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Prosperity Gospel and the White House Vote


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Later in the program, the floods in the Midwest, how the faith community is responding. And the Barbershop guys have their say on the week's news, and you'll have yours in our BackTalk segment. But first it's time for or weekly Faith Matters conversation. We've just been talking about the dilemma of some black conservative voters.

More now about the political and financial power of a key group of conservative Christians. While a lot of attention has been focused on presumed Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama's estrangement from his former pastor, presumed Republican Presidential candidate John McCain has had his own struggle with an important faith leader. Just months after accepting the endorsement of evangelical leader the Reverend John C. Hagee, McCain disavowed it. The fallout following publicity about Reverend Hagee's inflammatory statements about Jews, Catholics, and others.

The move comes amid concern that conservative evangelical voters might not come out for McCain in the fall, depriving him of what has been in recent years a critical part of the Republican base. For her book "God's Profits" journalist Sarah Poser investigates the political and financial power wielded by Reverend Hagee and others amongst select group of conservative Christian leaders. Sarah Poser's here with me now. Welcome. Thanks for stopping.

Ms. SARAH POSER (Author, "God's Profits"): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all who are you talking about in this book? You're not talking about all conservative Christians or even all evangelicals. You're talking about a very specific group of people. Who are they?

Ms. POSER: Right. I'm talking about a specific slice of the evangelical movement which is known as the Word of Faith or Prosperity Gospel Movement. They believe that God wants believers to be rich and that you get rich by tithing to your pastor. The controversy of course is that they live in luxury homes and fly in private jets without any accountability to their followers about where that money is going.

MARTIN: How did this movement become so connected to Republican politics?

Ms. POSER: Well, during the Reagan era was when Republican's really start to form this alliance with the religious right, with the evangelical movement. And the Word of Faith movement was part of that. As I detail in the book, George H.W. Bush had an advisor who made him a list of a thousand religious targets to court the evangelical and religious vote. And many of these Word of Faith leaders were on that list and continued to be the targets of outreach by George W. Bush, and then of course, by John McCain this year.

MARTIN: Traditionally and historically conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, who are not always the same people, but have issued deep involvement in electoral politics believing that you know, the two spheres should not necessarily intersect. Did this kind of movement to work together come from the political side or the religious side? I mean, was it that the political side saw a target of compatibility - these are people who share our values and can help us at the polls? Or was that that the religious side for that they perhaps weren't making enough headway in the culture and were looking to the political movement to advance, you know, their cultural aims?

Ms. POSER: Right, it was both. And of course you know, the early pioneers of this were people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and many of the people you see today are the heirs to that.

MARTIN: Your book, though, takes a pretty critical tone toward these folks. I think that is fair to say.

Ms. POSER: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: Don't they have a right to participate in politics if they want to?

Ms. POSER: Yes, of course they do. The political debate over their participation is do they - are they advancing a vision of government in which there is no separation between church and state, or less of a separation between church and state than many people think is constitutionally required. So, it's not their participation in the political process that I object to, it's what their goals ultimately are.

MARTIN: But isn't that what the political process is for, to sort out people with competing goals?

Ms. POSER: Yeah. And that's what a democracy is all about. But the democracy is also about debating the political stances of people who do participate in the political process.

MARTIN: Is it your view that these folks are less than honest about what their real objectives are?

Ms. POSER: I think they're quite honest with what their real objectives are.

MARTIN: Mm hmm.

Ms. POSER: They're pretty upfront about them.

MARTIN: But I guess what I'm - I'm just wondering what is it you expect people to get from your analysis? Because if you are part of the movement, then you presumably agree with it. If you don't, you're free to worship elsewhere, give your money to other causes.

Ms. POSER: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: If you are not part of the movement, then, you know, your responsibility is to do what any other voter would do which is to go to the polls and support candidates who don't support their mission. I'm wondering what it is that you want us to get out of your investigation of these particular group of faith leaders?

