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The preachers getting rich from poor Americans (bbc.com)
128 points by sohkamyung 54 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

This isn't limited to the US either, City Harvest Church in Singapore is a great example of the prosperity gospel in action elsewhere. S$50 million (US$36m) of donations were siphoned from the church, of which half went into attempting to launch the pastor's wife into pop stardom, including this distinctly un-churchy video:


(Yes, that is Wyclef Jean; he was paid almost $2m to produce the song.)

More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Harvest_Church_Criminal_B...

It's an issue with the Charismatic Movement, which is particularly strong among Evangelicalism but hardly limited to it. It promotes a cult of personality, or rather numerous cults of personality.

Both Catholicism (even with the pope) and traditional Protestantism have mechanisms to resist this. Catholicism resists it because clericalism pushes back against cults of the person of the pope specifically (notice the incessant factional backstabbing), but also because the parish priest is more a functionary of rites than anything else--sermons in Catholic churches are generally brief. Protestant denominations like Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Lutheranism maintain (at least nominally) the Catholic tradition of apostolic succession and a system of Presbyters and Bishops, which diffuses theological power structurally. Notably Anabaptists and Pentecostalism discard these structures almost entirely, so no coincidence that they're more susceptible to cults of personalities.

I grew up Catholic in a small southern town. There was one Catholic church among dozens (if not a hundred plus) protestant churches; it was mostly attended by military families. I remember the parish priest (who was my confirmation sponsor as I had no family or close Catholic family friends to sponsor me) complaining that the community, including parishioners, gossiped that he wasn't godly enough. He drove around in a Cadillac and drank (moderately). What the community didn't know was that he was pretty much the only pastor who personally volunteered at local charities unaffiliated with our church, in addition to the work he did for the church's own programs. But he never made it a point to inform people of this because he did it on his personal time--just like he bought his Cadillac using his clerical stipend and drank on his own time. He refused to advertise this on principle. He railed against the cults of personality of local churchgoers (including his own parishioners) and of local churches. Their priorities were all screwed up. Since then American Catholicism specifically and Roman Catholicism globally has increasingly shifted in this troubling direction, in tandem with Christianity more generally.

Anyhow, to reiterate, it's not just a problem with Baptists or Pentecostalism, nor do all Baptist and Pentecostal churches suffer from the problem. But there's an interplay between doctrine and institutional structure. People will readily admit it when discussing how the Roman Catholic hierarchy protected child rapists; but they refuse to see the downsides to excessively decentralized institutions that put too much unchecked power and influence in the hands of local leaders.

The U.S. has exported the problem globally because it's exported the Charismatic Movement.

Currently taking a course about charisma in Islam and part of it discusses the so called “new preachers” - inward looking evangelism that’s a booming industry.

One prominent example is Amru Khaled عمرو خالد‎.


Can you provide some references or biblio from the charisma in Islam course? Thanks...

You mean specifically about Amru Khaled?

I found this comment very interesting. Can you give an example of a cult of personality within the anabaptist movement?

One piece of evidence: if you look at this Wikipedia list of megachurches, Baptist-affiliated (and especially Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated) churches are second only to so-called non-denominational: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_megachurches_in_the_Un...

Many of the others, including Calvary and many non-denominational ones, are largely derivative of Anabaptist theology--e.g. practice adult baptism. Pentacostalism originally drew most of its adherents from Baptist churches. Ancedotally, where I grew up people readily migrated between Baptist and Pentacostal churches. Interestingly, there was also a group of Catholic parishioners at my church who practiced--or I guess I should say experienced--speaking in tongues.

More to your point, famous televangelists like Billy Graham were Baptist. Oral Roberts identified as a Baptist early on, and went to a Baptist seminary school. Likewise for Pat Robertson. Baptists really seemed to dominate the scene during the latter part of the 20th century when the rise of the megachurches began, though they were preceded and succeeded by iconic personalities of different denominations. Nobody really remembers the ones that preceded them, like the Roman Catholic Bishop for whom the word televangelist was supposedly originally coined, exactly because the shift toward cults of personality hadn't become widespread.

