ERIC GORSKI AP Religion Writer
The message flickered
into Cindy Fleenor's living room each night: Be faithful in how you
live and how you give, the television preachers said, and God will
shower you with material riches.
And so the
53-year-old accountant from the Tampa, Fla., area pledged $500 a year
to Joyce Meyer, the evangelist whose frank talk about recovering from
childhood sexual abuse was so inspirational. She wrote checks to
flamboyant faith healer Benny Hinn and a local preacher-made-good,
Only the blessings
didn't come. Fleenor ended up borrowing money from friends and payday
loan companies just to buy groceries. At first she believed the
explanation given on television: Her faith wasn't strong enough.
"I wanted to believe
God wanted to do something great with me like he was doing with them,"
she said. "I'm angry and bitter about it. Right now, I don't watch
anyone on TV hardly."
All three of the
groups Fleenor supported are among six major Christian television
ministries under scrutiny by a senator who is asking questions about
the evangelists' lavish spending and possible abuses of their
The probe by Sen.
Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance
Committee, has brought new scrutiny to the underlying belief that
brings in millions of dollars and fills churches from Atlanta to Los
Angeles the "Gospel of Prosperity," or the notion that God wants to
bless the faithful with earthly riches.
All six ministries
under investigation preach the prosperity gospel to varying degrees.
Proponents call it a
biblically sound message of hope. Others say it is a distortion that
makes evangelists rich and preys on the vulnerable. They say it has
evolved from "it's all right to make money" to it's all right for the
pastor to drive a Bentley, live in an oceanside home and travel by
"More and more people
are desperate and grasping at straws and want something that will
alleviate their pain or financial crisis," said Michael Palmer, dean
of the divinity school at Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson.
"It's a growing problem."
prosperity movement can largely be traced back to evangelist Oral
Roberts' teachings. Roberts' disciples have spread his theology and
vocabulary (Roberts and other evangelists, such as Meyer, call their
donors "partners.") And several popular prosperity preachers,
including some now under investigation, have served on the Oral
Roberts University board.
Grassley is asking
the ministries for financial records on salaries, spending practices,
private jets and other perks. The investigation, coupled with a
financial scandal at ORU that forced out Roberts' son and heir,
Richard, has some wondering whether the prosperity gospel is facing a
day of reckoning.
While few expect the
movement to disappear, the scrutiny could force greater financial
transparency and oversight in a movement known for secrecy.
Most scholars trace
the origins of prosperity theology to E.W. Kenyon, an evangelical
pastor from the first half of the 20th century.
But it wasn't until
the postwar era and a pair of evangelists from Tulsa, Okla. that
"health and wealth" theology became a fixture in Pentecostal and
Oral Roberts and
Kenneth Hagin and later, Kenneth Copeland trained tens of thousands of
evangelists with a message that resonated with an emerging middle
class, said David Edwin Harrell Jr., a Roberts biographer. Copeland is
among those now being investigated.
"What Oral did was
develop a theology that made it OK to prosper," Harrell said. "He let
Pentecostals be faithful to the old-time truths their grandparents
embraced and be part of the modern world, where they could have good
jobs and make money."
The teachings took on
various names "Name It and Claim It," "Word of Faith," the prosperity
say that it isn't all about money that God's blessings extend to
health, relationships and being well-off enough to help others.
They have Bible
verses at the ready to make their case. One oft-cited verse, in Paul's
Second Epistle to the Corinthians, reads: "Yet for your sakes he
became poor, that you by his poverty might become rich."
the idea that God wants to bless his followers has a Biblical basis,
but say prosperity preachers take verses out of context. The
prosperity crowd also fails to acknowledge Biblical accounts that show
God doesn't always reward faithful believers, Palmer said.
The Book of Job is a
case study in piety unrewarded, and a chapter in the Book of Hebrews
includes a litany of believers who were tortured and martyred, Palmer
Yet the prosperity
gospel continues to draw crowds, particularly lower- and middle-income
people who, critics say, have the greatest motivation and the most to
lose. The prosperity message is spreading to black churches,
attracting elderly people with disposable incomes, and reaching huge
churches in Africa and other developing parts of the world.
One of the teaching's
attractions is that it doesn't dwell on traditional Christian themes
of heaven and hell but on answering pressing concerns of the here and
now, said Brian McLaren, a liberal evangelical author and pastor.
But the prosperity
gospel, McLaren said, not only preys on the hope of the vulnerable, it
puts too much emphasis on individual success and happiness.
"We've pretty much
ignored what the Bible says about systemic injustice," he said.
The checks and
balances central to Christian denominations are largely lacking in
prosperity churches. One of the pastors in the Grassley probe, Bishop
Eddie Long of suburban Atlanta, has written that God told him to get
rid of the "ungodly governmental structure" of a deacon board.
Some ministers hold
up their own wealth as evidence that the teaching works. Atlanta-area
pastor Creflo Dollar, who is fighting Grassley's inquiry, owns a Rolls
Royce and multimillion-dollar homes and travels in a church-owned
In a letter to
Grassley, Dollar's attorney calls the prosperity gospel a "deeply held
religious belief" grounded in Scripture and therefore a protected
religious freedom. Grassley has said his probe is not about theology.
But even some
prosperity gospel critics like the Rev. Adam Hamilton of 15,000-member
United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City,
Mo. say that the investigation is entering a minefield.
"How do you determine
how much money a minister like this is able to make when the basic
theology is that wealth is OK?" said Hamilton, an Oral Roberts
graduate who later left the charismatic movement. "That gets into
There is evidence of
change. Joyce Meyer Ministries, for one, enacted financial reforms in
recent years, including making audited financial statements public.
Meyer, who has
promised to cooperate fully with Grassley, issued a statement
emphasizing that a prosperity gospel "that solely equates blessing
with financial gain is out of balance and could damage a person's walk
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