The FundamentaList (No. 8)

1. Republican Minority Opens Investigation of Prosperity Televangelists

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has opened an investigation into the finances of six of the leading prosperity televangelists, Paula White, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn. Grassley is looking into whether these celebrity preachers abused their tax-exempt status by using proceeds to enrich themselves with luxury items like mansions, private jets, and fancy cars. Three of the targeted evangelists (Dollar, Copeland, and Hinn) sit on the Oral Roberts University Board of Regents, which is supposed to be investigating similar charges of financial mismanagement and other abuses there. (John Hagee, whose own use of church funds has been documented in the Prospect, also serves on the ORU Board of Regents.)

No word yet on whether the Democrats will join him, and so far no subpoenas have been issued, just requests for financial statements. Grassley is acting on information from the Trinity Foundation, a religious fraud watchdog group in Texas whose investigations have launched many of the leading media exposes of televangelists. But none of those exposes have resulted in changes in the tax law, which shields “church” finances from public view.

All six are politically connected -- sought by candidates for implicit or explicit endorsements and mobilizing the shock troops on issues like abortion, homosexuality, Middle East policy, or the separation of church and state. (You can read much more about all of this, and in particular about Copeland, Long, and Hinn, in God’s Profits.) There already have been cries of protest of this government “intrusion,” so stay tuned for how all of this will play out.

2. GOP Evangelical Voters Still Divided; Giuliani's Evangelical Support in Doubt

According to a new Pew poll released last week, Rudy Giuliani's support among white evangelicals does not appear as firm as prior polls that queried "regular church-goers" might have shown. Not all regular church-goers are evangelical, not all evangelicals are conservative, and as has been abundantly clear over the past several months, none of these voters agree on a 2008 presidential candidate.

The Pew poll found that among white Republican and Republican-leaning evangelicals nationally, Giuliani, McCain, and Thompson each are polling at about 20 percent, and Huckabee and Romney are each drawing about 10 percent. In Iowa, however, it's looking more like a Romney-Huckabee race, with Giuliani and McCain in a statistical tie for second with Huckabee, and Fred Thompson, sparring of late with Huckabee to be crowned the real conservative, running in the single digits.

The poll also found that more than half of Republican white evangelicals don't think Giuliani is conservative enough, and almost half of the Republicans polled don't think his conservative credentials measure up. All that pandering, flip-flopping, and Scalia-Thomas-Roberts-Alito promises for naught!

3. Huckabee at Church: He Gives the Sermon While the Pastor Campaigns

Mike Huckabee went to church in Texas this weekend, speaking both at the Prestonwood Baptist megachurch in Plano, and New Beginnings Church in Irving. At New Beginnings, which is on the grounds of the Trinity Broadcasting Network's Texas production studio, Huckabee appealed to Pastor Larry Huch's charismatic audience by complimenting the church's band and noting that he's not a boring Baptist but rather a bass guitar-strumming "Bapti-costal." He let Huch -- who was careful to say he spoke for himself and not his church -- do all the campaigning while the candidate himself told heartwarming stories about growing up poor and the difficult early years of his marriage, when he struggled financially and his wife survived cancer.

Huch sang Huckabee's praises to the congregation -- and his position on abortion did not get first mention. Instead, Huch said that the previous evening, Huckabee "spoke about making our nation safe" from terrorists and ending our dependence on foreign oil. (Huch didn't specify where Huckabee made those comments, but the candidate did attend a fundraiser at the home of former Pilgrim's Pride president Lindy "Buddy" Pilgrim, at which he reportedly raised about $100,000.)

Echoing the words of Janet Folger of Faith2Action, a protégé of late televangelist D. James Kennedy and one of Huckabee's fervent early supporters, Huch invoked the biblical story of Samuel's search for God's anointed one among Jesse's sons. Introducing Huckabee to his congregation, Huch said that "God gave me this word for you … When [Samuel] saw David – and I believe you are God's David – and the Lord said to the prophet, arise and anoint him, for this is the one. I believe God has his hand on you."

If you've never heard of Larry Huch, here's a little primer: He's a televangelist who used to be a drug addict, who has moved from New Mexico to Oregon and now to Texas, spreading his gospel of breaking generational curses and achieving financial breakthroughs. He preaches the prosperity gospel and you could probably catch him this week on TBN's Praise-A-Thon, begging viewers to "sow a seed" so they can "reap a harvest," along with pals John Hagee and Rod Parsley, as well as Barack Obama's new friend Donnie McClurkin. Huch is also a regional director for Hagee's Christians United for Israel, and considers himself a Hebraic Christian, getting back to his "Jewish roots" in anticipation of the end of days. Check out the Jewish roots store on his website, where you can purchase your very own "7 Places Jesus Shed His Blood" mezuzah.

