Sold on the Spirit

DollarSignA couple of years ago, Eric Gorski -- then at the Denver Post -- ran a a three-part series on a local preacher of the Prosperity Gospel. What I loved about the piece, which exposed the pastor's financial success, was that it also explored prosperity teaching in detail. Now with the Associated Press, Gorski has been all over Sen. Chuck Grassley's investigation of various televangelists. Grassley's Senate Finance Committee is investigating allegations of questionable spending and lax financial accountability at six organizations that preach "health and wealth theology," as Gorski puts it.

For his latest, he produced a heavily-researched expose of Kenneth Copeland Ministries. Of the six, Copeland has fought back the hardest, refusing to answer most questions and inviting the Internal Revenue Service to conduct an audit, which would keep information private. Gorski's piece has run in one form or another in some 280+ papers:

Here in the gentle hills of north Texas, televangelist Kenneth Copeland has built a religious empire teaching that God wants his followers to prosper.

Over the years, a circle of Copeland's relatives and friends have done just that, The Associated Press has found. They include the brother-in-law with a lucrative deal to broker Copeland's television time, the son who acquired church-owned land for his ranching business and saw it more than quadruple in value, and board members who together have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for speaking at church events.

Church officials say no one improperly benefits through ties to Copeland's vast evangelical ministry, which claims more than 600,000 subscribers in 134 countries to its flagship "Believer's Voice of Victory" magazine. The board of directors signs off on important matters, they say. Yet church bylaws give Copeland veto power over board decisions.

While Copeland insists that his ministry complies with the law, independent tax experts who reviewed information obtained by the AP through interviews, church documents and public records have their doubts. The web of companies and non-profits tied to the televangelist calls the ministry's integrity into question, they say.

"There are far too many relatives here," said Frances Hill, a University of Miami law professor who specializes in nonprofit tax law. "There's too much money sloshing around and too much of it sloshing around with people with overlapping affiliations and allegiances by either blood or friendship or just ties over the years. There are red flags all over these relationships."

Copeland, 71, is a pioneer of the prosperity gospel, which holds that believers are destined to flourish spiritually, physically and financially — and share the wealth with others.

Those are the beginning paragraphs and the remaining 2,000 words just dig deeper and deeper into the finances. It's terribly difficult to investigate church finances since religious non-profit reporting is protected in a way that other non-profits aren't. But Gorski does a good job of using the information at hand to paint a picture of the Kenneth Copeland empire as one of great financial success and somewhat questionable governance.

I wish the article contained more discussion of the prosperity gospel. The sentence quoted above is about it for the article. It was the main strength of Gorski's previous work on prosperity ministries. Still, this is a fantastically researched and well-composed piece.

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