The President unveiled his tax plan this week, and it’s a doozy of a cut for the wealthy. No one should be surprised by this, for Republican tax strategies have always benefitted the rich. It’s never been any different in my lifetime. Evangelical Christian ministries, however and despite Biblical admonitions to plead the cause of the poor, have actually grown to favor tax plans that benefit the wealthy, and it’s not only because they support the GOP politically today.
My parents were adamant supporters of Adlai Stevenson during the two presidential elections of the 1950s. Even though my father served in the Army Air Corps during the war, he disliked Dwight Eisenhower on many levels, but most importantly, because Ike represented the “silk stockings,” the rich people, the overseers, the haves, the people who lived in the mansions and treated the rest of us like dirt. My father was a factory worker and supported labor. Election nights of 1952 and 1956 were not warm and happy in the two-bedroom bungalow we called home.
I grew up quite aware that the GOP represented the wealthy and as a result, their agenda never really could represent the working man or the have nots. No matter what, it always came back to bettering the lives of those who, to us, already had everything anybody could want. More for them always meant less for us. Nothing has really changed over the years and yet there has been a remarkable shifting of allegiance by working families to the Republican Party since the late 1970s.
There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is the almost complete assimilation of Evangelical Christianity into the party of the silk stockings, a circumstance in which I played a role as Pat Robertson’s executive producer during the 1980s. Among other things, Conservative Democrats in the South became Republicans in one of the most intriguing cultural shifts in our history, and today, it threatens everything from our most basic cultural foundations to our place in the global universe of nations.
What’s painted as freedom is actually all about money and the selfish gain thereof. “How can I get more, and how can I protect what’s already mine?” That’s the tie that binds the have nots with the haves, and this blending is often most visible on Sunday morning. How much more important to the managing of a church or a ministry, for example, is the man who gives $10,000 every year than the single mother who gives $10-a-week? You’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s understandable at a certain level, but there’s no difference between the two spiritually, and that’s what matters!” This is naive and dangerous, for money is a corrupting factor no matter how hard we try to insist that it isn’t. Theologians write of this over and over again, but it’s amazing how our mirror doesn’t seem to produce a truthful image. So far down this road have we gone that the health of almost every church is tied to its ability to create financial growth. In this we have become worldly vessels, for our trust isn’t so much in God as it is in our own ability to manage things.
Years ago when I lived in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, I attended Chuck Swindoll’s Stonebriar Community Church, and I was very happy there. It was big, comfortable, and Chuck’s preaching is second-to-none. The music was also spectacular with a full orchestra and choir. One day, while passing through the parking lot en route to my car, I came across a vehicle I’d never seen before. It was a Maybach 57, and it was utterly sensational, a big sedan that just dripped with luxury. I went home and looked for one on the net, and discovered it was one of the most expensive cars on earth! You could get one used for $250 thousand, and the new ones were far beyond that. It caused me to sit back and think about what kind of person would be able to spend that kind of money on a car to take to church? I mean, I knew that Stonebriar had resources and catered to those who could afford to live in the North Dallas suburbs, but this? This was beyond words. It was a demonstration of wealth beyond anything I’d ever seen up close and personal.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with rich people going to church. In fact, good for them. How the church responds, however, is another matter entirely.
The bigger the ministry, the more likely it is to cater to the wealthy. When I was Pat Robertson’s executive producer in the 1980s, I was responsible for fundraising on The 700 Club and its telethons, which was actually much more sophisticated, strategic, and scientific than you might imagine. We created levels of giving, and encouraged contributors to move from one level to the next. What was draw? The constantly emphasized blessing that came with giving. The more you give, the more God is likely to bless you. This was even one of Pat’s “laws” of the Kingdom of God. “We can never out give God!”
Like any hierarchy, there’s a built in ladder for those who feel it’s necessary or desirable to climb above one’s neighbor. We knew what percentage of 700 Club members would eventually commit to the 2500 Club and how long it would take to happen. This provided the means for us to make accurate “revenue” projections into the future. Here’s the way that hierarchical ladder looks today, according to CBN’s website.
Not revealed here is the very top of the heap, what’s known as the CBN Chairman’s Circle, those who give $10,000 a year. The ministry describes it in, again, terms designed to be attractive to one’s self: “For today’s philanthropist who sees Christian ministry as an investment in eternity.” Right. Give your way into Heaven. Again, it’s not that there’s anything inherently evil about giving money to ministries, but that all changes when the ministries enter into a shift in emphasis in order to secure those types of contributions in the first place. It’s within this hegemony that the politics of the wealthy influence the politics of the church, because the more they have to give, the thinking goes, the more we will benefit from their largess. And so the church courts those with wealth, and a selfish thread gets woven into its message of salvation in the form of a prosperity message that seems to apply to every believer. However, the Biblical concept of prosperity is that no one among us would be poor, not that every one among us would be rich, and this is one of the most pressing differences between mainline Christian denominations and the evangelicals.
While so-called experts - likely with ulterior motives - have identified Scriptural justifications for God wanting us all to prosper, even a cursory study of the financial system that God gave the Israelites through Moses (Deuteronomy 15) includes clever governors that couldn’t be gamed by those seeking exorbitant wealth. It’s not so much that the system was designed to prevent avarice as it was designed to keep people from entering into poverty, an idea that is close to God’s heart, as evidenced time and again throughout the Bible. “He pleaded the cause of the poor and the afflicted,” Jeremiah prophesied to the unrighteous King Shallum about his righteous father, King Josiah, “and then it was well with him. Is this not what it means to know me, saith the Lord?” What we are witnessing today is nothing short of a breathtaking evil being perpetrated on people of lesser means by mislead people in the name of Jesus.
If this continues, it will lead to a break in the foundation of Evangelical Christianity itself, for we cannot continue to pretend forever that God is in favor of this. There will be a great shaking, and it may have already begun with the presidency of one of the most visible representatives of avarice in the world today, Donald J. Trump. He may well have been put in office by Providence, but I promise it’s not for the reason his Evangelical supporters think.
Each of us needs to stand in front of the mirror and look into the eyes of our reflection. We need to stare deeply into our own souls and ask ourselves a simple question. Why did Christ die for me? Was it so that my living conditions in this life would be better than most? Or was it so that I could use what I’ve been given to help lift others up?
We can’t help everybody, but we can - each of us - help somebody. If we truly wish to make a difference in the world today, this is the formula.