The Lavish Lifestyles of Rich and Infamous TV Evangelists Invites Tax and Other Reforms

by Don on May 9th, 2012
in General Wellness, Religion

Paul and Janice Crouch are no oiler or more grotesque and absurd than run-of-the-mill Elmer Gantry's such as Richard (son of Oral) Roberts, Jerry Falwell (deceased), Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Ted Haggert, Jimmy Swaggart, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and the rest of that ilk. But, the Crouch's made headlines this week in revelations about their self-indulgence, so while details of such are on my mind, let me focus on them.

The Crouches and other TV preachers spend a lot of time convincing their audiences that the fastest way to get rich is to give away their money - to them. It seems that God desperately needs money and they, the Crouches, know how God wants it spent by the Crouches - on his behalf. The Crouches, apparently, know a great deal about hell and can describe what its like in detail. They are good at profiling those likely to end up in hell - basically, everyone who supports the homosexual socialist liberal agenda and uses the internet to visit places like this blog on politics, sex and religion. They tell their viewers that, to boost their chances for answered prayers and miracles, send love offerings - operators always seem to be standing by.

Before getting to the Crouches, I should mention something else about the media preacher business.á God must really love those called to this ministry, for all TV preachers appear to be as prosperous as Mitt Romney. On rare occasions when a media preacher business comes to grief, it's not because donors got wise but because preachers got caught. They got caught doing what they condemned - doing things without clothes on with homosexuals (some of whom might also have been socialist liberals). Alas, most of the time TV preachers don't get caught, in good part because the vile acts that they commit every time they go on the air are perfectly acceptable and legal, namely, selling snake oil (nonsense about miracles, eternal life, answered prayers and the like). It ought to be a crime - against the laws of common sense, but such laws have not been invented yet. Worse, what they do to finance their lavish lifestyles is socially acceptable and even honored, not just with earthly riches but with honors. Who will ever forget the appalling appearance of Rick Warren at the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. To paraphrase Andre Breton, Everything that is doddering, squint-eyed, vile, polluted and grotesque is summoned up for me in these two words: television evangelists!

But, let me get to the Crouches.

What accounts for the success of TV evangelists like the Crouches and the others who pull in mind-boggling sums from viewer donations and tax-free earnings? I have a theory. I think it is due, more than anything else, to the degree to which the nation neglects quality public education. Only a population poorly educated in the application of reason and consequent respect for science, a people innocent of rational, evidence-based decision-making, can explain the propensity of viewers to donate money to such characters.

What do the Crouches and the gaggle of televangelists offer in return for responding favorably and generously to pleas for donations that make up about 98 percent of their ministry programming? Basically, they offer improved odds of winning the eternal lottery - a ticket to a kingdom in the next life.

Assume for just a moment that there is no such kingdom, that there is no god and that the Crouches and other TV folks have no more capability of arranging miracles or having prayers answered than the woman in the moon, the old guy behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz or, for that matter, me. Wouldn't that shed a new light on all these characters preaching prosperity gospels?

But, as I mentioned before, this is about the Crouches. Ah, the Crouches - ya gotta love em. They were featured in news accounts all over the country because it seems the Crouch family is fighting over how to spend the loot gained from faithful audiences trying to help God do good. According to a feature story in the New York Times (See Erik Eckholm, Family Battle Offers Look Inside Lavish TV Ministry, New York Times, May 4, 2012), the Crouches have a lot of God's money on hand to fight over. Their TV enterprise consists of a multitude of stations with satellite signals that reach millions of worshipers all over the world.

Here are a few examples of their own prosperity, made possible by tax-exempt income (donations) all faithfully consistent with the gospel prosperity:

* In 2010, Mr. Crouch received $400,000 as president, Mrs. Crouch $365,000 as first vice president.

* They own his-and-her five to six million dollar mansions in New York City.

* They own a large ministry house near Orlando.

* They own a theme park in Orlando called the Holy Land Experience.

* They own another home in the Holy Land itself (i.e., in the theme park, not in the Middle East).

