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Welcome to our all-new podcast series Too Good To Be True, covering financial scams and scam artists. In this two-part premiere, our hosts Ryan and Julia take you on a deep dive through the history of Evangelicalism, politics, and money in this country, culminating in the personal finance giant that is the Dave Ramsey empire.

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That's [MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to Too Good To Be True, an investigative podcast about exposing the scams, schemes, and financial cults trying to separate you from your money. I'm journalist and editor Ryan Houlihan. And I am Julia Lorenz-Olson.

I'm the co-host of PBS's Two Cents and an accredited financial counselor. So lay it on me. What are we talking about today?

So this is a deeply personal subject for me. We are going to talk about the financial culture within the evangelical community and even more specifically than that, the prosperity gospel movement within it. So for this first episode we're, in fact, doing a two-parter special.

Yes. We are covering the evangelical church and the prosperity gospel philosophy. And I think it's just such a big topic.

And there's so much to say on it that we thought, let's use it to kick things off. Absolutely. And you know we're also going to be talking about Dave Ramsey.

Whenever we talk about this topic, you know he's going to come up. All I know about Dave Ramsey is he's highly controversial, and he loves mixing religion and money. We're going to dive in deep there for sure.

Just for context, I was a very committed member of an evangelical megachurch for over a decade. My husband and I were. This is so interesting to me.

Because I do not have a long or storied history with evangelical Christianity or anything during my upbringing where I'm from regionally. But of course, the larger culture is so impacted by those ideas and concepts. Absolutely.

Yes. So it'll be interesting for me to maybe connect the dots here, live on air. Well, honey, just you wait, OK?

This is going to be a whole journey that we're going to take you on. But I want to give people a little bit of just personal context, so they know where I'm coming from and why I was really drawn to this particular subject. So unlike what you may be assuming, I actually didn't grow up in the church at all.

I became a Christian at 19 years old when I went to college. And my poor super, super liberal parents had to deal with this big shift. So here I am at 19.

I'm coming home from my second semester in college. And I actually came into the church through who a person, who would become my husband and by the way, still is my husband. Guess what?

Today, as of recording, is our 15-year anniversary. Wow. But I'm coming home and just this huge shift.

And I knew it was going to be a huge shift. I'm actually here on this podcast, because I became a Christian in a very weird roundabout way. And this is because my husband at the time would go on these long commutes between teaching these kid theater camps.

And, lo and behold, he stumbles on a radio show led by none other than Dave Ramsey. And that started a very interesting journey into and ultimately somewhat out of the world of evangelicals and this finance and faith blend. [LAUGHTER] See, it's an interesting path. Because Christianity-- any religion-- money is a central part of what you're talking about.

Absolutely. It feels really perverse to bring up in the context of eternity. But at the same time, Christianity isn't the only religion that has attempted to create a framework around how we relate to our resources which makes sense.

Because money is a uniquely human invention, right? It is not food. It is not water and air that other things need.

And yet, it is essential. Resources are essential to our lives now. And so I think, of course, different paths of spirituality are going to have things to say about it.

I mean, you think about the Islamic faith, Buddhism. Everyone has something to say. Because the way we interact with our resources happens on an emotional and a spiritual level in my opinion.

These things are interconnected on a very, very deep level. Actually, on this topic, we had the chance to speak with Lindsey Leaverton, a mom of three and the director of wealth management at a boutique wealth management firm in downtown Austin. She's also the co-host of Your Money Mamas with our very own Julia Lorenz-Olson, so let's hear from her. [MUSIC PLAYING] My name is Lindsey Leaverton.

And I am a mom of three kids, have a couple dogs, a blind hedgehog. And I have been in the evangelical church since I was but a baby, specifically the Southern Baptist portion of that. So I was literally born into the church.

Until 2009, I was actually in full-time ministry, touring and leading worship as a contemporary Christian recording artist. And my main world was evangelical seminars, conferences, and quite a bit of events with Southern Baptist world. So, 2009, I came out and lost my career.

Pretty much lost everything, except for a couple of friends and some supportive family. So I was, gosh, 26, I guess. [MUSIC PLAYING] So that's such an interesting contrast. Because money, in my understanding of religion, was always really transactional with the church.

