Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Holy Quid Pro Quo

Friday night found the Holy Prepuce channel surfing over to the Christian Broadcasting Network membership telethon. My interest in Pat Robertson's flagship media organ had been piqued by Robertson's Charles Foster Kane-worthy plan to buy the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, presumably in order to shut down its critical coverage of him. (Among other topics, the Virginian-Pilot has exposed Robertson's non-profit Operation Blessing as a front for his commercial diamond mining enterprise.)

The segment in progress as I tuned into the telethon concerned the proprietor of a Florida-based Karaoke entertainment company, who attributed his growing success to the favor of Jesus Christ. A few years ago, this fellow had been nearly bankrupt. God had spoken to this man and told him to spend his last dollars not on, say, rent, but instead as a "seed offering" to CBN. Sure enough, within a few months the karaoke business took off, and three short years later he employed eighteen DJs and a fleet of as many mobile karaoke units. And all because he had "sown" his cash with CBN--a practice he now continued through tithing, which he emphasized was "not about the money, but about obedience."

Following a brief intermission of typical telethon fare (donation thermometer rising, bells ringing, operators cheering) a new segment began. This vignette concerned a young couple who had been scrounging to make ends meet. But after sending one dollar, just one dollar to CBN, the wife found a ten dollar bill in the laundry. She sent this money to CBN, and three weeks later, her grandmother's estate settled (it had been tied up in the courts for over a year) and she received $10,000. God then spoke to the husband "in that way that God speaks to you," and directed that 10% of this windfall be "sown" with CBN. Flash forward one year, and the couple now lives in a beautiful home, with new cars, a thriving business, etc., etc.

Occasionally the program would cut away to a segment about the relief work performed by Operation Blessing in some developing nation, but clearly such details about what CBN planned to do with the money were secondary to the monetary payback the almighty had planned for viewers who would only pick up the phone and "seed."

This was not the first time I had encountered the sow/reap metaphor from a Christian "ministry"--I have received several appeals in the mail from an Arizona outfit known as the Don Stewart Association, promising me "an Unveiling of Money Blessings" if I would "stretch [my] faith and Prove God with a Seed Faith Gift of $30." One of the mailings even included a packet of oil, with which I was instructed to anoint my "purse or wallet, some financial papers, or bills."

But something else struck me as familiar about CBN's appeal--a feeling that I had seen all of this before on cable television. And then it dawned on me where: those "No Money Down" real estate infomercials! The plot lines were nearly identical: an impoverished protagonist makes a small investment, and through some mysterious process (the details of which are never very clear), winds up rolling in dough. The visual elements are interchangeable--well-coiffed white people in big houses with oversized furniture, interspersed with cutaways of expensive cars driving along the ocean. Of course, the paths to riches being sold are different--I'll leave it to the reader to predict whether slipping Jehovah a sawbuck for some Karaoke bookings has greater prospects for success than hitting up complete strangers for seller-financing--but the central concepts are the same.

Part of me feels that anyone credulous enough to believe the creator of the entire universe will go to bat for them in probate court if they send $20 to some cable channel deserves to go broke. But another part of me, the part with empathy for those less fortunate, wishes there were a way to shut down these con men who wrap themselves in the mantle of spirituality while shaking down the desperate for their last dollars.

I am all for religiously-based charitable appeals when there is some trace of theological content to the request. If you want to get on the air and ask for money to feed the children of Madagascar because that's what Jesus would have done, more power to you (assuming the money goes where you say it will.) But the telethon I saw was strictly a dollars-and-cents proposition: lay a C-note on God (who doesn't handle cash directly, so CBN will gladly accept it on his behalf), and the big guy will hit you back with a grand. If CBN's message were directed at rich people, I would shrug and say a fool and his money are soon parted. But when it is so obviously targeted at people struggling to ends meet, I say it's nauseating.

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