The scholar of African-American religion on black megachurches and the marketability of the American Dream.
Each Sunday, nearly ten thousand parishioners stream into the World Dome at the World Changers Church International in Atlanta to hear the glistening rhetoric of pastor Creflo Dollar. Bishop T.D. Jakes, who helms the thirty-thousand-member Potter’s House in Dallas, broadcasts his high-octane sermons to a worldwide audience on five television networks. At its peak, Eddie Long’s church, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia, was comprised of a private school, charities, various other businesses, and a health and fitness center. The yearly budgets of these enterprises run in the tens of millions; their architecture sprawls like suburban shopping malls; their church services feature sound, video, and lighting design that rivals that of the most well-endowed theaters.
T.D. Jakes, Eddie Long, and Creflo Dollar preside over some of the largest megachurches in the United States. They promulgate a theology that links religiosity to material prosperity; one that stresses, essentially, that those who worship right will become rich. The pastors, in the most literal sense, practice what they preach. T.D. Jakes resides in a pink mansion, Dollar travels by Rolls Royce and private jet, and Long often dons Gucci sunglasses, diamonds, and a Rolex. Their predominantly African-American followers are encouraged, often aggressively, to give and give to the church—at least ten percent of their income—in service of the vague notion that they too will, eventually, get.
Anthony Pinn, an accomplished scholar of African-American religion at Rice University in Houston, Texas, is deeply critical of the ways in which black megachurches ensnare, and ultimately fail, black communities. A former minister, Pinn has authored and edited thirty books, including Why, Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology (1995), Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion (2003), and, most recently, a memoir entitled Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist (2014). Pinn is also a prominent voice in the new documentary Black Church, Inc., which takes a damning look at financial exploitation in contemporary black megachurches.
Pinn grew up in a churchgoing African-American family in Buffalo, NY, where, early on, he displayed prowess at the pulpit. He began preaching at age twelve, and by eighteen was one of the youngest ordained ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Though his academic and religious careers initially progressed in tandem, he grew skeptical about the social impact of ministerial practice while working toward a PhD at Harvard Divinity School. “From my perspective I had a choice to make,” Pinn explains in the interview that follows. “I could either be about the business of raising questions and providing critiques that were meant to improve life options, or I could safeguard this tradition.” He chose the former.
I spoke with Pinn recently over Skype. When I offered him the word “empire” to describe black megachurches, he cautioned me “to not assume they have more authority than they actually have, to not give them a kind of reach that they really don’t possess.” Nevertheless, he spoke candidly about the ways black megachurches do wield power: by manipulating scripture, generating spectacle, and channeling the allure of the American Dream.
—Meara Sharma for Guernica
Guernica: I wonder if you can lay out what constitutes a megachurch.
Anthony Pinn: I argue that a megachurch has to have a consistent membership of three thousand-plus, it has to make creative and sustained use of technology, it has to provide a religious rationale for the American Dream, and it has to read scripture and develop a theology that is about acquisition of goods as a sign of spiritual correctness.
What these churches typically argue is that God wants God’s people to have a good life, and that a good life involves prosperity. This prosperity is not just emotional well-being, spiritual well-being, or physical well-being—it’s also having good stuff. Having a nice house, a nice car, good clothing, etc. It’s a package deal.
If one has good faith, you can unlock the secrets of scripture, and in unlocking the secrets of scripture, you have access to everything God wants you to have. Ministers of megachurches become examples of the truth of that claim, because they’re well paid, living in wonderful homes, driving very nice cars, dressed well. They are doing well, so if you do this, you too can have success.
Guernica: What you’re describing is what’s called the “prosperity gospel,” the notion that good faith and material wealth are intertwined, reflective of one another. Is this a modern idea?
Anthony Pinn: No, it’s been around a long time. You get early signs of it in some of the teachings of John Calvin. Calvin argued that you really can’t tell who is favored by God and who isn’t by simply looking at people who attend church. There’s got to be other ways. He argued that perhaps God gives us a hint about whom God favors through physical and material prosperity. So those who are doing well are probably favored by God.
