It is a news story that probably would have received more publicity were it not for the Josh Duggar molestation bombshell that captured the attention of our reality-TV obsessed nation: the Federal Trade Commission announced last week that four U.S. based cancer charities run by extended members of the same family have been accused of swindling donors out of more than $187 million. This investigation is historically significant because it represents the first-ever cooperation between the FTC, attorneys general from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, an unprecedented level of cooperation that resulted in what the FTC is calling “one of the largest charity fraud enforcement moves in history.” The four charities identified by the FTC for misuse of donations are: Cancer Fund of America in Knoxville, TN, The Children’s Cancer Fund of America in Powell, TN, Cancer Support Services in Knoxville, and the Breast Cancer Society in Mesa, AZ.
According to CNN, approximately 3 cents of every dollar donated to these four charities went to cancer patients, while the other 97 cents went into the pockets of charity CEOs and their family members. Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said that funds given by donors to the charities in question were used to “pay for vehicles, personal consumer goods, college tuition, gym memberships, Jet Ski outings, dating website subscriptions, luxury cruises, and tickets to concerts and professional sporting events.”
We might be tempted to think that these CEOs, their family members, and all others who profited from this cancer-charity scam represent the worst of humanity. After all, how low does someone have to be to prey on the good will of people, many of whom probably have personal experience with cancer, for personal gain? It is almost unfathomable. And yet, something even worse exists: Those who prey on people’s desires for happiness and prosperity and God’s favor for personal gain under the guise of preaching the Gospel.
Using religion as a means for personal gain is nothing new. The religious leaders in New Testament times did it, and Jesus condemned them for it, noting their love for money and power, and accusing them of leveraging their positions as teachers for the purpose of securing for themselves “respectful greetings in the marketplaces, chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.” The church in Martin Luther’s time did it, selling credit built up by the good works of Jesus to parishioners in the form of indulgences which purportedly shortened time in purgatory for both the living and the dead, a practice that was part of the blatant corruption that inspired Luther’s “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” that, according to legend, he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church on October 21, 1517.
But the religious leaders of today have pretty much perfected the abuse of their craft for the sake of personal gain. And I’m not talking about the late-night TV preachers who want to send you a prayer cloth or a vial of anointed oil or maybe some miracle-spring holy water in exchange for a small donation to their ministry. Those are the bush-leaguers. The real players in the religion-for-personal-gain game have perfected their approach. They don’t need prayer-cloths or holy water. All they need to do is convince their audiences that: 1) Their particular preaching/teaching/healing ministry is vital for the advancement of God’s Kingdom and must be supported, and 2) That God will bless all who give to their ministry, financially and otherwise.
And the wealth accumulated in the name of religion by some is staggering. In a Senate Committee’s investigation into six “Christian” ministries that began in 2008 and ended in 2011, luxuries like Bishop Eddie Long’s $350,000 Bentley, healer Benny Hinn’s $10 million house near the Pacific Ocean, prophetess Joyce Meyer’s $900,000 a year salary and $23,000 commode, and evangelist Creflo Dollar’s Rolls Royce were uncovered – shocking examples of blatant misuse of “ministry” funds in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus Christ on so many levels. But here we are, some four years later, and these “ministries” are still operational, and people are still lining up to pay them for the possibility of receiving God’s favor.
And so, the FTC will see to it that those who have used donations intended for cancer research for personal gain are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and that’s good. But who will make sure that those who are guilty of “peddling the Word of God for profit” reap the rewards of their actions? That’s a task, I suppose, that’s best left to a higher court.
Kevin Sartin is pastor of First Baptist Church on Main St. in Nashville. Rev. Sartin holds a Master of Divinity Degree from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and has spent the last decade pastoring churches in Louisiana and Arkansas.