Monday, July 23, 2007

God loves you, so send your money in today

I dislike televangelists. Rather, I dislike the picture of the Christian right they paint: a swath of people who believe the human is superior to other species due to their allegiance to a deity and their adherence to a set of texts sent down from said deity.

Now, don't get me wrong here: I have respect for all people of any religion in name. Further, half of my family are evangelical, and I love them very much and appreciate what they do for me. However, I believe that if someone decides to follow a man — or woman — on television because of their supposed representation of God, they end up worshipping the man representing God, not God. These representatives include Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, and Tim LaHaye (and did include Jerry Falwell and Tammy Faye Messner), who all have started as people with faith but turned into veritable megalomaniacs, many of them amassing huge fortunes as a result of running huge ministries or even television stations. While I do not approve of the practices leading up to this, as I will explain later, it should be considered that the message they at first tried to put out was indeed of good faith, yet power and fame simply corrupted them.

Evangelism as a media genre can be put back arguably as far as Charles Coughlin's radio programme, broadcast in the days of Franklin Roosevelt, in which he angered several religious audiences with anti-Semitic comments until, after World War II and failed attempts by the government to control him, a Detroit priest ordered him off the air. The first time money became involved, though, may have been a plea from Pat Robertson to keep his television station at the time, WYAH-TV, which resulted in a telethon that still continues today on its successor — the Christian Broadcasting Network — and many other religious stations, first starting with $10 donations from a benchmark of 700 donors a month (hence the name of the flagship programme, The 700 Club). The telethon, which was enough to keep the station afloat, pales in comparison to the telethons still held on Trinity Broadcasting Network's Praise the Lord programme. TBN, in effect, was formed when Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker broke with CBN, but they eventually left TBN alone and started the PTL network, which would soon become infamous for the failure of a Christian theme park, the imprisonment of Jim Bakker for tax evasion, and his affair with a secretary that he tried to settle with $250,000.

TBN, under the direction of Paul and Jan Crouch, has become probably the largest religious television network in the nation, with revenues upward of $150 million annually. However, much of the money any such network seems to make goes toward the luxurious lifestyle of the hosts. Indeed, according to Business 2.0's Dumbest Moments in Business History, Bakker had diverted more than $3.7 million in revenue for personal issues, including an air-conditioned doghouse. Whatever the money is specifically used for, the fact that the bulk of it comes out of the pockets of viewers as 'donations' is unsettling in the least. Rather than live out as a pay-per-view programme offered with, say, DirecTV, people have to donate to the station. In theory, donating is good — but what if, Chris Hedges asked in his book, American Fascists, you start demanding $1000 or more at a time? You claim that 'you are robbing God', and that 'it is Your show, Your airwaves'. To me, that sounds much like extortion, seeing as no deity like the one they claim to represent would actually need money. Much of money inevitably goes to Crouch or whomever is running the station, and to see them spend an excessive amount of money on a jet plane and several mansions, not to mention cosmetic surgery — rather than give some money to actual charities and keep a modest sum — is nothing short of incensing, and even more so when you back up such opulence as a 'gift from God' for running a ministry.

If money is enough to incense me, I can't bear to think of how awful it is to couple it with the constant purporting that God wants the financial best for His followers. On a Detroit News article that is no longer online, a church pastor evidently got to write off a mansion as a donation from members of his church, which subscribed to the 'Gospel of Wealth', a system of Christian beliefs that come to the conclusion that God wants followers to be as wealthy as possible. There's a little problem with that, however:

And as he was going forth into the way, there ran one to him, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good save one, even God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor thy father and mother. And he said unto him, Teacher, all these things have I observed from my youth. And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. But his countenance fell at the saying, and he went away sorrowful: for he was one that had great possessions. And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:17-25 ASV)

It seems as if Jesus didn't see wealth as necessarily a qualification for getting into heaven; rather, it seems as if he wanted the rich man to be generous to the poor as he certainly had the resources to do so. While it is true that the religious right does tend to give more to charity than liberals and the secular (even when donations to organisations such as TBN are factored out), there are some who, despite the great trend, believe that an expanse of wealth and power is acceptable by God regardless of where it goes. The Gospel of Wealth, therefore, probably isn't a very good interpretation of what should be done on the part of Christians.

