Editor’s Note: I got the idea for this column while watching Black Entertainment Television (BET) one day. Apparently, there’s a whole group of white preachers who prey on black people and take their money, promising them wealth and health. You can get a look at this by clicking on camp meeting.com. Two of the slickest hucksters, you’ll ever see on this channel are Mike Murdock and Todd Coontz, who push a scam called “seed faith.” You’ll find yourself asking how anyone could be taken in by this, but half the country believes the Noah’s Ark story is history, so nothing surprises me anymore.

What a Racket!


In one of my favorite comic strips, Dilbert is told that his cousin Lauren has received her degree in English and is asked whether he has any advice for her. His reply, which resonates with all English majors, questions how she’ll “enjoy scratching out a meager living.” Lauren answers, “I never thought about it.” To which he observes, “Obviously.”

Most of us on that career path eventually ask ourselves, “What was I thinking?” Many of the guys I knew in high school who opted to skip college have retired early, following well-paid careers. Compared with English majors, they seem like Mensa members.

In the late 1960s, I asked Mr. Hargrove, my high school guidance counselor, what I should take in college. He said it didn’t matter all that much: “Just get that diploma.” Whatever they paid him to dispense such advice, it was too much. In fact, I wish I had his job. Instead, I spent six years in college earning a master’s in English, so I could earn a meager living.

I would’ve gotten better career counseling from science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The story may be apocryphal, but Hubbard and fellow novelist Isaac Asimov were reputedly lamenting the difficulties of making a decent living writing sci-fi. Hubbard said the best way to get rich quick was religion, and bet Asimov $100 that he could make a million dollars in a year by starting one. Twelve months later, he’d written “Dianetics,” dreamed up Scientology and collected his C-note.

Fact or fiction, Hubbard knew what he was doing. If you’re smart (and unscrupulous), religious leader can be a lucrative career path. For example, profiting from Americans’ gullibility toward the supernatural, spiritualists and faith healers have used the media like a 24x7 carnival midway to rake in profits.

Following in the footsteps of Harry Houdini, former magician James “The Amazing” Randi has had a second career debunking the paranormal. Just as Houdini revealed that all mediums are fakes (which did little to slow the séance business), Randi has worked with organizations such as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) to prove that spiritualists, including faith healers, are hucksters.

In a PBS documentary, he showed how televangelist Peter Popoff was able to literally fill buckets with cash by scamming the sick and the lame. Randi knocked Popoff off the air for a time, but he’s back on the BET channel, once again healing the faithful. He’s also hawking Miracle Spring Water that provides “supernatural debt cancellation.” (I have a feeling I know whose debts are being canceled, and there’s nothing supernatural about it.)

Millionaire televangelist Pat Robertson has made a fortune looking into the camera and diagnosing viewers via visions provided by the Holy Spirit. He’ll tell his viewers he’s seeing a woman with a bad back being healed, but, with an audience of hundreds of thousands, the odds that someone’s back is feeling a bit better at that moment are pretty good. Of course, The 700 Club contributors probably don’t set the bar too high when it comes to miracles.

I have bunions on both my feet that need surgery, so I’m offering $1,000 to any faith healer who’ll fix them. Bunions are a minor ailment, so any preacher who’s out there healing cancer or epilepsy should be able to take care of my little problem. That’s $1,000 for only a few minutes of laying on hands, but I doubt I’ll be paying out that cash anytime soon.

Investigations into faith healing have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of the “cured” fall into three categories: the healers’ shills, suggestible people cured of psychosomatic illnesses and those whose ailments return once the adrenalin rush of the healing service subsides. (In a tiny fraction of cases, spontaneous remissions can occur, unrelated to who does or doesn’t lay hands on whom.)

Since 2005, CSICOP has had a standing offer of $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate any sort of supernatural ability — from levitation to psychic powers to faith healing — in a scientifically monitored environment. No one has collected a penny; in fact, no one has even had the courage or the convictions to try.

The counterargument is that those who truly have these “gifts of the spirit” won’t use them for monetary gain; however, anyone who’s seen religious programming on TV knows how fatuous that statement is. Before becoming Bill O’Reilly’s straight man and an icon of the Religious Right, erstwhile comic Dennis Miller cleverly observed that, although many evangelical preachers like to call themselves “nondenominational, the denominations that really make their eyes light up are twenties and fifties.”

One of the more-lucrative, faith-based initiatives proliferating on channels such as BET involves pastors who preach “seed faith.” They induce viewers to pledge money to their ministries to secure future monetary gain. Even the poorest are encouraged to spend their last dollar “sowing a seed” to procure a windfall from the Big Banker in the sky.

In this scam, which is promulgated by slick ministers in $800 suits, the Holy Spirit often speaks directly (by voicemail?, email?, IM?) to the preacher. God tells him how much — usually, some random amount like $261 or $78 — viewers should contribute to his ministry (rather than some other church or another “nonprofit” organization).

In one popular parable, the minister related how a young woman who was almost broke and needed a place to live responded to his message by sowing a monthly seed for a year. She ended up renting a house from an elderly woman with no children. The older woman liked the younger one so much, she promised that, when she died, her tenant could have the house for free. Lo and behold, a few months later, the old woman suffered a fatal heart attack.

This heartwarming story of how God smote an elderly woman so one of the preacher’s paying customers could have a mortgage-free home must be a real crowd pleaser, because the televangelist repeats it regularly. That’s quite a racket. I’m envious of their business model, and wish they had a spot on the roster for a onetime English major.

Anyway, if no one out there can heal my bunions, then maybe I can do some healing of my own. This morning, a voice told me that some of my readers have high cholesterol, which I’m willing to cure for a mere $87/month. Make the checks out to cash, please.  

Click here to return to the Mark Drought home page.