This week we lost an important and pivotal figure in modern American religious history.
Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II was a controversial and complicated personality who cast his ecclesial wings upon the religious airwaves to become a pop-culture icon. More commonly known as “Rev. Ike,” he was a religious innovator and architect of one of the more prominent religious movements of the contemporary moment. At a time when few African Americans were on television, religious or otherwise, Rev. Ike used advanced technologies to take his message of God-ordained financial prosperity from a Harlem storefront to mainstream society. As a result, he helped to reconfigure the religious and racial boundaries that once defined the perceived center and margins of American spiritual life.
When I interviewed him a few years ago, however, he seemed less than sanguine about his legacy. In most circles, the very mention of his name evokes either a dismissive chuckle or a demonstrative condemnation. Adjectives like charlatan, huckster, or crook are quite common in describing the former prayer-cloth peddler. And in comedic culture he will forever be linked to Richard Pryor’s character “Daddy Rich” in Car Wash or Reverend Sam, the Elmer Gantry-like televangelist from Norman Lear’s classic sitcom Good Times.
This is even true among contemporary evangelists who now drink from the theological and ministerial wells that Rev. Ike helped to drill. Frederick Price, Creflo Dollar, and Bishop T.D. Jakes are quick to distance themselves from Rev. Ike’s name; even as they unapologetically embrace his self-indulgent theology and lifestyle. In fact, most of today’s African-American televangelists are much more willing to credit their success to prominent white evangelists such as Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, or Kenneth Copeland.
Maybe this is poetic justice in an unfortunately racialized kind of way. Though Rev. Ike was a self-proclaimed “Green Preacher” (he professed to have ceased being a black preacher after earning his first few millions of dollars), it was evident that he remained consumed by the indignities suffered under the weight of white supremacy and segregation. This often made for a complicated and contradictory personal narrative, as he used money to situate himself above the veil of race and perceived African American cultural dysfunction. In short, Rev. Ike was post-racial and ascribed to pathology discourse way before it became en vogue.
Unfortunately, Rev. Ike’s professed post-blackness belied his own aesthetic brilliance and stylistic genius. Rev. Ike was the quintessential American preacher who pieced together his message of divine health and wealth from multiple sources and varying religious traditions. He was part Southern Pentecostal preacher mixed with Christian Scientist; a true embodiment of black storefront Spiritualism combined with New Thought philosophy; and his sermons represented a spoonful of Norman Vincent Peale marinated in the healing revivalism of the postwar era.
Couple his theology with an unmatchable spiritual charisma and sexual energy (think the showmanship of Billy Sunday merged with the physical aesthetic of Jackie Wilson) and you have an ecclesial innovator. As his hands clutched the pulpit microphone, his diamond-laden fingers served as a gaudy though complimentary accessory to his most consistent ministerial message: “God doesn’t want you to have your pie-in-the-sky, bye and bye, when you die. He wants you to have it now with a cherry on top!”
Rev. Ike had as many such memorable catchphrases as he did Rolls Royces. Sayings like, “the best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them,” or “some may say money is the root of all evil, but being in poverty is a damn shame!”
But for African Americans who had played by the perceived cultural rules of the dominant society and accumulated a little disposable income, Rev. Ike’s message affirmed their desires by encouraging their consumption. Ike understood that black religion does not reside solely along the either/or continuum of “other-worldly” escapism or “this-worldly” social justice. Rather in between these two poles resides a critical mass of Christians that desire God to provide the keys to the kingdom, a new house, and nice car!
This is why Rev. Ike was so ahead of his time. He had his finger on the pulse of a segment of the black community and understood their spiritual strivings and material longings in the emerging post-civil rights era. And by theologically framing this message in such a way that leads persons to believe that the power of their pocketbooks was within themselves, he tapped into two powerful strands of American religious identity: the myths of American success and divine entitlement.
To paraphrase Langston Hughes, Rev. Ike knew that African Americans, too, sing America. Sure, God gave Dr. King a dream of social justice and beloved community. But he gave Rev. Ike money, cars, and land. And—for many who continue to follow in this problematic yet powerful prosperity tradition—if one has the latter, the former is unnecessary.
RIP (Rest In Prosperity), Rev. Ike!