What exactly is the deal with televangelists, and should we be terrified of them?

Deciding to write about this idea came from two distinct events within the past 24 hours, and maybe a few more relevant events within the past year: first off, while browsing Google News, I came across the death of Paul Crouch — that’s his wife, Jan, embedded above — and started reading a little bit more about him. It eventually got me to this article and then this one, both of which underscored the idea I’ve had since my late single-digit years: that most televangelism is a scam. Then, just now (as in, this morning), having driven my parents to the airport but not able to go back to sleep, I was futzing around waiting for NFL coverage to begin and I decide to watch about 11 minutes of Joel Osteen’s show. Twice in my life — once at 24, and once this past summer — I lived within a stone’s throw of Osteen’s church (it’s where the Houston Rockets used to play); this summer, I got caught in a huge traffic jam trying to go get bread because about 40K parishioners were driving out of Osteen’s church. For various reasons, I’ve been fascinated with him for years as a result. I’ve only watched the show maybe 2-3 times, and never for more than about five-ten minutes. He’s a good, captivating speaker — which is interesting because he didn’t begin that way — and it’s interesting to watch his stuff at Lakewood. It’s so huge and it’s normally pretty full. It always reminds me of the scene from Fletch.

I decided to do a little more research on televangelists. I could probably write 10,000 words on this topic, because there are so many, and it’s so diverse, and the idea spans multiple countries. I don’t really think I’m going to drastically increase the public discourse on this topic; mostly, I’d just like to lay out a couple of ideas and some things you can watch/read to better understand the world of televangelists. (I never did find a good breakdown of how the TV side of the process works, although apparently that was part of what was covered when Oprah profiled Joel Osteen. I would love to know more about directing or producing a televangelist TV show, so if anyone knows about that, leave it in the comments.)

In general, here’s the breakdown: the entire thing is pretty ridiculous. Oftentimes, these men and women are spouting ideas and ideals about living in the mold or footsteps of Jesus or God; typically that involves some type of commitment to the poor (although this is a contentious topic among many), and often, televangelists — when successful — lead outsized lifestyles with multiple homes, flashy cars, etc. That part seems wrong, and you see it often. Armen Keteyian did a report like this for CBS back in 2007. They’ve been called “shameless frauds” in the media, and Inside Edition did this report back in the day:

There’s this story about Pat Roberston, this anecdote about Benny Hinn (more specifically, his son), and this idea about Joyce Meyer (and Joel Osteen). There’s almost no way to justify the idea of having a TV ministry — TV is a medium designed for people to make money; they only aligned with religion because religion is something that millions believe in, and hence might tune into. There’s nothing wrong with the conventional approach to religion — that is, having it as a personal aspect of your life or simply attending your local parish and having relationships with the leadership (and God) there. Why would this stuff ever need to be on TV? Since the base concept makes no sense, it’s likely to attract some of the least-good people to its calling. Think about your own pastor, if you have one. If you have a strong relationship with said person, could you ever imagine he or she suddenly having a TV show where they preach to 100 nations in front of a former NBA arena of people? Chances are you couldn’t imagine that, but you still love the leader of your local parish. So, the concept doesn’t seem to compute.

Here’s a personal aspect: I converted to Catholicism back in March. I’m not entirely sure what I was before — I would say Protestant, but I really was only ever in a church for a wedding or a funeral or maybe the occasional Christmas Eve — so the conversion was fairly interesting and I learned a lot. It did bring up some key questions for me: for example, how can personal wealth be justified within certain religious structures? I guess there’s a thing about achieving abundance within God’s kingdom, but sometimes it doesn’t seem to fit. How can churches ask for money so often, but then seem to do less for the poor? I was confused by some things, to be sure, but the major thing I enjoyed about the process was that it caused me to look inward and really think about faith and what faith meant to me. It’s an uniquely personal process and approach, and I think that’s how you build a relationship with God and faith. This is going to sound lame, but it’s almost like snowflakes. Every relationship is different; everyone connects to God and faith in a different way, through different experiences, at different times. It’s literally one of the most intensely personal relationships you can have. That can’t fit with TV ministry. I loved Breaking Bad, for example, and I looked forward to it more than anything in a given week during its end run, but it was a love of entertainment, not anything deeper than that.

Osteen seems like the most interesting of these people, although I still don’t completely trust him. Lakewood doesn’t have a cross in it (apparently a lot of newer Evangelical churches don’t), and he sometimes skirts the prosperity issue. But then again, Oprah — the brand which is based on trust and telling you who else to follow and trust — seems to be bought in:

Oprah has also claimed that this sermon by Osteen changed the way she looks at her own life:

Osteen can look a little sketchy — apologies if that’s offensive, ’tis just my personal opinion — but his message seems a lot different from some of the other televangelists. It’s less “fire and brimstone,” as that NPR article notes, and more about trying to connect with the parish and claiming that God wants you to lead your best life, if you just go through a series of steps. That base idea I agree with; Osteen also claims that he doesn’t take any salary money from the $75 million in donations that Lakewood receives annually. His salary comes from the sale of his books (which do pretty well).

If you Google “Is Joel Osteen a scammer?” or “Is Joel Osteen legit?” there are over 20K+ hits; this probably takes you down the deepest anti-Osteen path. There’s also, er… this. There’s also this thread. I think my take on Osteen is pretty generic and/or common: I feel like he’s still a bit of a scammer, but maybe less so than some of the other major televangelists. For example, he’s not out there on his show or in his books doing stuff like this:

Here are some other things you can read on the broader topic of televangelists: here, here, here and here. Two of those pieces contain the idea that the simple word “televangelist” has almost universally negative connotations, which I tend to agree with. If you want to find faith, find it yourself, or find it in your community or family. Don’t find it on TV or in a mega-church. And don’t find it in the voice and calling of a millionaire. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

And finally:

Ted Bauer