* They own high value properties in Texas and Tennessee (on the former Conway Twitty estate).

* They own corporate jets valued at $8 million and $49 million each.

* They enjoy dinners costing thousands of dollars.

* They provide lavish homes or "parsonages" for staff.

All of these facts came out because of dueling lawsuits within the Crouch family, though it's not clear if the battles are fueled by greed or from hearing different messages from God on how best to help the poor and downtrodden. Besides lavish spending, charges of embezzlement and varied financial crimes are being hurled about. A defender of the family business explained: the spending that some call opulent is necessary to convey the ministry?s position of accomplishment.

The Crouches have plenty of accomplishment booty to fight over. Their prosperity gospel brought in $93 million in 2010 alone, plus $64 million in additional income from selling airtime and $17 million from investment income. Apparently, it takes a lot of cash to do the Lord's work. Doing the Lord's work, however, seems to build quite an appetite. One of the lawsuits contain allegations that the Crouchs (and their son) each ran up meal expenses of at least $300,000 per year.

So, what kinds of reforms might be in order to rein in such seemingly dubious ways to spend charitable contributions?

Here are a few ideas I'd like to see discussed in the years to come, assuming this country does not become a theocracy wherein such conversations would be considered blasphemous and thus illegal:

  • Fund a national crash program in public education that emphasizes critical thinking skills. Hopefully, this would render TV ministries less attractive to vulnerable, easily-exploited citizens by prosperity gospel preachers and other charlatans offering spiritual pie-in-the-sky with all the trimmings.
  • Tax all church property and religious business enterprises.
  • Develop enforcement capabilities to identify reasonable versus extravagant uses of charitable contributions and industrial- strength record keeping and public disclosure of all charities.
  • Create a national secular board or agency with the power to identify, study and, if appropriate, prosecute mountebanks who run scams under the umbrella of religion.

What a sweet deal the Crouchs and other TV evangelists have at present. They do not and could not guarantee their product - believers can never prove they were Madoffed with promises of wildly improbable returns on investments. After all, those who experience less, not more prosperity for their donations can't seek refunds. And, when they die, they don't even discover that it was all balderdash. No heaven or hell, no gods or devils and no judgments. They'll never know it was all BS. They'll never know they were duped.

There ought to be a law - lots of laws or at least a more sensible tax structure to discourage donations to people like the Crouches and others mentioned.

But, I'll settle for massive reforms in the educational system at all levels to encourage more critical thinking because the rest is as unlikely as prosperity from supporting the Crouches.

'Speak No Ill of the Dead' Sounds OK But Exceptions Are Occasionally Warranted: Chuck Colson, 1931-2012

by Don on April 22nd, 2012
in General Wellness, Religion

Sam Harris, one of this country's leading secularists, has a new book describing free will as a myth. Here and in lectures and articles, Mr. Harris rejects the idea that we can change our character or the course of our lives, including lifestyle choices and so on. We are, Harris posits, hopelessly guided by forces other than volition, unaware and powerless to change much about ourselves. We are ruled by our biology, culture and experiences, among other forces beyond conscious control.

Taking this reasoning into account, I shouldn't be too hard on Chuck Colson, or anyone else of whose deeds I am appalled. Given similar circumstances, I'd no doubt be more or less like them, except of course for the influence of random variables that also shape every life. We are all, in fact, shaped by contingencies (AKA blind fate/luck/chance, etc. as you wish) and the other above-noted factors.

In any event, Colson is gone (i.e., dead) and I'm resolved to be nice, more or less. Unfortunately, his work continues so a few less than super nice comments can't be helped. (Besides, I'm also a product of all those forces acting upon me - I'm going with the flow here.)

Perhaps you are too youthful or for other reasons not aware of the first career for which Mr. Colson is infamous. (I use this term in its generally accepted sense. Personally, I think Colson's true fame was as a political operator; his vile infamy for which he is heralded was his work as an evangelist for superstition amongst undereducated captive populations.)

