Sunday, October 30, 2011

God & the 1%: The Corporatizing of Religion

An element of the oppression of the 99% that has as far as I can tell gone unremarked upon (at least in the context of the new discourse being raised by the Occupy movement) is the increasing Corporatization of religion in the United States in the last 50 years or so. Televangelists like Joyce Meyer,* Binny Hinn, Paula White, T.D. Jakes, Rod Parsley and Joel Osteen (the posh-looking stadium pictured above is Pastor Osteen’s megachurch and corporate headquarters) prey on the fear and despair of the 99% in the most repugnant way, offering them worldly comfort and security and even eternal salvation in exchange for a small donation to their “ministry.” And business is booming. Joel Osteen’s ministry took in a staggering $75 million (US) last year. That’s a lot of books, videos, television rights, trinkets, speaking fees, and Church “offerings.” Osteen lives in a multimillion dollar estate and his ministry owns a private jet.

Regardless of one’s commitments to theism or atheism, surely all rational people who are capable even moderate reflection can see that there is something seriously morally wrong about filling a stadium full of mostly middle class and poor people and using the technical wizardy and audio/visual razzle-dazzle typically associated with rock-concerts and major sporting events to soften up these unsuspecting “marks” and coerce them into a scheme of wealth redistribution which robs them of money they need to live in return for vague promises of divine favor and a better hereafter.

But you don’t have to be a televangelist to cash in...

The fact of the matter is that Churches of all sizes, from the megachurches of Osteen and Meyer, to small town Baptist Churches, to Catholic Dioceses, have become all about “church growth” a thinly disguised term for religious marketing designed to drive paying parishioners into the pews, and to streamline incomes. According to the average income for a pastor is now between $71,000 and $97,000 annually—that’s 2 to 3 times the income of the average American.

Perhaps a case can be made that pastors—who serve as educators, administrators, de facto (often unqualified) psychological counselors, marriage counselors, and hospice caregivers, and who often have heavy stresses placed upon them by their own flocks (in the form of unreasonable moral standards)—offer at least some value for the churchgoers’ dollar.

But as with everything else in Plutofascist Corporate America these local providers are in competition with regional, even national, megachurches, whose slick design and deep pockets make for a potent mix of spectacle and salvation. And the local providers are losing as the megachurches continue to grow. And the pastors of these megachurches, like Osteen, tend to be pastors in name only. They don’t counsel their flocks—how could they with flocks that number in the hundreds of thousands? They give nice speeches to adoring throngs and collect obscene amounts of money, and they pay underlings to do the actual ministerial work. In essence they function as CEOs of large corporations.

They even justify their extreme greed with same tactics as corporations. When asked about their exorbitant incomes, they talk about their charitable giving, as though throwing millions to the hoi polloi could excuse their backward wealth redistribution scheme. They’re criminals and robbers and they deserve to be punished. Osteen is particularly egregious for his preaching of the “prosperity Gospel,” according to which God’s plan for your life is that you should be wealthy, and the only reason you're not is that you're morally or epistemologically lacking. The cure? attend more conferences, buy more books, give more to the ministry to “sow your seed of faith” as they put it.
So the poor are told that by handing over their money they can get wealth from God. If they ever realize they’ve been had there is no way for them to seek restitution or redress. There is no law against a Church soliciting contributions. So megachurch pastors get off scot-free and the poor are left holding the bag.

Regardless of one’s views on religion, we as philosophers should be vocal in calling out these Plutofascist fat cats. They’re absolute moral reprobates. Theists have as much reason to despise them as the most ardent atheist. Christ (if we can speak of him in a historic fashion) reserved his only act of violent aggression for those who profited from religion. He called them vipers. Dirty things that crawl on their bloated bellies across the Earth. These modern vipers are no different. We need a mass awakening of the rank and file religious.

These megachurch pastors are the 1% and it is high time the 99% took a good long look at what they are doing.

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*A congressional committee discovered in 2007 that Joyce Meyer Ministries purchased a $23,000 toilet for Mrs. Meyer's use at the office. (Source: NPR)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post! It does take overwhelming hypocrisy to build a salvation-selling corporate leviathan based on the teachings of a radical jewish socialist living in Roman-occupied Palestine.

    I do quibble with your characterization of smaller churches and their ministers, though. Financial motives are certainly major drivers of "church growth" as you say, but that would be the same with any organization. Not a day goes by that I don't get an email from a political party or NGO asking for a contribution because I once commented on their website. Organizations need funds to operate. Where the major political parties seem to exist solely for the purpose of existing, I believe most churches are busy doing actual ministry - as in helping congregants develop their spiritual lives and reaching-out to their communities. You can decry this 'opiate of the masses' if you like (and you didn't overtly in your post, but the tone and tenor suggested it), but try to be clear about which motive is driving the others and what that says about the organization itself.

    I've encountered a wide range of ministers, both as a (once-) devout Christian and as a (now-) confirmed agnostic. The overwhelming majority of which are facing the same forces other educated Americans are facing. Huge student loan debt (undergraduate and M. Div degrees required for mainline Protestant and Catholic clergy), as well as personal debt, regular relocation and (as you mentioned) a population that is more interested in attending a rock concert every Sunday than worshiping at their local church.

    Also, I don't mean to slight the methodological integrity of, but most pastors I know simply don't bring-in 70k per year. Maybe that says more about my sample than your analysis, but the 25-75 range you linked doesn't sound like anything I've encountered.

    That said, it would be wonderful if more attention was paid to this phenomenon and I thank you for bringing it to light at this terrific site.