Winter 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2005

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Our New Religious Politics

Religion Gap Swings New Ways

A Certain Presidency

Schiavo Interminable

Iraq's Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray

Windsor Knot

Protestants in Decline

The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't

Channeling Bleep

Cut-Rate Religion Coverage



The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't
by Rebecca Fowler

 The spectacle of a televangelist living high on the contributions of gullible believers has long tempted journalists to go on crusade, inspired in part by memories of the campaigns that brought Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart to their knees.

In September, the Los Angeles Times succumbed to the temptation and trained its sights on Paul Crouch, the man behind the immensely successful Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and a paladin of the televangelical “prosperity gospel.”

Times religion writer William Lobdell assailed Crouch in a 4,000-word blast published on September 19 that had been three years in the making. “The Prosperity Gospel: Pastor’s Empire Built on Acts of Faith, and Cash; The Top Christian Broadcaster’s Steady Plea for Money Funds Growth—And a Life of Luxury for Paul Crouch and His Wife,” the main headline read.

Lodbell’s central charges were that Crouch’s TBN raised funds relentlessly despite an ample cushion of cash, and that the televangelist and his wife lived in multi-house luxury while pumping supporters like Olivia Foster, a 52-year-old AIDS patient living on a $820 disability check, for $70 each month.

“Without TBN, I wouldn’t be here,” Foster, who lives alone, told Lobdell. “That’s the Gospel truth. It gave me purpose that God could use me. I watch it 18 hours a day.”

Hovering over the exposé was also a hint of homosexual scandal—a week before the main story ran, the Times  published a story reporting that Crouch had paid $425,000 in 1996 to buy the silence of a former TBN employee who had threatened to go public with news of an alleged sexual encounter with Crouch at a mountain property owned by TBN.

All the elements seemed to be in place for another fairly juicy televangelism scandal. Yet, at least so far, the scandal has not taken off. Through the end of October, the Times published nine news stories and two columns on Crouch, but no other Southern California news outlets really jumped on the story—not the Orange County Register, not the San Diego Tribune—nor has the story received much attention from broadcasters. And outside California, the story rarely got more than a few paragraphs of coverage. Why hasn’t this turned into another media firestorm?

TBN officials offer a straightforward explanation: Lobdell and the Times were picking on the network because of an anti-Christian bias. “The press refuses to understand, respect, or appreciate religious issues, particularly Christian inspirational television,” the network thundered in a press release issued on September 22. “One has to wonder what it is these days regarding the elite press’ integrity.”

Another possible explanation is that general interest lagged because Crouch is nowhere near the sort of celebrity that the Bakkers or Swaggart were. His network thrives in the narrowcasting world of cable television, and not by purchasing time on broadcast television. TBN, therefore, has a low profile outside conservative Christian circles, but within them it has substantial clout.

Lobdell’s September 12 piece reported that TBN, which Crouch and his wife founded 31 years ago in a rented television studio in Orange County, provides “a 24-hour-a-day menu of sermons, faith healing, inspirational movies, and other Christian fare [that] reaches millions of viewers from Spain to the Solomon Islands.” “Praise the Lord” is its most popular show and the network is also the vehicle for such Christian broadcasters as Pat Robertson. The Times said TBN reaches 5 million U.S. families a week, and the network’s 2002 balance sheet listed net assets of $583 million.

In November, Lodbell told the Religion Newswriters Association newsletter that he began looking into TBN three years ago “to provide readers with an in-depth look at the world’s largest religious broadcaster.” Along the way, the focus of his interest shifted to the lifestyle enjoyed by the Crouches and the “prosperity Gospel they preached,” which involves relentless fundraising.

“Over the last 31 years, Crouch and his wife, Jan, have parlayed their viewers’ small expressions of faith into a worldwide broadcasting empire—and a life of luxury,” Lobdell’s two-part series began. “Those small gifts underwrite a lifestyle that most of the ministry’s supporters can only dream about.”

By convincing viewers that God will financially reward them for donating to TBN, Crouch and company have mastered the art of the prosperity gospel. Lobdell summed up the longstanding doctrine that “promises worshippers that God will shower them with material blessings if they sacrifice to spread His word.”

Journalists have long been suspicious of the prosperity gospel, and like many of them Lobdell operated from the premise that prosperity gospel abuses religion by taking from the poor and giving to the rich. In the second major part of his series, published on September 20, Lobdell wrote, “For at least a century, preachers have plied the notion that dropping money in the collection plate will bring blessings from God—material as well as spiritual. But Crouch, through the inspired salesmanship and advanced telecommunications technology, has converted this timeworn creed into a potent financial engine.”

There is the suggestion that Crouch’s brand of Christianity doesn’t sit well with most of the faithful, and Lobdell looked to the establishment to back him up. “Most mainstream theologians and pastors say the prosperity gospel is at best a doctrinal error and at worst a con game,” he declared.

However, the Times could not find anything illegal about TBN’s business practices. Instead, it took a more complicated path by questioning the way that the network finances its operations.

