The preachers getting rich from poor Americans

BBC News :

Televangelist Todd Coontz has a well-worn routine: he dresses in a suit, pulls out a Bible and urges viewers to pledge a very specific amount of money. “Don’t delay, don’t delay,” he urges, calmly but emphatically.

It sounds simple, absurdly so, but Coontz knows his audience extremely well. He broadcasts on Christian cable channels, often late into the night, drawing in viewers who lack financial literacy and are desperate for change.

“I understand the laws that govern insurance, stocks and bonds and all that is involved with Wall Street,” he once said, looking directly into the camera. “God has called me… as a financial deliverer.”

Crucially, he always refers to the money as a “seed” – a $273 seed, a $333 seed, a “turnaround” seed, depending on the broadcast. If viewers “plant” one, the amount will come back to them, multiplied, he says. It is an investment in their faith and their future.

In 2011, one of those desperate viewers was Larry Fardette, then based in California. Larry watched a lot of similar televangelists, known as prosperity preachers, who explicitly link wealth and religion. But he found Coontz particularly compelling. He assured quick returns. He seemed like a results man.

And Larry needed some fast results.

The Fardette family was going through a tough time. Larry’s daughter was seriously ill and he had health problems of his own. His construction business was struggling, and to make matters worse both his van and his car broke down irreparably within the same week. When a local junkyard offered him $600 for the van, he thumbed the bills thoughtfully and remembered Coontz’s rousing speech.

Maybe he should invest the sum as a “seed”?

He instantly recalled the specific number that Coontz had repeated again and again: $273. It was a figure the preacher often used. “God gave me the single greatest miracle of my lifetime in one day, and the numbers two, seven and three were involved,” he once said. It is also – perhaps not coincidentally – the number of Coontz’s $1.38m condo in South Carolina, paid for by his church, Rockwealth, according to local TV channel WSOC-TV.

Larry has now come to realise there was no foundation to Coontz’s promises that donated cash would multiply, but at the time the stirring speeches gave him hope. He did not see any other way out.

He sent off two cheques: one for $273 and another for $333, as requested. Then he waited for his miracle.

Televangelists are not as talked about today as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, when many rose to fame and fortune through mushrooming cable channels.

But they have never gone away. Even after numerous press exposés, the rogue elements have often bounced back. Some have got even richer. Many have taken their appeals on to social media.

A number of those making the most persistent pleas for money tap into something called the prosperity gospel, which hinges on a belief that your health and wealth is controlled by God, and God is willing you to be prosperous. Believers are encouraged to show their faith through payments, which they understand will be repaid – many times over – either in the form of wealth or healing.

For followers, it is a way to make sense of sickness and poverty. It can feel empowering and inspiring amid despair. The hard-up donors are often not oblivious to the preachers’ personal wealth – though they may not know the extent of it – but they take the riches as a sign of a direct connection with God. If seed payments have worked for them, maybe they can work for you too?

And if the seeds never flourish? Some are told their faith is not strong enough, or they have hidden sin. In Larry’s case, he often interpreted small pieces of good fortune – a gift of groceries from a neighbour, or the promise of a few extra hours of work for his wife, Darcy – as evidence of fruition.

He estimates he gave about $20,000 to these operators over the years. A little here, a little there. A few years ago, he started tallying it all up. The list is like a who’s who of all the established players, including those who have made headlines for their lavish lifestyles – those such as Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, who have asked followers to fund their private jets.

Larry’s own life could not stand in greater contrast. These days he and Darcy live in the small town of Cullman, Alabama, about an hour’s drive north of Birmingham. Their spartan living room is furnished with just a desk and four dining-room chairs. The monotony of the wall’s bare magnolia paint is broken only by a couple of mounted crosses and a small, framed Biblical verse. “Be anxious for nothing,” it reads (Philippians 4:6).

“Life is not easy but we are blessed,” says Larry, in a rasping, lived-in voice. “We have food in the refrigerator, we have two cats that love us. My wife’s got part-time work in a store and I get disability benefits.”

Larry’s painting and remodelling business fell apart when scoliosis started twisting his spine about eight years ago – roughly the same time he scrapped his van and car and made his donation to Todd Coontz. He and Darcy still lived then in his home state, California, and employed former drug users as workers. He was an ex-addict himself, and his Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous sessions had strengthened his religious beliefs.

After deciding to “follow Christ’s path”, he became an avid viewer of religious channels and specifically “praisathons” – fundraising events with multiple guest speakers. He became, in his words, “hypnotised” by the hosts. He was not just a passive spectator, he felt like he knew them.

Many of these pastors also ran prayer lines – where callers would speak one-on-one with an operator and they would pray together. If a request for money followed, Larry was happy to contribute – even if he did not have much to give. He was under the impression that the money was going to worthy projects at home and abroad, and he hoped that if he were ever in a desperate position, he would be helped too.