Within the African-American context you get a sign that there is a relationship between material success and spiritual well-being in the spirituals. “All God’s children got clothes to wear.” You get a sense that it’s okay to have good stuff and still claim a relationship with God. So enslaved Africans rethought their predicament in a way that entailed getting good stuff, material stuff, and having a deep relationship with God. There was no contradiction. And the idea just moves forward from there.
So long as there’s been black churches in the United States, there’s been a relationship between spiritual well-being and material acquisition. This has always been the case.
Guernica: Talk about the role of tithing in the prosperity gospel.
Anthony Pinn: Tithing becomes the bare minimum. The ministers argue that within the context of scripture there’s a requirement given by God that you’ve got to give ten percent of your income to the church. And if you give ten percent—here’s the hook—God is going to reward your faithfulness by giving you that ten percent back, and a whole lot more.
Within the context of black churches, this is extremely old. If you’re going to sustain your congregation and pay your bills, you’ve got to have people who are contributing regularly. I think there are ways in which the contemporary church has just made that appeal to give ten percent a bit crude. Like looking at tax returns to determine how much folks should be giving. A real aggressive call for folks to give money as opposed to a more gentle effort to persuade them.
The American Dream has really good PR.
Guernica: Megachurches have risen up in the last fifty to sixty years, but they’re not a uniquely African-American phenomenon. Why have they taken hold so firmly in the black community?
Anthony Pinn: A couple of things: One, there’s long been an assumption that there’s a strong relationship between the Christian faith and African-Americans. Secondly, the socioeconomic and political plight of African-Americans. If you bring these two together, it gives the prosperity gospel and megachurches a particular type of charge in black communities.
The American Dream has really good PR. It’s kind of difficult to live in the United States and not on some level be pulled into the allure of the American Dream. It’s in the DNA of the country. So, for a population coming out of slavery, desperate to become part of the full life of the United States, it only makes sense that they would embrace this route to the American Dream.
One can associate the early growth of black churches with the great migration. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, moving through the mid-twentieth century, you have a growth in black middle-class churches and an opportunity for those churches to further distinguish themselves from other religious organizations.
One of the markers of these middle-class churches was a deep embrace of all things American. The markers of success. These churches are growing and growing, and within the context of this growth you’ve got some outliers who make this appeal to “stuff” explicit. People like Reverend Ike in New York, who had a major radio program and television programs—he was explicitly about the ability of religion to get you good stuff. He sold prayer cloths, for example, that were meant to open up opportunities for people. People would call in with testimonies—they bought his prayer cloths, they did what Reverend Ike said to do, and as a result they got a new home and a Cadillac and a better job.
Some of the black spiritual churches, people like Prophet Jones and his Church of Universal Triumph, also talked in terms of using religion to get “stuff.” In terms of the megachurch and the prosperity gospel as we currently understand it, one of the early markers is Reverend Fred Price on the West Coast, who’s been doing this since the 1970s. It’s the same argument that the Bible holds the keys to our well-being. He would preach about his reliance on scripture providing him with physical healing, but also providing him with financial resources so he could wear the expensive suits, have the expensive cars. And he told folks that if they listened to what he had to say, they could have all of this as well.
Then you get this kind of snowballing effect. You move to figures like T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar, who today have a very similar message.
Guernica: How are present-day megachurches reinventing these same messages for today’s audience?
Anthony Pinn: Megachurches understand entertainment value. The music has got to be professional, like you’re at a concert. They understand the attention span of the average US citizen. They understand the deep reliance on technology that’s now in place. And they work this. They work it well. The ministers, if they’re going to argue that their teachings have positive consequences, it’s only convincing if they have stuff. If the minister is driving a hooptie, you’re not really going to listen to him on how these teachings can get you a wonderful car.
Guernica: Barry Harvey, a professor of contemporary theology at Baylor University, has said, “The church is essentially becoming indistinguishable from its biggest competitor, the mall.” Do you see that?