So I grew up pretty non-religious, until around the events of 9/11. My family thought that if they prayed enough, that another 9/11 would never happen. Well, I mean, it's an incredibly traumatic event.

Of course. And it was so close. And they were New Yorkers.

I mean, yeah. Yeah, it was a difficult time. I do not blame them.

And seeking out answers spiritually-- I also don't think is a bad thing. But I do think that it's built into the foundation of Catholicism, wealth, capital. I mean, look at the Vatican-- I know. --and traces back in the Catholic Church to a history of indulgences, indulgences emerged under different political systems.

But essentially, the idea is that you can pay a certain amount of money to do sins. And it all equals out huge. Here's a hugely profitable idea.

And if you're living in a system like capitalism, which profit is prioritized over everything. And we are fed stories over and over again that wealth is virtue. A transactional framework to understand the world is really, really attractive and easy.

And it seems no muss, no fuss. It seems honest. Exactly.

This is what I was going to say, which is so interesting that now we're talking about the infiltration of wealth and this idolization of material wealth over on the Protestant side when the Protestant Reformation was really focused on fighting that practice of indulgences. In the early Protestant churches, having even a golden candlestick in the church was like, hell no. Get that out.

This has got to be spare and white and black. And there's no ostentation. And yet, here we are.

The world that we're really going to be diving into today is the evangelical world, which I do want to make the note that even obviously within the evangelical world, there is a pretty big spread, a big spectrum on how leaders pastor their followers to deal with money. So there's lots of debate on the role of wealth accumulation and what that means within the Christian life. I can tell you, the church that I was at for over a decade was very-- I mean, I heard so many sermons.

I'm like, the American dream is not the gospel. The American dream is anti-Jesus, basically. But I'm sitting on these rows with mostly middle to upper class, wealthy white people.

We're in a pretty wealthy city. But that's what I heard. It was very much "anti," what we're going to talk about today, which is the prosperity gospel.

And there's this-- it's very media friendly, very PR focused. And it has really made such an enormous impact on the concept of wealth and success paradigm here in the United States, just over really the last century and even a little bit-- even on a shorter time frame than that. So I think it's good to start with some context [INAUDIBLE]..

Well, what is the prosperity gospel? So the prosperity gospel is essentially a strain of evangelical Protestantism that has this idea that there is a contract between you and God. And if you do the right things, you will be blessed with material and physical wealth and health.

That is the contract. And so the closer in alignment you are, the better you walk the path. The more you tithe, the more you follow what your leader says, the more blessings come to you.

They use this. So there can't be rich, bad people. No, not really.

So I mean, at least not within the church. And if there are rich people that are not Christian, it is the job of Christians to go and either evangelize those people or take their money from them and use it for the good of the church. Right?

How convenient. Let's start with the seeds of this as we see it today. So in the 1920s, there was a movement within mostly dispossessed, poor white communities.

So there was an evangelist at the time. So this is the time of tent revivals, those black and white photos that you see. And there was one picture.

Like faith healing? Yes, absolutely. That was very prominent at the time.

So there was an evangelist named EW Kenyon who started what is known as the word of faith movement within Protestantism at the time. And it really focuses on this idea that God's intention for those who properly follow him is success in every area of your life and from your physical body to your bank account. And if success is not being had, that is an indication of the lack of faith, right?

It's making God from a spiritual goal into a guru. A genie, essentially. A genie.

Yeah-- And it really highlighted-- --a genie. --the power of speech to bring about miracles in the believer's life. So when you hear the term name it and claim it, that's an out loud ritual. It is a very different brand of prayer.

It is almost like manifestation, right? It's secret. It's like prayer.

Absolutely. It is like prayer meets manifestation. And there is also a big theological shift that is happening at around this time that focuses-- that went from Calvinism, which focused on the predestination of people.

So you're born, and you're predestined. God has already chosen. He was like, you're going to do a podcast, baby.

Yeah, exactly. [LAUGHTER] Into more of a individual works-centered theology which, again, it fits into the idea of American individualism and this idea, really this product that you are in charge of yourself. Right? But it's also an illusion of choice.

