The "prosperity gospel" (previously) is a religious doctrine that encourages poor people to send specific amounts of cash (usually in the hundreds of dollars) to charismatic preachers, an act the preachers characterizes as "seed giving" — and the preachers promise that God will reward these gifts by making the givers rich.
It's arguably the most predatory form of mainstream religion in practice today, and it benefits from the US tax code, which enables churches to accept donations without paying taxes on them, like nonprofits do, but unlike nonprofits, the preachers who exhort their followers to send them their millions never have to account for the money they raise, nor disclose how much of it lands in their own pockets and the pockets of their inner circles.
The BBC follows some prosperity gospel donors who gave to preachers (notably the convicted fraudster Todd Coontz, who is out of jail pending appeal and giving Periscope sermons from the front seat of his Mazzerati) out of desperation as their finances were hitting rock bottom — often through a combination of catastrophic health bills, layoffs, and mortgage or rent increases — and then ended up even poorer, sometimes homeless. Then, when they wrote to the preachers they'd sent so much money to, asking for help, the preachers either ignored them, or their flunkies told them to fuck off ("You know we get six or seven of these calls a week and if we help you, we are going to have to help everyone").
One factor that has galvanized opposition to these grifters is an excellent John Oliver report on the incredible personal wealth they have accumulated. Oliver got much of his research through the Trinity Foundation, a scrappy religious organization devoted to exposing the con-artists at the top of these evangelical pyramid schemes.
The Trinity Foundation and its founder, Ole Anthony, have been at it since the 1970s, keeping detailed dossiers on the net worth of the top prosperity gospel preachers and sharing them with journalists. Anthony even went undercover, helping Diane Sawyer expose Robert Tilton, leading to Tilton losing his TV show and being reduced to a shoestring operation.
Anthony sounds like an incredible character, stymied by the GOP's unwillingness to cross the super-rich preachers and the flocks they command. In the meantime, the believers are lambs to slaughter, and the preachers are sitting on millions.
During a four-year investigation, prosecutors dug up all sorts of irregularities, ruling that Coontz had been underreporting his income and exploiting expenses claims.
He had developed various ploys, such as flying economy but sending fake first-class invoices to the ministries he was freelancing for, so he could pocket the difference. He would also claim expenses twice, once from his own ministry and once from his client. He claimed for thousands of dollars spent on clothes (suits are not a permitted business expense) and for 400 cinema tickets, which the IRS also considered unreasonable.
On 26 January 2019, Coontz was sentenced to five years in prison for failing to pay taxes and assisting in the filing of false tax returns. He was also ordered to pay $755,669 in restitution.
He reported to jail in early April, but was freed by the judges, pending appeal.
Coontz did not respond to the BBC's request for comment, but he has previously denied wrongdoing. On his website, he also claims to have given more than $1m to charity.
His Twitter account is still posting daily (with no reference to his jail sentence) and he has taken to preaching – via the Periscope app – from the front seat of his Maserati.
"Are you calling to sow your $219 seed today?" was the immediate response when the BBC called Rockwealth's hotline. The operator was not able to share the significance of that figure and would not answer questions about how many people had called to pledge. "Not so many today, but there are several of us answering calls," she said. It is not clear whether the switchboard was serving only Rockwealth or other churches too.
The Trinity Foundation has recently filed a long report to the IRS, calling for Rockwealth to lose its status as a tax-exempt church. As always, it feels like a shot in the dark and it does not expect to hear back.
The preachers getting rich from poor Americans [Vicky Baker/BBC]
(via Naked Capitalism)