"Frankly, I'm tired of being poor. Just give me a cheap suit, a bad haircut, and a one-hour show on cable,"
 

 

 

In Defense of Ole

Ole Anthony exposes crooked televangelists. So why does a Republican strategist have a beef with him?

By John D. Spalding

Last Tuesday night I watched MSNBC's “Scarborough Country,” a talk show I usually avoid unless I need an emetic and don’t have any ipecac or powdered mustard lying around. But that night’s guest was Ole Anthony, the founder and president of the Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit religious community in East Dallas that’s dedicated to helping the needy—the homeless and the poor, the sick and the elderly, the addicted and the abused.

Trinity also publishes The Door Magazine, “The World’s Pretty Much Only Religious Satire Magazine” (which, incidentally, has a six-page interview with me in the November/December issue), and investigates and exposes corruption in televangelism—an untaxed, unregulated multi-billion dollar industry that’s gotten rich by promising viewers that if they dig deep into their pockets and give till it hurts, God will reward their faith with health and wealth.

Pat Buchanan was Joe Scarborough’s guest host, and he said in his intro that Anthony was on the show to explore whether these “prophets of profits” are spreading a “gospel of greed.” But as it turned out, Anthony was actually invited on to be criticized and dismissed by Buchanan and his guests— J.C. Joyce, former attorney for televangelist Robert Tilton, Jennifer Giroux of Women Influencing the Nation, and Jack Burkman, a Republican strategist. It was surreal: Anthony, the only guest willing to question televangelism, was forced to defend himself for finding fault in those who sell God. Some of the panelists’ comments and objections were so dopey that I would have tossed a shoe at the screen if I hadn’t been paralyzed with disbelief.

Some lowlights:

Buchanan defended the televangelists by citing their mass appeal: “…140 million, I believe, listen once a month to televangelists…and they certainly get something out of it. I mean, why are 140 million people wrong and Ole right?” (Anthony corrected him: About five million people support televangelists, and 60% of these people are elderly. Thirty percent are “the desperate poor.” The remaining percentage, Anthony said, are the “fairly well off” who “want a spiritual justification for their greed.”)

Tilton’s former attorney accused Anthony of ageism and classism: “Always, always these preachers that he wants to attack are preying on the poor and the old. And you can’t equate gullibility and stupidity with age and poverty. They just don’t wash. I’m old. I’m not stupid and I’m not gullible. And I’ve been poor and I wasn’t stupid or gullible then.… [Anthony insists] that these televangelists are appealing to the poor and the elderly. Well, do they control the television knob? I mean, just think about how ridiculous that position is.”

Buchanan and Giroux said that though Anthony’s exposure of televangelists’ corruption may have done some good 10 or 15 years ago, back in the days of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, his efforts aren’t needed today. Buchanan’s exact words to Anthony: “It seems to me like your job is sort of done as of 10 years ago, and you’re riding on your laurels.”

“People are more educated now after the Swaggart and Bakker scandal,” Giroux said. “And they are looking with a discerning eye when they’re watching and absorbing what these televangelist are telling them.”

Huh? Paul and Jan Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network is a $4 billion operation. Benny Hinn, who has amassed a fortune as a television faith healer, lives in an $8.5 million home. “They live like Middle Eastern potentates,” Anthony said, “with actually no accountability whatsoever.” Of the Crouch’s $4 billion, Anthony said, $583 million is in liquid assets, “and yet they’re still begging for money.”

“Well, does that make it bad?” replied Republican strategist Burkman, an unscheduled guest who was brought out after a commercial break either to pump up the volume or give Anthony a sounder beating.

“The thing we have to remember is,” Burkman said, “nobody minds in America if Michael Dell or Bill Gates or Peter Jennings runs around in a $3,000 suit. That’s just fine. But if a preacher does it, it’s bad. And the media is constantly hitting us. There’s something different about it. There is this constant subtext that this is bad or wrong.”

Right. Like Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount wearing an Armani suit. And I’m sure Dell, Gates, and Jennings enjoyed being compared to televangelists. Contrary to Burkman’s implication, Americans do care how people like Bill Gates make their money. That’s why Microsoft is taxed and regulated, and why the federal government fined Gates for violating an antitrust rule.

So why, in a segment on televangelism, was Anthony the one cross-examined? Buchanan and his guests might think that by defending televangelists they’re defending religion in general against “secular” attacks, though Ole Anthony himself is a committed Christian. It seems that even if the Scarborough posse believed that televangelists are motivated by greed, they’d rather ignore their shenanigans than expose them because it might somehow make all religion look bad. Either Buchanan and company can’t tell the difference between televangelists and more legitimate, mainstream ministers of faith, or they think the rest of us can’t.

But their real interest in giving the televangelists a free pass is more likely to shield the Christian right from scrutiny, and from perhaps losing its hold on American politics and culture. Those on the right have worked hard to convince us that their opinions are correct merely because they’re couched in religious terms. They often talk about disdaining political correctness, but they’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of p.c.-ness, demanding and getting respect for their views without demonstrating those views deserve it. Religion has a long history with this tactic, which H.L. Mencken challenged more than 60 years ago, when he wrote: “There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get.”

Not that religious opinions don’t deserve respect. It’s just that in all other important areas of our lives—from medical diagnoses to car repair estimates—we ask tough questions, we get second opinions. Why should religion be any different?

But I digress. I also suspect that, as evident in the Republican strategist’s defense of the televangelists’ profits, there were some underlying concerns about maintaining free markets. Don’t regulate televangelism—let the market decide whether the televangelists are phonies. They’re making fortunes so they must be doing something right, and if they’re not, then the market will correct them. But for free markets to work efficiently companies need to be transparent so that consumers, whether of computers or TV religion, can make the best decisions. Consumers need good information about what they’re buying and about the companies they’re buying from. Ole Anthony is trying to provide that information about televangelists.

But for Buchanan, it’s ungodly to dig up dirt on televangelists. “Aren’t you using tactics which our lord himself would condemn?” he asked Anthony, who uses private detectives in his investigations.

“I doubt it very seriously,” Anthony replied. “These men have isolated themselves to such a degree, living in gated communities, nothing made public. They have police forces around them to protect them, and they use the government and the First Amendment to protect and isolate themselves to justify their greed.”

“All I want is accountability,” he added. “That’s all I’ve ever asked for, verifications of healings, making their financial records public.”

The most absurd remarks made about Anthony on “Scarborough Country” were that he’s targeting televangelists just to draw attention to himself. Buchanan, Burkman, and Joyce all accused him of this, pointing out that Anthony has received national media coverage, including a lengthy profile by Burkhard Bilger in the December 6 issue of The New Yorker. The charge is ridiculous because Anthony is hardly out for himself. He has taken a vow of poverty, has no retirement plan, and earns $55 a week, plus room and board, for God’s sake. If there was one media whore on that program, it wasn’t Ole Anthony.

The New Yorker profile offered better insight into who Anthony is and what his faith is about:

“Religious conversions, like rock-star documentaries, nearly always follow the same pattern: the skyrocketing success and riches without fulfillment, the fall from grace and the rise to new heights on the wings of faith. In Anthony’s case, that plot has been acted out in reverse: he found religion at the pinnacle of his career and has grown steadily poorer since. God’s purpose, he believes, is not to ease our pain or to answer our prayers but to strip us of all expectation—to reveal the hollowness of our existence so that we might sacrifice our lives for others, as Christ did. True faith, Anthony says, takes us as low as we can go.”

 

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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com and is the author of A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City.


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