Anthony Pinn: It seems to me that they satisfy a very similar need—they just do it through a different venue and different language. They don’t get folks into the buildings by announcing 70-percent-off sales; they get people in the building by saying, “Look, we got the good stuff. We know how to read scripture and we can get you what you want.” But in both contexts you have consumers.
And these new megachurches are typically located near important highway points, so you can get there fairly easily. They are as concerned about adequate parking space as they are about anything else.
To the extent that folks recognize black churches as businesses, why shouldn’t they see their CEO have what the CEO of Pepsi has?
Guernica: I think for many people, there’s something off-putting, or just unsettling, about a pastor like Creflo Dollar, who has a private jet, a Rolls Royce, and multiple million-dollar homes. There’s a dissonance between that kind of lavish lifestyle and being a spiritual figure.
Anthony Pinn: For believers, it would only be off-putting if Creflo Dollar said, “Look, this stuff is only available to people like me. I’m special. You can’t get this.” But to the extent that he provides this invitation—you live by my teachings, and you can have what I have—then it’s appealing.
It really depends upon how one views churches. If one views the black church as being primarily about the business of spiritual renewal, emotional, psychological, spiritual well-being, then it’s offensive. But, to the extent that folks recognize black churches as businesses, why shouldn’t they see their CEO have what the CEO of Pepsi has? The parishioners don’t see a contradiction between the church as an economic enterprise and a place for spiritual renewal. One leads to another. They flow together.
Guernica: So what happens when it doesn’t seem to be working for the parishioners? When they’re not getting more prosperous, even though they’re abiding by the teachings?
Anthony Pinn: This is the genius of the system. It’s not working because you’re not doing it right. There’s no flaw in the system! No flaw in the teachings! There’s a flaw in your practice of the teachings. How can the minister say this? Because the minister is still doing well! The minister is still driving that Rolls Royce, wearing ten-thousand-dollar suits, so clearly the teachings work! You are not practicing them properly.
Guernica: How do these megachurch pastors amass the power necessary to convince people of such teachings? Where do they derive it from?
Anthony Pinn: Well, in their special relationship to scripture. One of the things that goes along with being the church leader is having primary responsibility for how scripture is interpreted. They’re understood to have a special relationship to God, a special kind of calling, and as a consequence to that, a special understanding of scripture. So this book, this magical book, they have control over it in a way that no one else does. Every Sunday, at eleven o’clock, they get to tell people what to think about this book. How to think about this book. What portions of this book to read. That’s power. They control how people think, and as a consequence, can control what people do.
Guernica: The word “empire” is often invoked to describe megachurches. Do you see them as such?
Anthony Pinn: I’m hard-pressed to think of most of these black megachurches as empires. It seems to me an empire has this expansive geographic reach, and the vast majority of megachurches are bound by national boundaries. They have power and influence but not so much that they constitute an empire. There are a few exceptions—Joel Osteen’s reach moves in this direction, as does Creflo Dollar’s, Fred Price’s. T.D. Jakes, with his movies, book deals.
Guernica: I’m thinking of empire in less of an international or historic sense, and more as a way to describe a large entity that exerts significant control or influence within society.
Anthony Pinn: I would just want to call it something different. I think of the US as an empire. The UK at one point, because of its reach, was an empire. But these megachurches—for me the concern is to not assume they have more authority than they actually have, to not give them a kind of reach that they really don’t possess. They’re not providing anything that even resembles a unique take on life. I think the general message is problematic—it champions a kind of radical individualism, no sense of communal obligation or responsibility, no strong sense of justice—but I could say the same thing about so many institutions in the US. On one level, it seems these prosperity gospel preachers and these megachurches have been no more harmful to collective life than a Congress that refuses to act.
Guernica: But thousands and thousands of Americans attend church every Sunday and sit, with undivided attention, before a person speaking onstage.
Anthony Pinn: But all they walk away with is a deeper appreciation for the American Dream, though rather than, “If I work hard I can have,” theirs is, “If I understand scripture and apply it, I can have.” That’s rather tame. They’re not leaving saying the US system needs to be rethought, they’re not saying capitalism is a problem and we need something else, they’re just saying, “Give me a bigger slice of the pie.” That’s rather safe.
