STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is the day that some popular ministers are supposed to give some answers to Congress. The ministers face questions about how they spend money, which is noteworthy because they often preach about money. They're ministers of what's called prosperity gospel, and they include Kenneth Copeland of Texas, who says faith can expand your bank account.
Pastor KENNETH COPELAND (Kenneth Copeland Ministries): This is the word that will become flesh. This is the word that will become healing. This is the word that becomes massive wealth.
INSKEEP: Now Republican Senator Chuck Grassley is asking how the ministers acquired their own massive wealth.
Anthea Butler is following Grassley's investigation. She's an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester. Welcome to the program.
Professor ANTHEA BUTLER (Religion, University of Rochester): Thank you.
INSKEEP: What are these guys suspected of, exactly?
Prof. BUTLER: Having too much money and actually wasting money, because who would run a nonprofit and have to have a Bentley or a Leer jet, right?
INSKEEP: Some of them have Bentleys and Leer jets?
Prof. BUTLER: Yes, they do. Creflo Dollar has a Leer jet that he flies back and forth from Atlanta to New York every Sunday.
INSKEEP: And is this just one or two preachers we're talking about, or many across the country?
Prof. BUTLER: I think there's a handful that we're talking about. But there's a greater number that aspire to be these men and women of faith, as we like to call them in the Pentecostal business.
INSKEEP: What do you mean men and women of faith, as opposed to…
Prof. BUTLER: As opposed to people who just go to church every Sunday. Let me explain what I mean. People of Faith, or the Word of Faith movement are people who believe that God can bless you in extraordinary ways, not just with good health but with financial blessing, and that financial blessings show that you are, A, following the word of God, and, B, you are prosperous because you are following the word of God.
INSKEEP: Okay, wanting your parishioners to be wealthy seems okay. What makes that any different from what's being taught in the church down the street?
Prof. BUTLER: Well, the church down the street doesn't preach about it every Sunday ad infinitum. Creflo Dollar is one of the Grassley Six, and he's the one that actually has a - I believe it is a penthouse that overlooks Central Park. But he also has a church in New York. He's got churches around the world.
His home church, however, is in Atlanta, Georgia, and he says that - let me quote him - "Every time I step off my plane, devils better get out of the way." In other words, you know, he has to have a wide berth to be able to move about and do his ministry as he sees it, which is preaching this gospel of prosperity.
INSKEEP: And you mentioned the Grassley Six. That's the name that some people have given these six ministers who've been asked for information. Let's listen to a sermon from Creflo Dollar.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Dr. CREFLO DOLLAR (Creflo Dollar Ministries): See, it's easy for a person to sit back who ain't never been there.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Dr. DOLLAR: It's easy for you to say that God don't want you rich. But for some folks, God is the only way out of their life poverty situation, and he is a father that wants you whole in every area of your life. But he also wants you to have money in your pocketbook so you can have authority in this world.
(Soundbite of applause)
INSKEEP: I'm trying to remember the Bible verse: It's easier for a camel to - how does it finish?
Prof. BUTLER: …go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God, I believe it is.
INSKEEP: And so there are some Christians, I would imagine, who look unfavorably on this view of religion and wealth?
Prof. BUTLER: Yeah, very much so. I mean, if you think about things like liberation theology, that preaches, you know, a preferential option for the poor, this would seem to be very egregious in light of the poverty in the world.
Prosperity preachers like Creflo Dollar or Kenneth Copeland and others will say to you, we're not saying that poor people are bad. We're just saying that, you know, if they appropriate the word of God, scripture, in the ways that they should, then they will be able to prosper.
And they would also tell you in their ministries, too, that we give money to, you know, overseas missions. We have, you know, homeless shelters. But the big focus, especially for the congregations that they hold, is for prosperity.
INSKEEP: Are their parishioners well off?
Prof. BUTLER: I would say many of them are. I would say a lot of them aren't, though, and here's why. This is a way for you to put together your faith with economic empowerment and social and class mobility. So if you go to a church like Creflo Dollar's World Changers International, you're mixing it up with people who have more than you.
INSKEEP: Well now, Anthea Butler, as we talk about this case, it seems so far we're hearing about differing interpretations of the Bible, which people are entitled to have. What makes this the subject of a congressional investigation - a legitimate subject?
Prof. BUTLER: I think it's a legitimate subject for Grassley in this way. When you have a Sunday-morning service that says God wants to give you a Bentley or the church gives you a Bentley, as in the case of one of the Grassley Six, Eddie Long, then you'd see a sense in which somebody like a Senator Grassley's thinking this can't be, you know, the normal Protestant ethic.
INSKEEP: Given that there is a constitutional separation between church and state, do these churches have to tell him what he wants to know?
Prof. BUTLER: They have the right to say no. I think what may happen here in the future is that we're going to see increased scrutiny of these corporations - and I'll call them corporations because they are corporations, they run like corporations - by the IRS, because they're under 501(c)(3) codes.
INSKEEP: Those are the nonprofit rules.
Prof. BUTLER: And if they continue to operate with this kind of excessive wealth, then they also will have to be accountable to where the money is going. And if that money is going more towards the trappings of faith rather than the work of the faith, then I think you will run into a serious problem.
INSKEEP: Anthea Butler of the University of Rochester. Thanks very much.
Prof. BUTLER: You're welcome.
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