There were two Charles Colsons known to the world. The first was the Republican hit man; the second the religious proselytizer. I never liked either one but I will always be fond of the first compared with the ghastly business done by the second. á

Best known for his honestly in saying, I would walk over my own grandmother to ensure the reelection of President Richard M. Nixon, Colson was a dirty tricks artist and highly effective political strategist. He got credit, said to be well deserved, for laying the groundwork of Nixon's 1972 landslide win over Democrat George McGovern.

I loved the Washington Post column by humorist Art Buchwald in which he imagined a prayer session between Mr. Colson and the grandmother:

Colson - Shall we kneel together?

Granny: Not me. I haven?t been able to kneel since you screamed at me, ?Four more years? and then put your Oldsmobile into drive.

My favorite assessment of Colson was expressed years ago by Americans for Separation of Church and State's Barry Lynn. Americans United brought lawsuits against Colson's Prison Fellowship - and won. It turns out that the Fellowship engaged in more dirty tricks than Nixn's reelection committees. Colluding with Right Wing evangelical political leaders and officials, Colson's new ministry pressured prisoners to convert to Christianity, in good part by arranging better conditions for those willing to come to Jesus, Lynn said: Colson never changed his methods, just his boss. Sadly, when he went from being Richard Nixon's hatchet man, he turned into a man who thought he was God's hatchet man. He literally turned his very formidable political skills once in the service of very far-right religious and political agendas.

Of all the Colsonian expressions that this character contributed to the world, my favorite would have to be this one: When you?ve got ?em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. This worked for Colson in both careers, with slight variation. In the second, as recruiter for an imaginary friend, he added souls to hearts and minds. This seems appropriate, given that no evidence exists for souls, either.

Proposed New Rule for Presidential Candidates: If You Think God's Telling You to Run, Keep It To Yourself

by Don on April 11th, 2012
in General Wellness, Religion

I?m offended by evangelical actions, but I?m not offended by their opinion. They believe in a sky god who?s going to suck them up into the sky with a vacuum cleaner. What?s there to get offended by? That?s funny! That?s hilarious! Have at it, Hoss, I?d love to see it. Cenk Uygur

I'm with Cenk. If the evangelicals kept their beliefs and actions to themselves, if they let the rest of us alone, what's there to worry about?

Ah, wouldn't that be lovely? Alas, it's not happening. Christian activists have not kept their beliefs and actions to themselves, not since the Reagan years. They want political power. They want policies and laws that support their beliefs and actions. They want to legislate policies and laws that requre the rest of us to conform to their traditions, beliefs and actions. They can't help themselves - evangelicals think they are called to proselytize. They are convinced that God needs them to spread the word.á They believe they can?t keep their beliefs to themselves - God wants them out there selling.áTo not do so is to risk missing out on the heavenly lottery and all that eternal exuberance winning it supposedly brings.

A new book details what politicians like Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry mean when they talk about their personal relationship with God. Entitled, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by T. M. Luhrmann (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), the author describes evangelical Christian communities (known as renewalists) that comprise as much as 26% of the American population. These people believe that they have had a direct revelation from God of one kind or another. Both the Gallup and Pew polling organizations report that renewalists also claim to have heard a voice or had a vision on one or more occasions as a result of prayer. Rick Warren sold 30 million copies of his book, Purpose Driven Life describing how to become best friends with God.á It would appear that God or at least Rick Warren have been friended by 30 million or more evangelicals. Talk about social networking.

If this kind of thinking helps people deal with stress, avoid loneliness and otherwise get on with their lives, I say, bully for them. Or, have at it, Hoss.

But what, exactly, does a Christian renewalist get out of the friendship with God, besides eternal bliss in the next life? According to Mr. Luhrmann, having God as a pal offers a friend, imaginary or real, who can be asked for practical advice (e.g., when getting dressed, whether God prefers the black shirt or the blue one). In an Opinion piece about his book in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Luhrmann wrote: They didn't treat God as different from the stuff of the material world?tables, chairs, other people. They talked about God saying, telling, prodding, encouraging, as if he were right there at the dinner table. And sometimes they put out a place setting. (See When the Almighty Talks Back, WSJ, April 6, 2012, p.A11.)