Guernica: In propagating a vision of life that’s about wealth in the individual, perhaps the influence of these churches lies in what they obscure.
Anthony Pinn: Right. It hides the larger problem. The problem is poverty. And it hides the problem. We often associate black churches with a history of protest. But prosperity gospel and megachurches tend to be rather soft on political issues. T.D. Jakes doesn’t take a major stand on political issues. Creflo Dollar certainly doesn’t.
But it’s the American way. So it seems to me that what they are doing is training black people to be even more American. To buy into this system rather than critique it. And if you’re not gaining from it, to assume that the problem’s with you. It provides a spiritual lesson that’s very similar to the idea of “poor people want to be poor; if they just worked harder they could have more.” Here, spiritual people could have more if they were just more spiritual and lived out scripture more authentically. So the prosperity preachers are training people to be better US citizens [laughs].
Guernica: Some, like the scholar Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs, have argued that black megachurches do serve a social function with regards to community development. How do you see that play out?
Anthony Pinn: I don’t think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit for what they do, if you take into consideration the resources available to them. A church bringing in this source of significant revenue, providing meals to the homeless—that doesn’t tell me much. They’re putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds. They’re operating based on a model of charity, as opposed to a model of transformation.
If these churches were really about the business, and not just megachurches but black churches in general, they would raise questions concerning the fundamental workings of the US. There’s a reason there are poor black people. The question becomes: What do these churches do to uncover and challenge the reasons for poverty, beyond passing out a few meals and some sweaters during the winter? I don’t see these big ministers that we name over and over again—T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar—doing it.
You’re only going to get so much liberation, you’re only going to get so much transformation, from a system that is based on suffering.
Guernica: Why do you think there’s a lack of action or interest in tackling such systemic issues?
Anthony Pinn: I think there are at least two reasons. One, they buy the American Dream narrative. Secondly, I’m not convinced that the Christian faith is really all that good on these sorts of issues, when the Christian faith is premised on the reward of suffering. The key figure in the Christian faith involves a story of suffering so that others do well. You’re only going to get so much liberation, you’re only going to get so much transformation, from a system that is based on suffering.
Also, from my perspective, anyway, the Christian faith is premised on the development of an in-group and an out-group. The in-group gets all the good stuff, and the out-group—because they don’t have the same sort of import—you can do anything to them that you want to do. It seems to me this provides a rationale for slavery, etc. I don’t think a tradition that is premised on an in-group and an out-group is poised to really spearhead transformation in a sustained way.
Guernica: You’ve said that these megachurches tend not to be strong on big political issues, social issues, but they’re often visited by politicians. It seems they wield some political power, intentionally or not.
Anthony Pinn: Numbers. Numbers. Churches can easily bring together, in a short period of time, a substantial number of people, and politicians have to assume that these folks have the potential to vote. Although there’s supposed to be a separation of church and state, they want to go to these churches to say hello to the people, and they assume their hello might turn into votes.
Guernica: And the pastors do make occasional public appearances in photogenic political settings. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, T.D. Jakes delivered a sermon alongside President Bush.
Anthony Pinn: For me this is an issue. There’s a separation of church and state. If you want the perks that churches have traditionally received, then abide by the rules. If you’re going to be involved in the political process, even in soft ways, then surrender the privileges. Let ministers pay income tax on all of their income. Let churches pay income tax, let them pay property taxes. They can’t have it both ways. You can’t pat the politicians on the back, break the rules, and then get all these perks.
Guernica: How, specifically, might black megachurches begin doing things differently?
Anthony Pinn: Publicly, and consistently, point out the problems in the US system that generate the issues that we encounter. Point out and critique problems of class, of gender, and race. Be vocal about this.
But instead they’re selling snake oil. They’re providing folks with strategies that ultimately will not make a sustained difference. But this is the genius of the system. It’s a loop. And it always points back to the failure of the parishioner who’s not getting the good stuff, and no one raises the question concerning the system that feeds off of impoverishment.
