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An unholy approach to television’s lure for tithing

Gary Caruso | Friday, February 17, 2006

The new year accentuates a need for revenue by so-called televangelists. While their methods sometimes differ, they laser on specific rhetoric for pledges, vows or tithes. Recently billboards, direct mailing pieces and television broadcasts have permeated our lives. This writer surfed the channels well past midnight to record some requests and has concluded that P. T. Barnum was correct when declaring that a sucker was born every minute.

Spirituality is the most private and personal aspect of our lives. Factions in any religion should not “preach” on how to correctly worship. Yet time after time televangelists instruct us on the proper way to worship, mostly with a “born again” conversion. Remarkably Jimmy Swaggert contradicts fellow ministers saying that they may lead to the death of souls in a black pit. Swaggert reveals that a decade ago the Lord told him to write a new Biblical interpretation which he sells for a mere $125 with three musical CDs – usually a $175 offer.

Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” recently hosted a telethon to raise $450,000. Interestingly, Robertson’s approach was twofold, targeting the wealthy while asking the poor to contribute just 65 cents a day. Drawing on our human greed, viewers were told that if we want a $100,000 job, we must begin to think at that level and give to the Lord (i.e., Robertson) at ten percent of that amount. Once we have committed to God, He will, in turn, reward us by opening a door to such a position. Robertson’s son noted that many viewers were able to give $10,000, and “you need to call.” Pledges totaled $582,000.

It seems to this writer that Robertson “needed” those people a bit more than the wayward flock watching the telethon. A staff person handed the younger Robertson a yellow paper with a pledge for $10,000 followed by another pledge of an unusual $5,004 amount. Moreover, the elder Robertson’s quick math left this watcher bewildered. He asked for a mere 65 cents a day, “about $20 a month” or about $200 a year. Actually, 65 cents a day equals more at $237.25 a year, but less than $20 a month. The crawl below the screen listed names and “$20 per month.”

One televangelist offered “free miracle water” with a call to his 800 toll-free number. Never mentioning contributions, he promised “miracle money.” After airing sessions where he healed others by touching their foreheads before they fell to the floor, the program cut to testimonials from those receiving “miracle money.” One woman told of $7,000 miraculously transferred into her checking account. Another claimed that $10,000 appeared in her account.

Testimonials are the lifeblood of fundraising, and each program aired several. Many begin describing how desperate the people were for housing, money, a job or their own lives. A February flyer from Ron Hembree of Cornerstone TeleVision Network, which airs the 700 Club twice a day, features an upbeat cover story about a woman who planned to kill her boyfriend and end her own life. She has transformed her life since she began watching Cornerstone. When Cornerstone last contacted her, “she had a thriving ministry as an author, songwriter and speaker.”

Cornerstone also offers five ways to contribute – monthly pledge, telethon pledge, special gift, memorial gift and caring hearts – but nowhere does it list how to obtain an accounting of income and expenses. To take the message of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, Hembree offers a $5,000 special gift feature which raises a foreign flag on his Avenue of Promise leading to “Signal Hill.” After a year, the foreign flag will be sent in a presentation box to the contributor. Hembree writes, “Prayer not only helps us align our will with that of our Lord but also spurs us on to fulfill His command to reach a world He loves an died for.”

Kenneth Hagin Ministries touts that “your believing brings about your receiving.” He quotes Mark 9:23 with editing, “Jesus said … If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” He writes that “some people quote the same scriptures they’ve heard a preacher quote and wonder why they don’t get results.” The answer might come from fellow preacher Robert Tilton whose January 2006 plea targeted desperate people facing bankruptcy which he could see through the television. Asking for a vow of $1,000 seed money to God (envelopes included), he may have recycled his television “visions” once too often for the credits ending the program revealed it had been filmed in 1998.

Give this Catholic writer the original, traditional Christian outlook which was never designed to be comfortable and whose “born again” notion meant leaving this life for the next. Even then we are not released from tithing as demonstrated by a billboard on the road to Detroit’s Super Bowl soliciting us beyond our graves, “Is God’s will in your will?”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer