Prosperity Preachers and the Politcal Hunt for the Faith Vote

As Mike Huckabee's campaign struggled for cash after he lost the Michigan and South Carolina primaries last month, he called on a long-time friend who claims to have conducted the ultimate fundraiser: raising over a billion dollars for God.

Televangelist Kenneth Copeland, the nation's leading proponent of the controversial Word of Faith, or prosperity gospel, boasted to pastors attending his annual conference in January that since he founded his ministry 40 years ago, he's brought in over a billion dollars. "I'm a rich Jew," he added, emphasizing his claim that God's will that his followers be rich dates back to the covenant with Abraham. While the conference was taking place, attendees pitched in to the strapped Huckabee campaign, raising $111,000 in contributions and another million dollars in pledges. Mindful of the possible tax code violation if he used his non-profit's resources to host a political fundraiser, Copeland now says the Huckabee campaign rented a room for the fundraiser, which was entirely separate from his conference. The Huckabee campaign says the campaign held a fundraiser at Copeland's home.

Either way, no one is denying that Copeland helped out his friend -- and vice versa. Video from the conference shows Copeland recounting his telephone conversation with Huckabee in which the candidate pledged to stand behind Copeland in the face of an investigation by Huckabee's fellow Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). (Huckabee did not dispute Copeland's version of the phone call in a recent appearance on Meet the Press.) Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is conducting an inquiry into whether six of the nation's leading prosperity televangelists have violated their churches' tax-exempt status by diverting donor funds to finance their families' lavish lifestyles, replete with all the accoutrements Jesus undoubtedly envisioned for his disciples: Gulfstream jets, Bentleys, and multi-million dollar "parsonages."

Sacre bleu, right? As it turns out, Grassley is the apostate in this election year.

Although prosperity televangelists are frequently ridiculed for their on-air antics, like miraculous healings, casting out devils, and claims to preside over a sort of supernatural stock market in which thousand-fold returns are promised on contributions to them, they are hardly outsiders to the political hunt for the "faith" vote. My new book, God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, details the history of the Word of Faith movement, its numerous scandals, and its political and ideological ties to the Republican Party. Copeland and others have been sought by Republican candidates -- both Bushes, and now Huckabee and John McCain -- because of their enormous audiences and influence as "Christian leaders."

Never mind that what they preach is considered heresy by many Christians, condemned not only for its claim that Jesus was wealthy and wanted his followers to be rich, but because of the incessant demand that tithes and offerings be made to pastors, televangelists, and self-appointed prophets and bishops. Tithes and offerings are biblical, prosperity preachers insist. But critics charge the pressure to give is intense, and the televangelists offer no transparency or accountability in return. That's because non-profits organized as houses of worship -- even if the house is the tube -- are exempt from filing publicly available tax returns to the IRS. While you'd be able to look up the salary and perks of the top executives at any non-church non-profit, churches are within the law by closing their books to outside inspection.

To their followers, the prosperity preachers stand on a grander pedestal than any public figure, particularly politicians. The leaders, like Copeland and numerous others, are anointed by God. One of their favorite bits of scripture is Psalm 105:15 ("touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm"), meant to dispel the scrutiny of their critics and questioning of their followers, lest they provoke God's wrath. One former follower of a prosperity preacher told me that when the local newspaper ran a story about his excessive salary, she refused to read it, in deference to him.

In covering events for my book, I saw time and time again how astonishingly credulous and devoted the prosperity televangelists' followers are. For them, all events are explained as either directed by God or directed by Satan. Since their "anointed ones" are on God's side, Grassley and his supporters are the heretics.