To a secular infidel rationalist heretic freethinker like me, this is total batdoodoo. It seems incomprehensible that anyone capable of functioning outside of an institution without supervision could possibly take such beliefs seriously. Yet, as noted, at least a quarter of the population behaves accordingly, assuming Pew, Gallup and author Luhrmann are not having us on. The optimist in me recalls Aristotle for small comfort: There is a foolish corner in the brain of the wisest man and hopes that the rest of the space in there is more or less rational.

Once again, I want to emphasize that bizarre religious beliefs and inexplicable actions give no offense when practiced harmlessly. If such were the case, I would not protest or be alarmed. But, when politicians get godly, I get nervous.

And that's precisely why I do very much worry about Republican presidential candidates who make explicit claims that their candidacy is based on a directive from an imaginary friend. No fewer than four contenders for the GOP (God's Own Party) claimed that God told them to run for president. The four would be Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry. Good riddance, all. (No, I'm not making this up. For details on each candidates heavenly endorsement, see Dan Amira, Every Candidate Endorsed by God Has Now Lost to Mitt Romney, in the April New York Magazine.)

It should be obvious why a new rule (thanks Bill Maher) is needed here. Presidents have to make important decisions that affect us all, nearly every day. On some days, presidential decisions can affect the fate of the nation. Think of it - do we want a president under extreme pressure to react to say, North Korea or Iran's immanent use of a nuclear weapon by consulting the National Security Council and dozens of other key advisers, or falling on his knees in prayer, asking God to tell him (via a little voice only he can hear) what to do? Holy crappola - Frankenstein seems warm and cuddly compared with the prospects of an evangelical president.

Like Ingersoll (The Gods, 1872), We are looking for the time when the useful shall be the honorable; and when reason, throned upon the world's brain, shall be the King of Kings, and God of Gods.

Which is the Liklier Defender of Freedom: The Catholic Church or a Secular United States of America?

by Don on April 2nd, 2012
in General Wellness, Religion

The "Opinion" section of the weekend Wall Street Journal devoted half a page to Archbishop Timothy Dolan's grievances against Obama Administration guidelines for the Affordable Health Care Act. James Taranto's intervew, "When the Archbishop Met the President," was rich in irony. The Archbishop, a high official of an institution with a history of burning alive those who disagreed with its mandates in this life and burning them again for eternity in a hellish afterlife, spoke as if his church were entitled to stand as a credible arbiter of morality or freedom. The appalling gall of this attempt is both mind boggling and gobsmackering.

The U.S. Conference of Bishops opposes the birth-control mandate because, well, basically because the Catholic Church does not like sex. The church will permit it in instances where sexual union in approved forms may boost membership in their cult, but that's about it. The Catholic leadership labels any opposition to their dogmatic rules as "morally toxic." In fact, that phrase better applies to the nature of a superstition that restricts liberty, joy, exuberance and choice in favor of sin, fear, guilt and shame. The Catholic Church is unequalled today in its capacity for Orwellian doublespeak.

In Mr. Dolan's interview, a mantra of deceit is seen in references to the church as a defender of "the rights of conscience," infringments on "religious liberty" and "moral imperatives."
Orwell would love it, no doubt.

Mr. Dolan implies that the president and "ideologues ... favor an ever-more-powerful secular government." Well, as opposed to what - a weaker secular government relative to the forces of theocracy, such as the U.S. Conference of Bishops?

In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy promised a gathering of ministers in Houston - and the nation, that "my Catholic faith will not inspire my decisions in the White House." What does Dolan think of that? "That's worrisome," he stated.

Well, at least he did not throw up. Rather, the archbishop and the writer of the WSJ article take comfort from the fact that "devout Catholic Rick Santorum is running on the promise that his faith will inform his decisions" and that the U.S. Supreme Court ... has had a Catholic majority since 2006."