I'm neither a scholar of theology nor sociology, but I don't think this is all coincidental.

Part of it is likely that the Second Great Awakening (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Great_Awakening) was largely dominated by Baptist and Methodist churches and especially charismatic (small 'c') pastors who at least nominally adhered to those theologies. IME, many modern American Methodist churches adhere to a significantly different theology than traditional Methodism, in many respects akin to Anabaptism. Methodism spread globally primarily through British colonies. IIRC, Methodism was the dominate Christian denomination in Singapore and Malaysia, and I'm pretty sure you could trace import of the Charismatic Movement into Singapore through the Methodist communities.

The critical element of Anabaptism isn't theological, per se, but the (lack of) institutional and community structures. Mennonites are Anabaptists but you don't find Mennonite megachurches or televangelists because the structures that Anabaptism removed were replaced with other communal structures. I do know a Mennonite who, with a Methodist spouse (whose father is a Methodist Bishop), attend an evangelical church--either Baptist-affiliated or non-denominational. It's a relatively easy transition from a religious perspective.

Check out the hardcore history episode "prophets of doom". It takes place shortly after the Reformation, when anabaptism was a new thing. It's crazy.

They are extremely difficult to kill without government regulations, James Randi exposed Peter Popoff (80s televangelist faith healer) as a straight up 100% fraud and that didn't seem to really hurt him much if at all in the long run.


>He went bankrupt the next year, but made a comeback in the late 1990s. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Popoff bought TV time to promote "Miracle Spring Water" on late-night infomercials, and referred to himself as a prophet.[2] Business Insider remarked, "No matter how many times his claims are debunked, he seems to bounce back with another version of the same old scam."[3]

>Popoff was collecting almost $4 million per year in the late 1980s, according to Randi.[41] In 2003, his ministry received over $9.6 million, and in 2005, over $23 million. In that year, he and his wife were paid a combined salary of nearly $1 million, while two of his children received over $180,000 each.[42] Financial data is not available for Popoff's ministry since 2005 because Peter Popoff Ministries changed from a for-profit business to a religious organization in 2006, making it tax-exempt.[40] Popoff purchased a home in Bradbury, California, for $4.5 million in 2007.[43] He drives a Porsche and a Mercedes-Benz.[44]

> [H]e dresses in a suit, pulls out a Bible and urges viewers to pledge a very specific amount of money. "Don't delay, don't delay," he urges, calmly but emphatically ... drawing in viewers who ... are desperate for change.

Can you imagine if this kind of stunt were pulled in the secular sphere? An aspiring leader dressed up in a suit, urging viewers to raise a specific amount of money. "Don't delay, donate today!" drawing in viewers desperate for change.

Wait a second...

Ha. I see what you're getting at. It's a little different because politicians actually do have the power to change things. Proof by existence: before there was no ACA, now there is an ACA.

While being a member of a church can probably improve your life in some ways -- a built in community of like-minded people -- it won't directly fix your problems in a way that another community can't. And if you're not using church for community, there is really very little chance that donating will do anything positive for you. At least, if it did, you'd think someone would find evidence of the same.

Are you saying that organized religion doesn't have the power to influence change? Politicians do not have a monopoly on impact, in fact, I would say that they have become quite inefficient at it.

At least in the United States, organized religion is officially supposed to be apolitical, at least if the church is organized as a 501(c)-3. So if you're asking whether the church can influence social policy, the answer is obviously yes, but officially it is meant to be "no." And in any case, donations are not really connected to that process.

But if you're asking whether churches do good directly, then the answer is obviously yes. The question is one of degrees. I believe that most church income is spent on church matters (salaries for ministers, staff, rent, evangelism, programs, etc.), and a relatively small amount of it goes to actual charity -- although this belief is a supposition of mine, so I am open to being corrected. In light of this belief, no, I don't think churches in practice can effect systemic changes in the well-being of non-employees. Certainly not nearly to the extent that the government has that capability.

Churches file separate articles of organization for political donations, and members donate to those separately purposefully for influencing change.

In a lot of cases, the politician's implementation turns out to be contracting with churches to do the actual work.