“The prosperity gospel became the foundation of TBN fundraising,” Lobdell wrote. “During fundraising ‘Praise-a-thons,’ the Crouches read testimonials from donors whose debts supposedly were miraculously forgiven—or who inexplicably received checks in the mail.”  In 1997, Lobdell noted, Crouch threatened viewers saying that those who did not donate would lose their “reward in heaven.”

However dubious this sort of high pressure tactic might be, it works with TBN’s constituency. The network takes in more than $120 million a year from viewers. That money, in turn, funds efforts to expand around the world to spread Christianity. But it also pays what the Times considers excessive salaries to top executives like the Crouches.

Together, the couple makes over $750,000 annually. Particularly irksome to Lobdell is TBN’s policy of sitting on very large reserves of cash. He reported that the network typically runs a $60 million surplus each year—about half of what it collects from viewers.

TBN’s public reaction to the Times series came through its spokesman, Colby May, who said that the newspaper had its own agenda for bashing TBN. That agenda is reflected in its “subjective” and “selective” reporting filled with “condescension” and “mischaracterizations.” TBN said it had explained to Lobdell that the network maintained large cash reserves because being debt-free was part of its “spiritual and business principles,” and because ongoing expansion required large sums of ready cash.  To make his charges stick, Lodbell should have pursued the question of debt-free principles more extensively than he did.

But neither did TBN’s defense address Lobdell’s attack on the prosperity gospel. May defended the network’s business practices and attacked the Times’ integrity, adding that TBN’s sole mission is to fulfill the call to “preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The view from inside the world of the televangelists is that they have to struggle endlessly to build an alternative to the mainstream culture’s implacable opposition.

From the outside, the prosperity gospel looks like a cynical scam, from the inside it means spending the widow’s mite to keep a small independent voice.  Lobdell quoted a statement made on air once, by Crouch’s son Paul, Jr. “If the devil can keep all of us Christians poor, we won’t have any disposable income to build Christian television stations.”

Lobdell’s exposé may not bring down Crouch, but it may have had some impact on TBN’s fundraising practices. This fall, the Praise-a-thon, the network’s biannual fundraiser that takes in about $90 million a year, wasn’t broadcast live for the first time. Instead, the network used a “best-of format” approach, recycling taped segments of previous Praise-a-thons. TBN claimed the decision was made due to Jan Crouch’s recent gallbladder surgery, but Lobdell reported that outsiders view the choice as an effort not to appear “unseemly” by asking for more money after the details of TBN’s riches were publicized.

Without wanting to give credence to that notion, Paul Crouch Jr., a network executive, conceded that the new format would relieve some pressure on the pastors who buy time from TBN and appear on its fundraising efforts. By recycling previous fundraising pitches, they wouldn’t have to address the current controversy. “It seems that when TBN is persecuted, so goes the whole body of Christ,” Crouch Jr. told the Times on October 27.  “Other ministers get concerned that they are going to be next on the hit list. Everyone goes into the alert mode.”

 “Everyone” appears to be an exaggeration. The Los Angeles Times had taken on the prosperity gospel at its ground zero, but Orange County residents aren’t known for their aversion to wealth. The recidivist moral outrage of journalists about the prosperity gospel isn’t widely shared among conservative Protestants.

In addition, the scandal may have flopped because the sex part got very complicated, with the timeline getting muddy, and the Times doing a poor job of relating the parts of the scandal.

In 2004, it turns out that a complaint about a televangelist indulging in a homosexual tryst doesn’t elicit much more than a few jokes in feature stories and editorials.

Perhaps, however, the most serious problem was the accuser, Enoch Lonnie Ford, a 41-year-old former TBN employee with a history of drug use and repeated blackmail attempts who had also served jail time for a sex offense. Not exactly Mr. Credibility. The Times used Ford as an important source for its stories on Crouch, but commendably reported that in 2003 Ford had attempted to extort $10 million from TBN, but that Crouch and the network wouldn’t pay.

TBN also worked hard to suppress the Ford angle. When Crouch reached a settlement with Ford in 2003, the California courts agreed to his request to forbid public discussion of the case by all parties to the settlement. This fall, when Ford agreed to be interviewed by the Times, TBN went to court in an attempt to halt publication of the story.

“Ministry attorneys went to Orange County Superior Court on Tuesday in an unsuccessful attempt to stop publication of this story, claiming that a Times reporter ‘aided and abetted’ Ford in violating an April 2003 court order that barred him from discussing his allegations,” Lobdell reported on September 22. The network then pressed charges against Ford for violating the previous ruling that barred him from discussing TBN. No ruling has been made.  Nevertheless, Ford doesn’t look like the most reliable sort of witness.

And so, even with material that’s worked before, the Times couldn’t rile up enough public outrage to really get things going. Buzz about the scandal never reached much beyond the Southern California’s evangelical community.

In the end, while there may indeed be yet another hypocritical preacher on the block, Americans appear to be deeply familiar with the prosperity gospel and not very much bothered by it.



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