Ms. POSER: Well, I think that a lot of people that I come in contact with have no understanding at all that this religious movement exists at all. And so, it wasn't so much that I wanted to change how these people participate in the political process because I don't think that's going away. But it was more - I saw my goal as being a reporter and telling the story of how these religious movement became ascendant, why it's popular for people, and in the book, I discussed why it is that it's appealing to people. Not just the reasons why it's not appealing to people or are objectionable to people.

MARTIN: Why do you think this movement has taken hold and how strong is it? How important is it as part of the evangelical movement and then part of the Republican coalition?

Ms. POSER: Well, I would say, relatively speaking, it's a small slice of the evangelical movement, but it's a small vocal slice. And I think that the movement, the Word of Faith movement is probably bigger than the number of people in the Word of Faith movement who participate in politics. There are many, many churches that practice the Word of Faith doctrine in the United States not just these big mega-churches that I write about in the book. And you know, you could walk into Barnes and Noble and see bestsellers by some proponents of the Word of Faith theology or some form of the Word of Faith theology like Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer who aren't necessarily involved in politics, but are very prominent influential, cultural and religious figures.

MARTIN: What is the appeal for the people who - with whom you spoke who are followers of this movement?

Ms. POSER: The appeal was that you have the power within yourself to make things happen. And so it's your faith and God's favor upon you because you're doing all these things right like tithing to your pastor and having enough faith that will make them get a better job, heal them from a physical or emotional problem resulting in great abundance, financially, emotionally, spiritually in their lives.

MARTIN: How significant is the Word of Faith movement in your view in the broader world of this sort of Christian evangelicalism in the United States which is what - it claims at least 65 million people or so.

Ms. POSER: Right. I think that evangelicals are roughly you know, a quarter to a third of all Americans, and conservative evangelicals comprise about half of that. So about 15 percent of the U.S. population. And so I think that followers of the Word of Faith movement are probably some smaller segment of that 15 percent of the U.S. population that's a conservative evangelical.

MARTIN: Do you think that they have a kind of out-sized influence relative to their numbers?

Ms. POSER: I think they do and that's in large part due to televangelism because it's so easy to get access to their teachings by flipping on the television, and they produce a lot of books and magazines and have a lot of conferences all over the country. So, it's very easy to access their theology and the cult of personality around some of the more popular figures.

MARTIN: What response have you gotten to the book?

Ms. POSER: Well, from some evangelicals I talked to, they very much are in favor of exposing what's doctrinally wrong, in their view, with the Word of Faith movement. And so I think that there's definitely a split within the Evangelical movement over whether this is something that we should just let them do because we have free exercise of religion under the constitution, or whether this is so troubling doctrinally that it's good to expose it.

MARTIN: Is this sort of indicative of when - we've never have a conversations on this program about kind of a broader rethinking within the evangelical movement about...

Ms. POSER: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: Whether the movement is too attached to Republican politics. Whether the movement has you know, failed to embrace important present concerns like the environment. Do you think this is just sort of part of the overall sort of revival or re-evaluation among evangelicals about their role in the country and how they're living their faith?

Ms. POSER: That's definitely going on right now. And I think that what we're already seeing based on polling data and anecdotal evidence that I've gathered in my reporting is that there's a fairly significant chunk of evangelicals who are re-evaluating their long-standing ties with the Republican Party.

MARTIN: And why is that?

Ms. POSER: Well, I think that for the conservative evangelicals, they feel like they didn't get what they expected to get from the Bush administration. In other words, the Bush administration they think didn't go far enough with its conservative policies as far as they were concerned. I think for the more moderate centrist evangelicals, they're very alarmed by things like the Bush administration's policy on torture, the war in Iraq and how long that has going on, the Bush administration's inattention to global warming and poverty and global HIV, AIDS. These are all things that the centrist Evangelicals are saying, hey, wait a minute. You know, we've been voting Republican, but are the Republicans actually carrying out the policies that will serve our religious ideals in these other areas?

MARTIN: Sarah Poser is a journalist and author of the book "God's Profits." She join us in our studios here in Washington. Thank you so much for coming in.

Ms. POSER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Sarah Poser's book, "God's Profits," faith, fraud and the Republican crusade for values voters is out on book stands now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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