I suspect more than a few readers of even the WSJ take little comfort in the candidacy of Mr. Santorum or the composition and many rulings of the Catholic dominated Supreme Court.

Let freedom - and a more powerful secular government, ring. And prevail.

A Secular Democracy Imperiled by Creeping Talibanism

by Don on March 23rd, 2012
in General Wellness, Religion

There was a great rally of infidels, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics and other non-faith guided Americans from throughout the country in Washington, D.C. on March 24th. The cheerful crowd was there to celebrate reason, a quality one organizer, Richard Dawkins, termed a crowning virtue.

Dawkins wrote an op-ed piece about the rally in the Washington Post two days before the event. It began with a rhetorical question, How have we come to the point where reason needs a rally to defend it? Well, anyone who has paid attention to the presidential primary campaign of the Republican Party knew that Dawkins was only too aware of what has brought Americans to such a point.

In my work, Reason is the R in REAL wellness. Unfortunately, reason is not an element addressed in worksite wellness educational programs. For that matter, reason is not addressed in health books, lectures or workshops, either. Instead, weight loss diets, exercise advice and stress management techniques are the focus of professionals seeking to encourage better habits for well-being. It may be time for quality of life advocates to broaden their health offerings. The fact is a near critical mass of voters do not seem to be making the connection between reason - a skill nourished by respect for science, evidence and logic, with health or wellness. That is why I rarely send the term wellness out in the world anymore unprotected by the attributive adjective acronym REAL.

But, consider this: Is there an alternative to reason? Alas, there is and it's not pretty. It can be seen in theá Republican Party's medieval approach to public policy and governance, a method Dawkins describes as a swamp of primitive superstition and supernatural gullibility.á (Source: Richard Dawkins, Who would rally against reason? Washington Post, March 21, 2012.)

Dawkins credits reason for making it possible for humans to know the age of earth and the universe (4.6 and 13.8 billion years, respectively), what we're made of (atoms), where we came from (evolved from other species), why all species are adapted to their environments (natural selection of their DNA), how to explain night and day (Earth spins on its axis) and why we have winter and summer (Earth is tilted) and so much else (see article referenced above) that liberated us from ancient fears of ghosts and devils, evil spirits...magic spells and witches? curses. Yet, Republican politicians offer leaders such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum as substitutes for "educated intellectuals and Úlitists-politicians.

The Republicans want to restrict women's access to contraception, gut public education and shift the role of government to that of promoting big business and imposing religious morality. They oppose universal health care, they want to eliminate Planned Parenthood and end regulations that inhibit profits. They succeed at persuading Tea Party enthusiasts and other more or less average Americans to vote against their economic self-interests because so many Americans are so reason-impaired gullible.

It's a sorry situation. We need Reason rallies in every state, every city and town in the country. We need REAL wellness in every school, workplace, home and yes, especially in every church. Of course, the latter would not exist if reason took hold.

In her weekly column in the Tampa Bay Times, Robyn Blumner summed up the case nicely for this and further reason rallies and promotions

I worry that we get the elected officials we deserve. By electing politicians who claim they can cut taxes and slash the deficit, as well as bring gas prices down to $2.50 per gallon, we get leaders without principles. Honesty is a dangerous trait in American politics. Jon Huntsman doomed his chances with the Republican primary voter by accepting the vast scientific evidence for evolution and climate change, and admitting it out loud. Our level of scientific illiteracy isá alarming, too.

All of this is freakishly concerning, and then Santorum comes along with his self-styled brand of American Talibanism that is actually gaining ground. And I think to myself, 'Now that's something to worry about.'
(Robyn E. Blumner, "In fear of American Talibanism," The Tampa Bay Times, March 15, 2012.)

I have similar fears, which is why I believe the promotion of reason with REAL wellness is not only important for health and well-being but also for quality of life. The latter requires that we do all we can to discourage and reject the Republican-led drift toward creeping Talibanism that imperils our secular democracy.

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