Even more harrowing is the thought of not wealth alone, but power — over the government. We see it today, with states passing laws forbidding same-sex couples from marrying, apparently in the light of a Massachusetts ruling that allowed them to do so. Last year, South Dakota even tempted Roe v Wade by banning abortion altogether except in cases in which the mother's life was at risk, even disallowing exceptions for rape and incest. It's unfathomable to me how this could have been the result of a bloc bred on the teachings of pastors in the media — we have the Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell in the hopes of creating a voting base of people opposed to specific or implied actions prohibited in the pages of the Bible. The resulting voting base took credit for putting Ronald Reagan in power, and they almost certainly helped both Bushes enter office. The latter Bush, turned to when America was attacked on 11 September 2001, turned out to be one to cause mayhem in the moral sphere — not to mention Iraq — based on his evangelical beliefs, egged on by religious Republicans and arguably the forces of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Indeed, the latter was featured on The 700 Club two days after the attacks to give his analysis (click the video link below the picture of his face) of what caused it — and it had nothing to do with militant Arab fundamentalists:

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularise America — I point the finger in their face and say, you helped this happen.

Eventually Robertson, who said 'Well, I totally concur', recanted. All the same, the attack was caused by militant Arab fundamentalists — and it seems to me that remarks like this could have been the very fuel needed for such an attack. When it gets down to it, these fundamentalists and these beacons of the Christian right are quite the same in their steadfast intolerance for even other religions. That's what the whole mess in the Middle East is over, after all.

While we're on the subject of gays and abortionists, I might as well say what I believe. People like Falwell will use a prohibition in Leviticus as well as Paul's letter to the Romans* to justify such inconvenience to gays. That's fine to me — but it's not fine when rigid interpretations make their way into the government of a free society. The decision that homosexuality is a sin is in the moral sphere, something a straight or gay person alike might see as a hindrance or a sign of weakness. But marriage is a different issue, one that carries legal consequence. I believe that the government has no responsibility to rule on strictly moral affairs as homosexuality when it occurs in the bedroom; as such, denying a couple a legal right based on an individual, moral interpretation is downright wrong. Although marriage has always been sacrosanct in many religions, even as the union of one man and one woman, I do not see this having much validity when applied to legal statutes that apply to all people regardless of their sexual orientation — if marriage is a legal term, I say let same-sex couples marry.

As such, I am adamantly pro-choice. I realise there are many couples who want to have a child and place a value on the foetus any woman is carrying, but this doesn't necessarily apply to them since they want the child. There are some out there who are brave enough to pull through with raising a child even if they were raped — this is not for them, either. The issue here really covers those who have sex as a form of recreation or trust, even outside marriage. On one hand you have the girl who was raped or was a victim of sexual abuse within the family, and on the other you have the girl who had sex with her boyfriend in which no condom was used or the condom or any other device failed. The latter case I do find a little immoral, but it happens either because of indifference to the situation or as a token of trust. In either case, if a pregnancy arises, it's ultimately the woman's decision whether to go on with the pregnancy and raise the child, or abort it. A pregnancy at a young age, while possible in older times, is made much more difficult by college and the possibility of a career (not to mention the scant availability of sitters). Indeed, in Steven Levitt's Freakonomics, the point is made that a child arising from an unwanted pregnancy and not given up for adoption most likely will grow up bearing the scars of his or her mother's resentment and turn to crime. Indeed, Levitt was criticised across the board when the point was made clear that legalised abortion was a major factor in the fall of crime in the 1990s despite apocalyptic predictions for the decade. I think the fact that a pregnancy forced upon by a moral interpretation of a foetus as a separate life — when it's not even counted in population and mortality records — will likely result in the child being raised in an environment conducive to resent and criminal behaviour is enough for me to say a woman should have the right to abort at any stage of pregnancy. Even if it is a little gross.

One of the people I met at the conference over last weekend was pressured into sex four times by a former boyfriend. At the conference, a boy she liked (I'm sketching here) rejected her because of her belief that she should have the right to abort should she find herself incapable of raising a child. She cried for a few minutes before her friend, a staff member, and I gathered around and dried the tears before resuming the water play.

Now, my aunt and uncle donate to CBN, and I have watched two episodes of The 700 Club at their house. The objective of the show, I will repeat, is to uplift viewers with miracles in others' lives, but when they begin political rhetoric — such as the talk on gays and abortion — things get ugly. I just hope there'll be someone who comes along and actually gives a decent ministry without forcing literal interpretations of the Bible on viewers. After all, humans did write the book — from their perception of the world, albeit with insight as to how God wanted the world to run — and humans are interpreting it.

* The last two paragraphs of the first chapter of Romans are a polemic on 'unnatural relations' leading to other sorts of sin, an allusion to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis. We'll assume for a second that the Bible is true: While the documentation of a gang of men wanting to draw other men out for forced sex has led literalistic Christians to say that homosexuality led to the collapse of Sodom, I believe that a collection of graver sins, or perhaps even the simple fact that these men just wanted to force sex on other men to exact misery, but not because of individual orientation, could have led God to supposedly destroy the city. Also, the Archbishop of Canterbury recently issued a statement accusing such Christians of ignoring what Paul wrote at the beginning of the second chapter, immediately after his polemic, invalidating man's right to judge others based on their sins due to this situation.

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