Photo credit: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt via New York Times News

What happens when the faith of a community is preyed upon for a payday?

Who Are The Figures of Prosperity Gospel?

Prosperity gospel and its potentially questionable nature in the Black community has long been an issue, since one of the earliest and most known “prosperity preachers,” Rev. Fredrick J. Eikerenkoetter, better known as Rev. Ike. He reached the height of his fame in the 1970’s with an audience of 2.5 million people. He would ask his congregation for cash donations (stating that he preferred paper money to change and offering a prayer cloth in return) from his audience for his religious guidance and would often joke with them to emphasize his philosophy around prosperity. Rev. Ike died in 2007, but prosperity gospel has continued to flourish as a field. Recognizable names today Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar have also been linked with prosperity gospel, tied to it by not only their questionable approaches to religion that rely on emphasizing income, but the extravagant fruits of their labor as well.  Figures like Creflo Dollar however, have denied the existence of prosperity gospel as a whole. 

“When we talk about prosperity, and people say it’s the prosperity gospel, there is no such thing as the prosperity gospel, it’s the gospel of grace. The money in my pocket is not mine, it’s God’s,” Dollar said. 

Then you have Kenneth Copeland, a Texas evangelist who owns three private jets, which he keeps at an airport not far away from his ministries. When confronted about his spending habits, particularly an alleged comparison of flying commercial to being “in a long tube with demons,” Copeland became defensive. In an article from 2015 titled,” Too Many Churches Preach The Gospel of Greed,” Eddie S. Glaude Jr. argues that the issue of the prosperity gospel is that it results in religion succumbing to the woes of capitalism that ultimately hinders Black people more than it helps. 

“Such an understanding of Christianity works seamlessly with American capitalism. There is no contradiction. It helps forge “the gilded cage” that locks us into an understanding of ourselves rooted in competition, selfishness, and greed. And God sanctions all of it,” Glaude Jr. said.

Prosperity Gospel and the People It Harms

This capitalistic greed, while problematic alone, is not the worst of what the prosperity gospel has to offer. The worst is the emotional manipulation aimed at getting vulnerable religious people to loosen their pockets. In a BBC news article covering prosperity gospel, California resident Larry Fardette detailed how in 2011, he found televangelist Todd Coontz, who told him, along with other members of his congregation, to invest “seed (which can run you $273 or $333), which if planted will return to them multiplied. Fardette had a struggling construction business and his car had broken down. His daughter was experiencing health issues and so was he. During this time he sent two cheques to Coontz (his contributions would eventually amount to almost $20,000), and he initially viewed seemingly small acts such as his wife receiving extra work hours. In 2015, after his daughter went into critical condition and they were homeless, they caught a John Oliver special on Televangelists that made them realize they were being used. 

“We had been so ignorant,” Fardette told BBC News.

In another article specifically discussing prosperity gospel and how it operates in the Black community, author Dennis Sanders points out that with all of its respective issues, it (prosperity gospel) can ultimately offer a positive message and realistically, Black people are not likely to have the money to invest in “seeds,” in comparison to white congregation members like Fardette. 

“Now if you are an African American and finances are tight and you hear some preacher talk about prosperity, do you scoff at this? Probably not. Why? Because this pastor understands what you are going through and is preaching a way out—a lifeline. I think prosperity preaching is bad, but let’s face it; it’s a tempting message for a real reason,” Dennis Sanders said

The reality however, is that there are congregation members operating on very little income who are more than willing to give over their income on the basis of faith, as seen with Fardette and the followers of Reverend Ike. While for some prosperity gospel may just be a source of hope, it can be slippery slope of manipulation for others. 

So, if an unwavering faith in the Lord is at the root of this issue, how do address these figures, or at least put a dent in their congregations? Well, you can contact foundations such as the Trinity Foundation, which focuses on monitoring and researching religious fraud. You can also look out for disparities in what you offer the church and what is returned. Take the case of Rev. Ike, if your being encouraged to give paper money for a prayer cloth that may be blessed by the pastor or a blessing, it may be best to keep the money. It is not unholy to question a pastor who is asking for the last of what you have. God may want you to give but I can’t imagine your safety and well  being put at risk for people who will not help you at your lowest is a wish of his. The point here is not that religion in and of itself is the issue, or that offering hope for improved circumstances is bad (on the contrary, a key aspect of religion is faith, having some belief in the unknowable). The issue is people’s faith being wielded against them. Scamming members of your congregation out of money they can not afford to give up is not helping them to plant seeds for a plant that will inevitably flourish, its cruel and opportunistic. Telling people that my handing over their money they are guaranteed to receive a gift from God is opportunistic.