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.