that these personalities can have impure motives, and then are shocked, shocked when someone’s true nature becomes undeniable. Jerry Falwell, Jr. was a laughably immoral person even when he used his father’s name as kingmaker for Donald Trump during the 2016 election cycle. Falwell was the person who manufactured the narrative that God was using Trump, right before he and his wife jetted down to Miami for drunken orgies. Cognitive dissonance is real.
Christianity was originally built on the concept of virtue ethics – the idea that a Christian life has a defined telos (end goal or objective) that would distinguish Christians from pagans. The evangelical media universe is almost indistinguishable from the pagan universe – their God is “personal” in the sense that He wants you to be wealthy, emotionally satisfied, skinny, popular, etc. This view of God is how you end up with a Christian self-help industry and the “prosperity gospel.” It’s not any different than folks praying to Athena for favorable winds for trade. And like the pagans, these folks are convinced that every mundane convenience in their life is proof that their god favors them over other mortals.
As far as religious worldviews go, these folks are pure narcissists. Christian diets, Christian financial advice, Christian medicine, church services that are like rock concerts. Religion is about what makes you feel good. It’s not about transcendence or humility, but manipulating the material world. It’s therapeutic. Even the translations of the Bible they use tend toward flowery emotional language that the Greek and Hebrew do not carry. (You’ll have to forgive the prosperity gospel folks for having never opened their Bibles to the Gospel of Luke.)
As Trump is clearly building another presidential run, he finds himself in need of an ersatz Jerry Falwell, Jr. (Trump’s original evangelical-whisperer has now renounced organized religion.)
Per Politico, Trump summoned a group of evangelical “spiritual advisors” to Mar-a-Lago this week to try to reconstruct his religious coalition. Do you wonder who Trump counts among his spiritual advisors? I honestly had never thought about it.
I am sure readers will be unsurprised to learn that Trump is not some folksy Jimmy Carter, who has gone to the same Podunk Baptist congregation for decades. Nope, Trump prefers the multimillionaire televangelist and megachurch influencer crowd. Folks who care about Christianity as much as Trump cares about being conservative.
Paula White is one of the popular leaders of the prosperity gospel movement. Prosperity gospel folks believe that financial well-being and health are God’s will for them, and that God will financially reward people who are generous to the church (read: send their money to televangelists like Paula White). Being a Christian is quite literally about getting rich to these folks. She discovered the prosperity gospel after having led her original congregation in Tampa into bankruptcy after a series of bad real estate deals. After she traded a traditional ministry for preaching the prosperity gospel on television, etc., she did indeed find herself a multimillionaire.
This woman is whom Trump credits with his conversion to Christianity, and it’s not difficult to see what they have in common. According to Trump, he was flying White out to his Atlantic City properties (read: casinos) for Bible studies. He put her on his “Evangelical Advisory Board” during his 2016 campaign and chose her to provide the invocation prayer at his inauguration.
White was also among the folks proclaiming Trump’s presidency as a battle between good and evil, suggesting that Trump’s political rivals “operate in sorcery and witchcraft.” I feel like I understand the origin and popularity of QAnon better, and how it spreads among church populations specifically, after reading about this personality.
Ralph Reed, Chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition
Reed is a longtime Republican lobbyist who claims to have been visited by the Holy Spirit while at an upscale nightclub in Washington, DC. The Holy Spirit led him outside the club to a phone booth, where he searched the Yellow Pages for churches. His fingers stopped on an evangelical church listing, and he became a born-again Christian the next day.
He was hired by Pat Robertson during the Clinton era to be executive director of the Christian Coalition. He used that job as a stepping stone to become a Republican lobbyist based in Atlanta. Reed was widely credited with having run successful attacks against Senator John McCain that allowed the rise of (rich born-again Christian) George W. Bush to be the Republican candidate for president.
Reed himself tried to run for lieutenant governor in Georgia, but his campaign floundered after Reed was wrapped up in the Jack Abramoff scandals. Many prominent Republicans demanded that Reed leave the race. Abramoff was the subject of an extensive corruption investigation that resulted in him being convicted of several felonies, for which he spent nearly 6 years in prison. He eventually wrote a tell-all book about corruption in Washington DC.
In 2006, the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs released its final report on the Abramoff scandal. According to the report, “Reed used his contacts to conservative Christian groups to prevent the opening or expansion of casinos competing with the casinos operated by Abramoff’s clients from 1998 to 2002 and that he had been paid a total of $5.3 million through Abramoff’s law firm and from organizations controlled by Abramoff’s partner Michael Scanlon.” Evangelicals in the casino business – you have to marvel at it all.
Reed was not convicted of any crimes related to the scandal, but it did ruin his political career. He found renewed interest from Trump, however, whose political circles are largely populated by disgraced lobbyists. Reed was among those Trump summoned to Mar-a-Lago last week for advice on how to lock up the evangelical vote in 2024.
Also part of Trump’s evangelical advisory group is megachurch pastor Jack Graham. Graham leads Prestonwood Baptist Church in the Dallas suburb of Plano. The church has nearly 50,000 members and a regular attendance close to 20,000.
Graham has served two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention and published many books that have pushed him into the multimillionaire Christian influencer club. Much of his success in building a megachurch derives from his networking with exceptionally wealthy members over the years. One of the most prominent members of his church was cosmetics mogul Mary Kay Ash (founder of Mary Kay cosmetics, basically a multi-level marketing scheme which naturally translated to bringing in a large following).
And then there is Fox News regular James Dobson. Dobson is probably best known as leader of the socially conservative organization Focus on the Family, but he stepped down years ago. He built a career out of pushing traditional ideas about marriage and gender roles, including the idea that women should be homemakers and children should be homeschooled. Basically everything Trump has shunned for his entire life. But Trump doesn’t want to take that kind of guidance seriously, he just needs an endorsement from someone with a passionate following that he can exploit at the voting booth. Dobson delivers on that, and much of his own financial success is wrapped up in remaining relevant in conservative political circles. Marketing symbiosis.
Like the others, Dobson has become a multimillionaire as a Christian self-help book writer and Christian celebrity.
While the mainstream media often portrays Trump as having the evangelical demographic wrapped up with a big red bow – mostly, I think, because the mainstream media tends to work from unfair stereotypes of white, conservative, Christian voters – I am not sure this is true. By all accounts from friends and relatives who participate in evangelical circles, evangelicals splintered into different alliances like everyone else. Many have developed a permanent distaste for Trump, his antics, his mouth, and his scandalous bedfellows. Many others have no difficulty bracketing all that off, and even talk about him like he is some Jesus-like figure himself. A representative of God on earth.
I am genuinely curious how prosperity gospel types sell during the current era. We have runaway inflation mostly driven by wild government spending that began during the very-not-fiscally-conservative Trump administration and continued during the even-less-fiscally-conservative Biden administration. It’s getting harder and harder for many households to keep up with a middle class lifestyle, let alone feel like they are prosperous. Is it harder or easier to sell the Jesus is My Central Banker worldview during a tough economy? Do people resent being talked to that way when they are struggling? Inquiring minds want to know.
Either way, I think it is oddly appropriate that these are the folks who become the face of Christianity in the Trump universe: Salespeople. What a waste.