Guernica: Historically, the black church has played a significant role in social transformation. Is it possible to return to this?
Anthony Pinn: Let’s not overestimate the significance of black churches in social protest activity. Even if we take the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged that the vast majority of black churches were not involved, that black churches really weren’t paying the bills, and that much of the money the civil rights movement needed came from sympathetic whites, not black churches. Let’s also keep in mind that the National Baptist Convention, USA, was the largest gathering of black Christians. They were not interested in the civil rights movement. We had the Progressive National Baptist Convention developing precisely because the largest gathering of black Christians wanted nothing to do with the movement that Martin Luther King Jr. was involved in. The black churches had good PR, but limited involvement. It has changed in hindsight. In hindsight everybody’s out marching. That wasn’t the case.
What we ought to be trying to do is limit the harm that Christian communities and other religious communities can do. But we can’t rely on them to make a world of difference. It’s just not going to happen.
Guernica: When you say “limit the harm,” are you suggesting that they are adding to problems in black communities, actually playing a role in making things worse?
Anthony Pinn: They’re endorsing the status quo. Economically they endorse the status quo, socially they endorse the status quo through gender bias, sexism, homophobia. They are reinforcing the status quo.
Ministers are people, and as people, many of them are screwed up. Deeply screwed up.
Guernica: There have been some fairly high-profile scandals among black megachurch pastors in recent years. Eddie Long has faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, and Creflo Dollar was charged with child abuse. In Long’s case, his lawsuits were settled, and in Dollar’s, the charges dropped. And it seems they emerged from these ordeals relatively untarnished.
Anthony Pinn: And it’s a shame. These things offered an opportunity for an honest conversation about dehumanization and abuse within church communities. But I think churches are not interested in such conversations, they’re poorly equipped to have them, their vocabulary is inadequate for getting at these sorts of issues. It points again to the inadequacy of these institutions to bring about sustained change. They can’t clean their own houses, how are they going to clean the country’s?
It also points to the reality that ministers are people, and as people, many of them are screwed up. Deeply screwed up. They just hide it well. But we assume that these ministers live on a different moral and ethical plane. No, we just don’t get to look in their bedrooms as often.
Guernica: I’m curious to hear a bit more about your religious background.
Anthony Pinn: I grew up in Buffalo, NY, entered the church fairly young, and started preaching when I was a pre-teen. I was involved in church ministry and the African Methodist Episcopal Church until I was about twenty-six years old. I was working on a PhD at that point and realized that nothing I said or did within the context of religious ministry made a big difference in the lives of people. From my perspective, I had a choice to make. I could either be about the business of raising questions and providing critiques that were meant to improve life options, or I could safeguard this tradition. I decided to go with the questions and the critiques.
So I told the pastor of the church I was working at in Boston that I would not be working there anymore, I wrote to my bishop and said I was surrendering my ordination, and I left the church. I went from being an evangelical Christian to what people would either categorize as a humanist or an atheist.
Guernica: According to a recent Pew study, almost three-fourths of the population thinks religion is losing influence in America—but it turns out most see this as a negative thing. Why do you think people are still drawn to churches?
Anthony Pinn: I think they’re drawn for some rather secular reasons. Community. Networking opportunities. Cultural connections. And if to get these cultural connections and networking opportunities you have to sit through a sermon, then you sit through a sermon. I don’t know that all black folks go to these churches because they’re on a spiritual quest or buy the theology. These churches offer other opportunities.
Guernica: In terms of the theology, it’s easy from the outside to pass judgment, to assume that those swept up in the teachings are being ripped off. But are they being ripped off more than anyone else?
Anthony Pinn: Well, they’re given a deeper sense of obligation and commitment to the system. And the treatment of their needs is superficial. That’s a problem. But whether it’s a twenty-member church or a twenty-thousand-member church, from my perspective both are being ripped off. The question is: Do you do it with a two-hundred-member choir and all the bells and whistles, or do you do it with folding chairs and three people up front singing?
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