Are these comparable though ? Is anyone raising money promising the virtues of a secular life that will give you a pleasant after life ? Also, isn't Jesus divine ? Why does he need donations?

There’s a great documentary called Marjoe (a conjugate of Mary and Joseph) about how scammy some of these people are. It won Best Picture in 1972: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marjoe.

It is not just limited to US. You will be surprised how much of that money goes back to forced conversions in countries like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc. In India, the state of Nagaland has 90% christian population. They destroyed the local cultures and traditions.

Local traditions like headhunting?

The Naga were headhunters before converting to Christianity, National Geographic has a clip about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLs-UoqzLlU

Nagaland has more than 16 major tribes and there are 20 minor tribes. Not all them practice this.


Also, the headhunting was a resistance by the tribals to christian missionaries.

>>Also, the headhunting was a resistance by the tribals to christian missionaries.

Source please? (The Wikipedia article does not say this).

I grew up near the Falwell family's sphere of influence and I'm still stunned at the extent of their deceit. They effectively control a mid-tier city, a large private Christian university, and a huge voting bloc of conservative Christians

It's not just televangelists; the local variety of parson is just as exploitative. I grew up in the Mississippi Delta—every "Reverend" drives around in a Cadillac while most of his congregation struggles to make ends meet. These same Reverends preach on the religious benefits of daily fasting while the children of their congregations get their one square meal of the day at school. </anecdote>

Not to challenge your own experiences, but this is an overgeneralization of pastors/preachers as a whole.

I personally know multiple pastors who can barely afford the basics, much less luxuries, and who work side jobs to make ends meet. They have soberly made difficult decisions to live out their faith.

You could make the same claim of hypocrisy about any class of community leader or any cultural institution.

Setting aside the question of whether pastors (Charismatic Christian, Evangelical Christian, Christian, or even Muslim) are a particularly hypocritical bunch, megachurches are fundamentally different. They can be exploitative even if the leader is personally honest simply because they're breeding grounds for exploitative peer pressure entirely unmoored from traditional institutional and doctrinal anchors.[1] Power corrupts, and megachurches centralize a ton of power into a single individual.

Cults of personality are qualitatively different from your run-of-the-mill leadership position. If the Roman Catholic Pope tells the global Catholic community to do X, not many people will unflinchingly do X. People don't invest themselves as heavily in abstract doctrine as they do individuals. A megachurch is almost by definition a cult of personality, as to grow and thrive at such scale it takes an exceptionally charismatic leader in whom people invest themselves. And the doctrine of these churches tends to be particularly loose and particularly predicated on the exegesis of the leader, claims to biblical textualism and literalism notwithstanding.

[1] Yes, traditional institutions may have intrinsic exploitative characteristics. But they also have intrinsic mitigations that constrain exploitation, otherwise they wouldn't have persisted for so long. Like a virus, the most virulent ones extinguish themselves rather quickly.

For some data points:

"When it comes to clergy, new Catholic priests, which includes bishops, can expect a salary somewhere in the mid-$20,000 range, with median salaries varying slightly depending on geography. The highest median salary for a new priest is in the Midwest, at $29,856, while the lowest median salary, $24,960, is found in the Central region, which spans from Minnesota to Texas. The maximum salary for priests ranges from $29,744 in the West region to $44,417 in the Midwest."

Now this is Catholicism, so it's going to be regimented, along with mainline protestant ministries.

But even for the more 'American flavours' of Christianity, I suggest the average income is probably lower.

I'd consider these hustlers about the same level of the vast number of people who hustle products on their Instagram accounts which is to say some do very well, most don't.

Oddly, I'm not sure how much authenticity and revenue correlate for this, or any other field of service. It's the 'marketers' that tend to win.

[1] https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/08/11/how-much-do...

but everything included, so that is basically 35k, tax free, or in a lower tax bracket since so much of the compensation is non monetary, purely disposable.

edit, this says the median is 45k https://work.chron.com/much-catholic-priests-paid-12915.html

Bear in mind that while church organizations don't pay taxes, individual employees (including priests) do still pay income tax.

Clergy pay income tax.

