My new favorite show is called “The Righteous Gemstones.” The main family, the Gemstones, are televangelists and own a multi-million dollar church corporation. The dad, Eli Gemstone, and his son, Jesse Gemstone, are the main pastors for the church. The show portrays the behind-the-scenes and inner-workings of the family. They all live in mansions and drive the most expensive cars. In the first episode, Jesse Gemstone is caught on video with prostitutes while doing cocaine with some of his friends. There is another scene that shows the massive amount of money coming in from donations after a Sunday service; the whole basement of their church is dedicated to the money.
The Gemstone family makes me laugh harder than I have in any other show. But it also terrifies me because of the way it relates to real-life televangelists and megachurch pastors. There are real churches that spend over $90 million every year on their building, trips and paying pastors, and some of these pastors have been caught with drugs and prostitutes but still practice today. Religion, to me, should be something personal and not a corporation.
The Gemstone’s church looks similar to the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Lakewood church is owned by Joel Osteen, a famous televangelist, and can seat 16,800 people. Services are broadcast to 7 million people per month. It looks more like a concert venue than a church. Kenneth Copeland owns a similar congregation called Copeland Ministries. The Copelands have multiple churches, and also multiple private jets. In a recent interview with Inside Edition, he was questioned for buying another private jet, and calling commercial flights “a tube full of demons.” In this same interview, Copeland rages at a journalist for even asking the question.
Ted Haggard, the former head pastor of New Life Church, a megachurch, in Colorado Springs, was caught with a male prostitute while doing meth in 2006. Haggard was exposed by the prostitute, Mike Jones. Haggard is the real-life Jesse Gemstone. What followed was a book by Haggard’s wife, “Why I Stayed,” and Haggard opened a new and successful church in Colorado Springs. He is arguably more popular today than before the scandal.
Recently, President Donald Trump appointed a similar figure, Paula White, as a White House aide. White is a pastor and televangelist from Florida. White is a proponent of the prosperity gospel, which preaches that donations to religious organizations will be returned and result in the believer’s own wealth. The New York Times compared her to a woman version of Trump because she has been married three times and gloats about how much money she has.
I think that one of the reasons that Trump appointed White to this office was to secure evangelical Protestant voters. This is similar to President Nixon when he had the evangelist Billy Graham in the White House. White has a massive reach in the Evangelical community after she began her New Destiny Christian Center in Florida. White also had a rough family life and upbringing, so she wrote books on how she became successful through being a Christian. She has stirred up controversy because of her prosperity gospel ideas, and through her three marriages.
I am concerned about someone like White holding a position of power in America, so I looked into her website to see what she is all about. Much of the website is about White’s accomplishments with opportunities everywhere to donate.
On White’s website, the smallest suggested donation option is $100. There is also an option to submit a prayer request. The first two options are “Prayer for President,” and “Financial.” Both of these are above “Favor of God,” “Grief/Loss,” and “Generational Curse,” and the last one on the list is “Prayer for a Child.” I decided to submit a prayer request to see what would happen.
I submitted the option “Emotional Healing.” I have no idea what this means and do not know how it will help me. Here’s what I wrote:
“I have had a busy semester with school work. I really hope my hard work pays off in my grades at the end of the semester.”
What followed was a series of text messages promoting White’s tour and her books.
I sent the same message to Kenneth Copeland Ministries and here is what they said back:
“Your prayer request has been forwarded to our Prayer Department. We're standing with you for your breakthrough!”
I was shocked by the idea of a “prayer department.” Religion should not be a corporation, and televangelists should not use their donors’ money for their own enjoyment. This is similar to a “Gemstone” scene when they show a personal amusement park for the Gemstone family right behind their house. It is scary to know that someone with these values is a part of the government and that a lot of people’s money is draining into the hands of televangelists.
I am not, by any means, against religion. Although I do not practice one religion, I appreciate the beauty in religion and the ways it helps people. Part of my family is Jewish, and I cherish the community that it brings through all of the holidays — great food and the small services that people attend. I also understand that every religion has its flaws in its ethics. However, I do not respect the specific actions of mega-churches and the way their communities are manipulated through the promise of salvation.
My vision of religion is that it should be something personal, with a tight-knit community of people who all have similar beliefs. This is very different from a pastor leading a sermon to over 16,000 people. It’s also distressing to me the amount of money the pastors make through these services, with donations and prayer requests. I don’t think faith should be something with a price tag, it should be a journey that someone goes through to make their lives better. When people pay celebrity-like figures, it seems to skew a more pure concept of faith.
As people from other religions, like myself, look at megachurches, it’s easy to stereotype all Protestant groups into this category, even though many of them are not corrupt and money machines. Many Protestant pastors have done great work on a smaller scale. More humble, smaller churches are proof that the roots of the religion are not wrong — it’s just the way they are being adopted by money-hungry people.
When pastors like Copeland and Osteen are looked up to as models of Christian faith, it creates a different standard for the way people treat religion. It corrupts people’s vision of religion by seeing it as something that can make money and competition, as opposed to helping people’s lives. There needs to be a shift from idolizing televangelists to a focus on what Christianity really means. This shift will make this religious sect more transparent and less morally corrupting.
Fiona O’Brien is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.