Over at his Crunchy Con blog, Rod Dreher links to an interesting investigative piece on the world of Ole Anthony, the ascetic Texan who runs a Christian commune called the Trinity Foundation in Dallas and serves as a self-appointed watchdog for the excesses of televangelists. Journalists tend to love Ole Anthonysee, for instance, this fawning New Yorker profile because he's an inveterate foe of the "prosperity gospel" and all its sleazy works, and because he acts the part of an Old Testament prophet. But as the profile points out, Olelike many charismatic, self-appointed religious leadershas a touch of the cult leader about him:
. . . allegations that Trinity is a cult began as early as the late '70s and have surfaced numerous times since, often by members' families, sometimes by the media. In 1989, Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News wrote, "there are times when even to its members the foundation looks like a cult of personality."
More than a dozen former Trinity members interviewed by the Dallas Observer agree that Trinity bears many cult-like traits. ... Some former members blame Trinity for the breakup of marriages. Several members, they say, have had nervous breakdowns. Three members have killed themselves; two died on the Block. Perhaps that's not extraordinary. Many of the men and women attracted to Trinity are people who've come to the end of their abilities and want to throw everything at the feet of God.
. . . Though Anthony's theology bears little resemblance to mainstream Christianity, and he's prone to making outrageous statements such as "God hates you" and "Your mind is the Antichrist," journalists rarely delve below the surface. The "media whores," as Anthony calls them, are too busy begging him for incriminating documents or B-roll of the televangelists' shows, which are taped 24/7 at Trinity.
Anthony's most famous takedown of a corrupt televangelist, meanwhile, may have contained a substantial dose of hokum and exaggeration. In 1991, Diane Sawyer based an entire Primetime Live special on the Trinity Foundation's investigation of Robert Tilton; now it turns out that much of the expose (including the allegation that Tilton dumped prayer requests into the trash) may have stretched the truth:
Tilton lost a libel suit against Anthony, Trinity and ABC; it's difficult for a public figure to win such a case. Though back on the air, he hasn't managed to rebuild his reputation or ministry to its former heights.
But an examination of thousands of pages of court documents in lawsuits triggered by the ABC exposé shows numerous misrepresentations by Anthony and his cohorts at ABC, who employed deceptive journalistic techniques that ended up embarrassing Diane Sawyer. Tilton's lawyers proved that the prayer requests discovered by Trinity could not have been found as claimed: Thus, the most memorable part of the Primetime Live story was bogus.
Almost certainly bogus as well is Anthony's allegation that a 14-year-old girl set herself on fire because of Tilton. Anthony says he can't reveal the girl's name or where this took place; it wasn't reported in the media, though, and the likelihood of such a spectacular suicide being kept quiet is near zero.
None of this is terribly surprising. People grew accustomed to ghastly stories about televangelists during the Jim Bakker/Jimmy Swaggart era, but the fact is that most of today's prosperity-preacher crowd don't need to fleece their flock with outright illegal scamsthe legal scam they have going, in which they play Tony Robbins with some Jesus-talk thrown in, works just as well. Indeed, scam may be too harsh a wordas a practical matter, their flavor of religion provides exactly what it promises, a road map for financial success and personal fulfillment. The problem with the Joel Osteens and Joyce Meyers of the world, ultimately, isn't that they've gotten rich offering spiritually inflected self-help. It's that they pretend their spiritually inflected self-help is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Speaking of people who prey on human weakness, no one should miss the must-read piece of the week: L.A. Times reporter Claire Hoffman's account of her immersion in the world of Joe Francis, the porntrepreneur behind the immensely successful series of Girls Gone Wild videos. It's brilliant, damning reportingnot only in its depiction of Francis, but in the window it offers into the society that allows him to flourish and grow rich. If it doesn't leave you feeling dirty, disgusted, and somehow complicit in Francis' successwell, you should read it again.
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