Robert Conner

Forget what they told you. You want the truth, follow the money. -- Roxanne Bland

I regard the sincerity of evangelical true believers in general as a truism and I doubt that many of their numerous critics would disagree. After all, why would anyone knowingly pour money into an empire of fraud? The question forced on me and (I suspect) many others is how to account for the one or two percent of evangelicals who should know better. Although the motivations of the evangelical horde are a constant topic of speculation among sociologists, political wonks, and psychologists, Levine raises a crucial question: “Who benefits from the study of the historical Jesus—to what end is the effort focused?” Helpfully, she also notes, “Politics and theology need not be mutually exclusive …”[I]

A case in point, the annual publicity stunt known as the National Prayer Breakfast, attended by every American president since Eisenhower began the tradition in 1953 at the urging of Billy Graham. Recently the conventional wisdom seems to be that savvy political hacks such as the oft-quoted Reagan advisor Lee AtwaterYou start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires.”[ii]—were simply playing on the credulity of racist white evangelicals to garner votes. The equally insalubrious Karl Rove, who allegedly described evangelical leaders as “nuts,” but only behind their backs,[iii] could be dismissed as nothing more than an opportunist of the same ilk, a clever operative using the gullible to gain an electoral advantage. To the contrary, my view is that the cross-generational evangelical leadership, playing a long game that looked far beyond election cycles, has been the real winner and that events observed over the long term would prove that Atwater and Rove (among many, many others) were the real useful idiots.

Besides its faith-based voting bloc, the Christian Right has another, equally important, lever: money. I’ve already alluded to the multi-billion dollar publishing industry that ultimately rests on the illusion of the Return of the Resurrected Jesus. Behind the relatively numerous scarcely read journals that crank out material on the ‘historical’ Jesus, stand real publishing giants such as Zondervan, a Harper Collins subsidiary and founding member of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Dallas Theological Seminary alumnus Hal Lindsey’s treasury of false prophecy, The Late Great Planet Earth, sold an estimated 28 million copies for Zondervan by 1990 and the sixteen Left Behind novels, a collection of pre-tribulation End Times apocalyptic rubbish published by Tyndale House, has racked up over 65 million book sales and spawned (so far) four feature movies.

The evangelical broadcasting empire boasts no less grandiose figures. The Christian Broadcasting Network, brainchild of Pat Robertson, the Baptist Nosferatu, hauled in $247 million in one year even after “Robertson was roundly criticized for proposing the assassination of Venezuela's left-leaning president and for suggesting that Israel’s prime minister suffered a stroke as divine punishment.”[iv] Or consider the Daystar Television Network, a Texas televangelist shout ‘n holler outfit the IRS has declared to be a church—“The top three religious broadcasters—Christian Broadcast Network, Trinity Broadcasting Network and Daystar Television—are worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars combined, according to available records…“For the most part, a church is a church if they say it's a church. And if it's a church, then it's tax-exempt,” says Ron Wright, tax assessor-collector in Tarrant County, Texas, where Daystar is located….Daystar's broadcast complex and corporate jet—together valued at $9.5 million—would be subject to property taxes in Texas if the ministry were a for-profit business. But it's exempt because of its status as a church.”[v]
Which brings us to the tax-exempt status of figures like prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen whose “parsonage” is a $10.5 million mansion covering a mere 17,000 square feet. According to a study published by The Washington Post, taxpayers subsidize churches to the tune of “about $83.5 billion”[vi] per year. It likely comes as no surprise that the religious, evangelicals in particular, want to increase their wealth by further leveraging their political clout—“since 2008, thousands of ministers who believe the prohibition on their speech is unconstitutional have participated in ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday,’ a project designed to antagonize the IRS by openly endorsing candidates from the pulpit. In some cases, pastors transcribed their sermons and sent them to the IRS, demanding an audit, which they would in turn appeal to the courts. But there have been no repercussions for their outspokenness. In fact, a regulatory technicality appears to have suspended IRS church audits indefinitely.”[vii]
Besides the fundamentalist publishing, broadcast and gospel music industries, the federal IRS tax exemptions, and their massive property holdingsalso exempt from property taxes in every stateconsider the departments of religion across the world whose academic faculties have a vested interest in keeping Jesus alive and kicking if only in appearance. I voice this suspicion given the ever more sophisticated instruments of torture with which the Jesus Studies guild has wrenched, twisted, and racked false confessions from Christian texts, the subject of the next installment.

[i]  Levine, Amy-Jill. “Christian Faith and the Study of the Historical Jesus: A Response to Bock, Keener, and Webb,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 9 (2011) 105.
[ii] Perlstein, Rick. “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy,” The Nation, November 13, 2012.
[iii] Wallsten, Peter. “Book: Bush Aides Called Evangelicals ‘Nuts,’” Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2006.
[iv] The Virginian-Pilot, February 23, 2007.
[v] Burnett, John. “Can a Television Network Be a Church? The IRS Says Yes,” NPR News Investigations, April 1, 2014.
[vi] Matthews, Dillon. “You give religions more than $82.5 billion a year,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2013.
[vii] Thomson-Deveaux, Amelia. “Jesus Voted against Your Sins,” The American Prospect, August 22, 2013.