Did the Pope Embrace the Prosperity Gospel?

Late last month, Pope Francis met with charismatic Christian and Pentecostal leaders at the Vatican, including prosperity gospel televangelist Kenneth Copeland, a popular American religious figure whose theology and lifestyle is directly at odds with the Pope’s.

The meeting was not the humble Pope’s first encounter with the self-anointed bishops of bling. In February, he recorded a video message for a Copeland conference, in which he called for unity among Christian faiths, saying that “misunderstandings throughout history” have separated them, and adding that he yearns that “this separation comes to an end.”

At the end of his brief video message, the pontiff declared that “the miracle of unity has begun.”

“Let’s give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that He has begun,” said Francis.

The Trinity Foundation, the Dallas, Texas-based Christian watchdog group that monitors and investigates televangelism fraud, has questions, asking why the Pope would meet with religious leaders “who engage in the same kind of excesses he’s been preaching against.”

In a statement, the Trinity Foundation writes:

At a meeting in June, the pope greeted Kenneth Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries and James Robison and his wife Betty of Life Outreach International. Other guests were Tony Palmer, former director of Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Africa and current bishop & international ecumenical officer of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches; Geoff Tunnicliffe, head of Worldwide Evangelical Alliance; and John and Carol Arnott of the Toronto Blessing “holy laughter” movement.

If, the statement continues, “Pope Francis is offering his blessing on their activities, he’s either not the Francis we’ve come to expect, or he is lacking the facts.”

The Trinity statement summarizes the group’s lengthy investigations over the years, including:

• Kenneth Copeland and his wife Gloria live in a 20,000-square-foot lake-front mansion near Fort Worth, TX.  They regularly fly one or the other of their two expensive jets and other airplanes around the world, including regular trips to their multi-million chalet-style mansion in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

• Tony Palmer, a former employee of Copeland, is ordained with the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches (CEEC), a small offshoot unrelated to the main Episcopal denomination.  The CEEC also ordained Gene Ewing, creator of St. Matthew’s Churches, who for decades has been running a direct-mail operation sending out gaudy, gimmicky letters (with prayer cloths, holy water from the Jordan and holy oil) promising riches and healing for anyone desperate enough to send in their money.  Ewing, dubbed “God’s Ghostwriter”, routinely wrote similar garish letters for other evangelists using every trick to milk desperate people out of their money.  The mailings still take in millions of dollars every month, though the group has lost its tax-exempt status several times.

• A cursory search of property records show James and Betty Robison live in a “modest” Texas home appraised by Tarrant County tax-assessors at $742,800.   They also own one or more multi-million-dollar homes in Silverthorne, Colo., and have access to their large Robison ministry ranch and lodge in East Texas built with donor money.

As I wrote last year, despite Trinity’s extensive investigation, the results of which it provided to the Senate Finance Committee, which launched a probe of Copeland and five other ministries, Copeland was able to evade accountability:

In 2007, Sen. Charles Grassley, then the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, began investigating the activities of six televangelists, including Copeland, to determine whether they were misusing their tax-exempt ministries for profit. Copeland didn’t cooperate with the investigation, and used his connections to fight back, claiming that then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee provided assurances he would “stand with” him. Copeland had long enjoyed relationships with Republican candidates, including former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The latter was told by a religious outreach advisor during his first presidential campaign that Copeland was “arguably one of the most important religious leaders in the nation.”

The Committee, in the end, opted for “self-reform” by these ministries, rather than greater government oversight, because “according to the Committee’s staff memo, there was a ‘high level of distrust‘ of the government by the churches under investigation and the religious advocacy groups that supported them.” The Committee’s staff memo revealed further that “the Copelands employ guerilla tactics to keep their employees silent:”

We are flat out told and threatened that if we talk, God will blight our finances, strike our families down, and pretty much afflict us with everything evil and unholy. Rather, God will allow Satan to do those things to us because we have stepped out from under His umbrella of protection, by “touching God’s anointed Prophet.” 

Pope Francis has said, “I would love a church that is poor.” That’s anathema to Copeland, who boasts that his wealth is evidence of God’s blessing on him. His own wealth comes from his followers (many of whom are hardly wealthy), who are taught to believe that God will bless them, too, if they give their money to Copeland. It’s one of the oldest religious frauds around, so it’s surprising that the Pope is apparently unaware that unifying this message with its own really would be quite miraculous.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email

  • overton

    Or, can it be that Copeland, et al have suddenly begun to comprehend the significance of Matthew 25? We can certainly pose the title question from a different perspective.
    If nothing else, this pope has certainly been consistent with his willingness to meet and confront individuals of all faiths and traditions.

  • Arachne646

    We can only look at this meeting as optimistically as possible, I suppose. On the other hand, my husband had a call to open a safe at the Kenneth Copeland Ministries office in our area (not in the USA), and I told him to bill the heck out of them–as much as he could legitimately stretch it, of course–I don’t know what the office did when he told them the same thing and why!

  • revyrev

    Just out of curiosity why does anyone have a problem with a minister being wealthy? While every corporation we engage for all of our every day goods and services is wealthy. Every store you shop at and every product you purchase company is ran by someone who is a millionaire.

  • Jim Reed

    Why does anyone care that Amway gets rich running the pyramid scam? We can’t really say why we don’t like it. We just don’t.

  • cranefly

    Because Jesus was anti-wealth. We don’t approve of ultra-obvious hypocrites.

    Some of us don’t think much of wealthy corporations either, but at least they aren’t selling Jesus.

  • revyrev

    When was Jesus anti-wealth. Pls understand I get that many ministers have and are currently perverting Christianity. But neither God nor Jesus has a problem with any Christian having wealth. One thing that surprises me about the article. The Catholic Church/Vatican is one of the wealthiest institutions in the world, but some how Ken Copeland is infecting the Pope……..there is not a poor CEO in America….but a minister whose gift to the world far and above exceeds anything corporate america has to offer, but we want him or her to be poor.

