Big business religion

Posted: Feb 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Corporations and parishioners are increasingly coming together to spread the word of God and make money.  All across the country churches?once intimate places of spiritual interconnectedness?have been replaced by stadiums of worship that utilize advanced technological innovations to awe, edify, and rip off those in attendance.

The jig goes something like this: Corporations underwrite the construction of vast religious complexes that awe people into regular attendance.  The preacher?s image is projected onto a big screen. His calm baritone is beamed out by state of the art speakers. From all sides, his voice fills the room. The seats shake as he gives expression to the word of God. It?s a rousing experience to be sure, and one that is increasingly paid for by corporations. In return for their funding, the churches circulate corporate promotional calendar, fliers, and, if the corporation is really lucky, broadcast an endorsement straight from the pulpit. Trusting the pastor's judgment, the flock simply surrenders their money to whatever service the corporation is hawking. In such a manner, countless Christians are fleeced every year.

You might be amazed at how little it takes to rent space in a sermon. Father Henry Wienneski, an Arizona parishioner, tells me he has been approached countless times by corporate representative eager to use the church's trusted position in the community as cover for rip-off schemes. ?A corporate representative will approach me and say something to the effect of, ?we were going to give $5,000 to the Red Cross this year but you know, we decided, why not keep it in the neighborhood? I notice your parish doesn't have a bus. Now, I know the money won't buy a bus but we thought it could help. I'll just write out this check to you and trust that you'll know the best way for it to help the church.?"

Wienneski recalls attending a retreat once where morticians coaxed business from pastors by offering free gifts, including beepers, funeral plots, sides of beef, country club memberships and large sums of cash. It's quite a deal for the mortuary. They invest $6 in a beeper, and in return they get a pastor who feels obliged to send bodies their way. So the mortuary rips off another family for $5,000, $10,000, $15,000.

The newest twist is for mortuaries to rent a chunk of church property and offer their own in-house services with the implicit church endorsement. The  archdiocese of Montreal and Los Angeles recently contracted with Stewart's Enterprises and SCI chains, renting out their holy ground as though these mortuaries were some Starbucks franchise. In return for a lucrative lease arrangement, the diocese lends its tacit endorsement to the mortuary and, in effect, channels its flock directly into the overpriced mortuaries, swindling their own parishes for millions of dollars per year.

Of course these churches will benefit from their lucrative agreements. They may use the profits to erect some triumphant cathedral, decorated with such stunning artifice that its very presence proclaims the glory of God. All of which just indicates that these pastors don't actually care about their people. After all, many churches could, in fact, offer a free funeral to their members not counting cemetery or crematory expenses. What more logical support group is there at a time of death? Instead, these ministers use their position as trusted leaders to fleece their parishioners.

Similar examples abound.  Hundreds of evangelical Christians in the Southern California area were recently fleeced out of millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme  that relied on the complicity of trusted church officials. The scheme was allegedly masterminded by Gregory Earl Setser, a self described former minister who approached church leaders with a can't miss investment opportunity. Saying he wanted "serve God by allowing Christian ministries to share in?profits," Setser promised investors up to 50% returns on their initial investments. Several ministers complied, using their positions of trust in the community to lure additional investors. Anaheim evangelist Ralph Wilkerson even allowed Setser to participate in religious presentations.

Hundreds of parishioners responded by opening their wallets to Setser. Many ended up being fleeced out of a combined $160 million.  Meanwhile. Setser used the money to finance a lavish lifestyle for himself and his family.

I don?t mean to suggest that all organized religion has been bought and paid for. Many parishioners across the country dedicate themselves to spreading the word of God. They set up in poor communities and they try to help their parishioners affix hope and perspective to their lives. These parishioners are not motivated by materialism or personal vanity. They do not use God as an instrument to empower themselves. They wish merely to spread His word, and to open others to the truly beautiful possibilities of spirituality.

But if a preacher wants to be on TV, or court the masses, or achieve the psychic gratification of wielding thousands of worshippers, he must turn his church into a kind of religious Wal Mart?a huge religious emporium complete with restaurants, recording studios, projections screens and stadium seating. Parishioners flock to these structures like the apes to the monolith in 2001. But it costs money to keep these mammoth structures running. More often than not, the preachers turn to corporate sponsorship to pay the bills. The end result is that the parishioners are distilled into just another stream of revenue.

Maybe we can?t end corruption in the church, but we can demand that our pastors' refrain form any form of corporate sponsorship during their sermons. Doing so would help prevent the swindling of countless families, while reestablishing the church as a trusted sanctuary during a family's most desperate time of need. Such moments simply should not be considered purchasable by local corporations.