Also, even if they didn't - they are not making a lot of money.

On average, it's peanuts.

This notion of 'rich minister' is not 'a thing' - it's exceedingly less common than in any other line of business.

It can be a very rich club, and its members are all expenses paid tax free, with a lower tax bracket for 10s of thousands of disposable income.


LDS net worth 67 billion, vatican, 30 billion etc. etc.

Obviously there are extremes on the other end, but for those with 45k disposable income, who can make investments and own land, no "vow of poverty" should be assumed either.

the bureau of labor statistics lists the mean salary for clergy as $50k, with a range of $25k to $80k as well.


The LDS and Catholic Church asset values aren't really helpful, the clergy don't have a piece of that. There are a small number of admins, surely, who get to live in some nice buildings, but that's about it.

Again, $45K is not 'tax free'.

A 25-80K salary range is fairly meagre for the United States.

You're making my point for me: this is not a career for those who're aspiring to make a ton of money.

Many churches have traditionally provided housing for their clergy, which makes this pay rate seem somewhat more reasonable.

My favorite new instagram is https://www.instagram.com/preachersnsneakers/

Clearly a quest to reach "new audiences" but it gives me a good chuckle.

Crooked preachers have been around for a long, long time.

The bar to entry is now lower, scammers don't even have to learn to talk smoothly or quote scripture. Anyone that can dream up a sympathetic story can be a GoFundMe scammer.

There is little hope for under educated people. It's weird that educated people still believe in the supernatural.

What happened to “receive free, give free”? (Matthew 10:8)

It surprised me to read that they had been informed by John Oliver, because I have always assumed that Oliver's reach would be rather insular because of both its content and nature of distribution.

Indeed! Serendipity.

> In August 2015, the couple were channel-hopping in a Jacksonville motel room, when they caught an episode of John Oliver's satirical news show, Last Week Tonight. > > "I never watched John Oliver. I had never even heard of the guy," says Larry.

Smart ones profiting off of the masses, like the stock market, or just how the whole world works.

You assume that the whole stock market is a zero-sum game which is patently false. Businesses raise money , many if not all use this money to grow their businesses and return money to shareholders via dividends / buyback. Stock appreciation is a result of this activity. FYI , a dollar invested in S&P index in 1926 was worth 5000+ dollars in 2014 (http://skloff.com/growth-of-1-dollar-investment-1926-2014/). If this is profiting off the masses, I don’t know what to say :-)

There is a small army of portfolio managers that under perform index funds year after year. Like almost all of them. And investment banks both selling securities and betting against them at the same time.

The non zero sum part is called the real economy. Which itself is under performing the market.

Or the current crop of tech companies which exist solely to launder negative interest central bank credit.

Can you define current crop? If you think Uber , Lyft etc. you’re right. I’m talking about stock markets as a whole. Not one or two crazy stocks

1926 is an intriguing year to start if your goal is to mislead.

“S&P 500 got its start in 1923. 3 years later it was expanded to include 90 stocks...” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-stocks-sp-timeline-id...

Good to hear that Ole Anthony and John Bloom (Joe Bob) are still at it!

why is this in hn? if it is relevant, would hn link to articles on any selfless acts and charities by the religious(given that in reality hundreds of millions are helped by them)? seems there is an anti christian bias in this sort articles selected by hn; only the ones reflecting badly on christians are allowed.

Google “hacker news atheism” if you want to see unflattering articles about atheist.

Among the first page of results for me include:

“Atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method” https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19445855

“You don’t need religion to find /r/atheism obnoxious” https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19087955

“When atheists lack the courage of their convictions” https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18425245

Also cultural articles are shared and commented on like most everything else that the community here finds interesting. Asking why this is on hacker news is just lazy virtue signaling tbh.

> why is this in hn?

Isn't it obvious? A lot of HN readers are interested in making money. This article shows one way to do it.

Combine prosperity gospel with MLM, buy some YouTube ads for the right demographics and in front of the right videos, and you've got yourself a nice self-growing tax sheltered business that is politically infeasible to regulate. It's not like Zuckerberg has any scruples either.

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