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 are in the news this week thanks to revelations about their astonishing self-indulgence. While details of such are on my mind, they can serve as poster preachers for a few ideas I have on education reforms and tax modifications.
Before getting to the Crouches, I should mention something else about the media preacher business. 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.
Donald B. Ardell is the Well Infidel. He wrote High Level Wellness in 1976 (Rodale Press) and many other books since, including Die Healthy, 14 Days to Wellness and most recently, Aging Beyond Belief and REAL Wellness. Since 1984, Don has produced 685 editions of the Ardell Wellness Report. Don's website at SeekWellness.com/wellness is the largest repository of wellness essays.
Don is one of ten Americans given the Healthy America Fitness Leaders Award in 1991 by the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In 2010, he was granted the Lifetime Achievement Prize by the German Wellness Association in Dusseldorf; in July 2011, he was honored with the Halbert L. Dunn Award by the National Wellness Institute.
Don has won many national and four world championships in triathlon and duathlon, his most recent world titles coming in 2009 in the Gold Coast of Australia and 2010 in Budapest, Hungary.
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