Huch's audience -- neo-Pentecostal biblical conservatives, drawn in to the gospel of wealth and Armageddon -- is not the sort of crowd you'd see at the Values Voters Summit nor are they devotees of James Dobson. Instead, they're followers of prosperity preachers like Parsley, who held a jam-packed faith healing service at Huch's church last year, Christian Zionists like Hagee, who held a Night to Honor Israel there, or biblical prophesiers you might see on TBN predicting everything from personal accomplishments to world events. Huch's audience could care less whether Paul Weyrich endorsed Mitt Romney, although to some movement evangelicals, it means a great deal.

If all this anointing business sounds a little eerily familiar, it should. Eight years ago, religious leaders, including televangelist James Robison -- a mentor and early booster of Huckabee's -- gathered around George W. Bush and helped him peddle a tale of God calling him to the White House. And remember, just like Huckabee, Bush was pitched to the public as a nice guy, a "compassionate conservative," who really wasn't one of those crazy Christian right radicals (even James Dobson, who now appears to be each election cycle's naysayer, couldn't get behind him at first). Although Huckabee doesn't have the family ties to either the Skull and Bones networks or Texas oilmen, the idea of selling someone with radical right ideas as a mainstream regular guy, while portraying him as God's anointed to biblical conservatives, makes it look like Huckabee's backers are partying like it's 1999.

4. Evangelicals and a Two-State Solution

As Christians United for Israel mobilized its followers to bombard the White House with e-mails "urg[ing] President Bush not to pressure Israel to make territorial concessions in connection with the upcoming Annapolis Summit," another group of evangelicals met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to urge her to work for a two-state solution.

Rev. Ronald Sider, who this summer led a group of a few dozen centrist evangelical leaders in writing a letter to Bush advocating a two-state solution, said that Rice "feels strongly, as we do, that if there isn't hope for the Palestinians in the near future to have their own state…. that will contribute enormously to the radicalization and everybody will be worse off, including Israel and its security."

Sider contests Hagee's assertion that he represents a majority of evangelicals, but there's no contesting how organized and vocal Hagee's following is, or how their zeal is motivated not by realpolitik but by apocalyptic fantasy. As to why end-times scenarios continue to play such a significant role in the psyche of some American evangelicals, Sider told me, "There's a certain side of the American religious community, especially the evangelical community that is attracted by that kind of nonsensical speculation…. It lets you label your enemy, it simplifies things, it also appeals to a certain kind of psychological makeup" that needs an enemy – the antichrist – that they know will be vanquished in the end.

5. Prosperity Preaching and Bush Politics

In an interview this week, I asked Rev. Michael Livingston, president of the liberal National Council of Churches, about how liberal churches can emotionally motivate political activism in the same way the right has. Livingston admitted that "we probably don't work hard enough at it," and then added part of the problem is that our culture is "drugged on ease and comfort and luxury and our own piece of the American dream . . . . numbed into complacency by the pursuit middle class happiness." Even in churches, Livingston added, "We've all bought into it."

This pursuit of comfort and luxury is a complement to Bush's exhortation to shop after 9/11 to show the terrorists what we're really all about. Is this prosperity gospel helping Bush to get people to, as Livingston put it, "look the other way while these horrible things [such as Darfur, the war in Iraq, or torture] are happening in our name, with our money, and our support, direct and indirect"? Livingston replied:

It's a very unfortunate, unholy alliance between this political establishment that has its own goals and this corporate model of religious life that I think has simply lost sight of the fundamental convictions of the Gospel. And they're coming together at a time when and in a way that frustrates the Gospel and lends support to the ability of the Bush administration to pursue their own political goals. I don't spend a lot of time watching this religious establishment. I don't watch them on television . . . . I can't stomach more than a few minutes of any of them, it's just pabulum. And then, beyond that, it's just pernicious and insidious. It's just a perversion of the heart of the Gospel, and I just have trouble with it. It's more about corporate life than it is about religion.

And, sadly, Livingston added, "They're so good at it."

Contact me at tapthefundamentalist AT gmail DOT com.

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