  • cranefly

    James 5: 1-6 “Come now you rich people, weep and wail over your impending miseries! Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. [...] You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of the slaughter.”

    When was Jesus anti-wealth? When was he not?

    Matthew 19:23-24 “It will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.[...] It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

    Matthew 6: 24/Luke 16: 13-15 “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

    Luke 12: 13-15, Jesus says “Take care to guard against all greed,” and then tells the Parable of the Rich Fool, who died before he could spend his money.

    Throughout the gospels Jesus repeatedly praises the poor and skewers the rich. He repeatedly tells people to sell everything they have, give the money away, and live like the sparrows in the field.

    In Luke 13: 33-34, he says, “Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

    Where exactly do you get this idea that Jesus had no problem with wealth? Did you get it from Ken Copeland? Because, as a very rich person, I doubt he could be relied on to speak plainly against wealth, as Christ clearly, clearly did. I do not understand how anyone can read and believe the gospel and feel entitled to more than a basic humble living, if that.

    I have no interest in making excuses for the Catholic Church’s bank. Their wealth is a disgrace, and so is Ken Copeland. Anyone who gets rich selling the gospel is a hypocrite and can’t be trusted.

  • overton

    How’s this for starters?:
    “But woe to you, rich men! for you have already received your comforts.

    Woe to you who are full! for you will hunger. Woe to you who laugh now! for you will weep and mourn.
    Woe to you when men speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” —Christ’s words from ‘the sermon on the plain’ Luke 6:24-26

    That amassed wealth is generally acquired at the cost of others ought not come as a surprise to any student of economics. Wage theft, price manipulation, coercion, and outright fraud have been the mechanisms of our recent excursion into plutocracy.

    James amplified Christ’s message.
    With little adjustment, it might easily be applied as commentary for our current times:
    “O YOU rich men, weep and howl for the miseries which shall come upon you!

    Your riches are destroyed and rotted, and your garments are moth-eaten.
    Your
    gold and silver are tarnished, and the rust of them will be a testimony
    against you and will eat your flesh. The treasures which you have
    heaped together will be as fire to you for the last days.

    Behold,
    the wage of the labourers who have reaped your fields, that which you
    have fraudulently kept back, cries; and the cry of the reapers has
    already entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.
    For you have had your luxuries on earth and have been greedy; you have fed your bodies as for the day of slaughter.

    You have condemned and murdered the righteous; and yet he does not resist you.” James 5:1-6

  • revyrev32

    So when Jesus says in John 14:13 and whatsover ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the father may be glorified in the Son.
    Youve done a very good job of looking up scriptures in which God spoke to people who made money more important than Him.
    Jesus said “go ye and spread the word”..how could that happen without money?
    If your perspective is that many “ministers/televangelist” promote monet more than Jesus..as a Christian I agree 100%. But to think that God has a problem with Christians being wealthy is off target. Now with that wealth Christians are suppose to be taking care of the needs of the people whether they are Christian or not.
    What does a poor/broke Christian say about the God they serve?

  • overton

    you may find this somewhat edifying, at least it is hoped:
    http://www.opednews.com/articles/Sunday-Homily-The-Encour-by-Mike-Rivage-Seul-Cargill_Encouragement_Faith_God-140713-751.html

    as time permits, i’ll respond to the body of your reply
    Peace to you…

  • phatkhat

    Great homily. Thanks for the link. I joined the site, too. Some interesting reading!

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    Revyrev,

    To your main, very ignorant, question, “eye of needle” obviously.

    But your “The Vatican is rich” nonsense is also worth a bit of a look. The Roman Catholics have certainly constructed a good deal of expensive architecture down through the centuries — every bit of it a drag on the security budget today.

    The Roman Catholic schools of Utah, of all places, are an oddity because they are solvent.

    Here in central Toronto I see that the local priests have a strong likelihood of being African or Vietnamese: they’ve outsourced their priesthood to low labor cost countries!

    In short, your “one of the wealthiest institutions in the world” cries out for evidence. From where I sit it looks as silly as your notions about Jesus’ teachings.

    -dlj.

  • revyrev

    Thx…

  • revyrev

    I appreciate the conversation. More than you know. Jesus did not ask but commanded us to go into the world. And in this very lovely discussion we have had, my only question is do we impact people when we have little or nothing to give. I believe in propserity and that is never going to change. But I believe it for the purpose of helping others. Yet I know that God does not have a problem with me having and enjoying nice things. Our issue as humans is that we have a tendancy, due to our sin nature, to let things have us.

  • revyrev

    Also you may disagree with my opinion and thats what adult conversations should bring out. But calling me ignorant is not needed. We can have debate and discourse without that.
    Did you read John 14. If you did I assume your assertion is that when He told them they could have whatever they asked for, it was not to include any material things. Obviously, or it is my assumption, you think the prosperity message is wrong. As a Christian I agree that a lot of preachers have used the message to take advantage of people and only in rich themselves. But to think that God has a problem with you enjoying and having nice things on earth I disagree with.

  • lorasinger

    The minister is a Christian who purports to follow Jesus, right?

    Matthew 19

    21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and
    sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in
    heaven: and come and follow me.

    22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away
    sorrowful: for he had great possessions.

    23 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto
    you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.

    24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to
    go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

  • lorasinger

    Consider that even in the OT when one could not afford a perfect sacrificial animal, God would accept even flour. When one prays to God, Jesus directs one to go to a private room and pray and God will know what you need. So it is with poor/broke Christians, Trust that he knows what you need and what you can do.

  • lorasinger

    The Vatican and the Queen are two of the wealthiest entities in the world.