Yes. Because you have to live a certain cookie-cutter life. So if you make the wrong choices-- Yes.

Let's hear a bit more from Lindsey on this. [MUSIC PLAYING] As I continued to write songs, record, travel, my ministry went from regional to national. And I started getting some big contracts. So while I had the contract, that wasn't as hard.

Because I had established, this is what it'll cost to book me for this worship conference. And sometimes I had my whole band. And what I found as I got more into the evangelical world, Southern Baptist, these churches and conferences have so much money.

I remember one event I had. I made probably $3,000 for one weekend. And I had three sets.

They were maybe 30 minutes. As I got into the upper echelons of this world, I could not believe how much money just they have in their budget. So, yeah, I felt kind of bad.

And then, also, it was like, well, no, this is how I'm making a living. I had a non-profit, so everything went through my 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. But it was gross, honestly, to see how much money goes into these big conferences and events.

There were definitely strings attached. So every time I would get booked for a conference when I was still in the closet and trying to fight being gay, I didn't think twice about it. I would sing.

I'd get the paycheck. It'd go into the non-profit. And I basically paid myself a salary every month so that I can make a living doing music and ministry.

When I started to realize, OK, Lindsey, there is this time where rubber is going to meet the road, you will have to get out. And when I realized that it was time to start coming out, I knew I was going to lose everything. This is my only job.

I traveled professionally for six years. So I knew I would be unemployed. I would have no money.

Because I had to send tens of thousands of dollars back to the organizations who sent me a deposit. OK? I could not access any of the non-profit money.

Because I'm not going to pay myself out of my 501(c)(3) if I'm no longer touring and doing the job, so talk about strings. It got to the point about 2008, 2009 when I came out. I could not do it anymore. [MUSIC PLAYING] So this really greases the wheels for the brand that we're seeing today.

And it also really sets us up for the melding of politics and the church itself. Because when you have people who are creating bases of power, not only bases of power from just a purely follower standpoint, but also money and resources, who is going to want to take advantage of that? Right?

Usual suspects. The usual suspects-- politicians. So it means that power and the political leverage that money provides is the way to get things done in the name of Jesus.

The ends justify the means, right? It's always about seeing through what they believe is the will of God and using systems of power, systems of man-made-- To execute it. --power to execute it. Exactly right.

So one of the people I really want to dig into is-- I just learned this, actually, is Joel Osteen. I have been saying his name as Osteen. So just FYI, I may mix it up.

But technically, it is Osteen. I'm going to trip you up, because I'm just going to say Osteen. It's just in my mind.

Perfect. Thank you. So much like the debate around his theology, there is also a debate on how to say his name. [LAUGHTER] What do you know of Joel Osteen, if anything?

I know a creepy blonde smile and-- He's actually not blonde. He is a brunette. Oh, well, the image of my mind is like Aryan, like pure white smile, saying things that are fortune cookie stuff to big crowds, like gigantic crowds.

But that's all I know about Joel Osteen. Yes. Like videotape, sort of Tammy Faye stuff.

So let me read you a couple of-- so he's an author. He's a pastor of an enormous church, the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which is where I grew up for quite a while. [LAUGHTER] And he is also an author. So I think you might get a sense of the flavor of his message if I just read you some of the titles of some of his books.

Are you ready? Hit me. I Declare-- 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life, right?

Speaking over your life, right? The Power of I Am, Empty Out the Negative. Self-programming style stuff.

Peaceful on Purpose, Rule Your Day, Become a Better You, The Power of Favor. So many action verbs being used. Yeah, right? [LAUGHS] So what would you assume that he's talking about if this is what he's pumping out there?

I mean, it sounds to me like we're getting into the idea of visualization stuff, repeating phrases. Having blanket responses to criticism sounds like a big portion of this. Because in order to-- the kind of things you would have people repeat to themselves are mantras that end up serving whoever told you to say it.

Yeah. So and he and his wife, Victoria, are in that self-help guru role. They are the ultimate end product of their message, right?

So they live in the River Oaks neighborhood in Houston, which is the wealthiest neighborhood in the entire state of Texas. And I mean, when it comes to money, his main message is that the fact that there are so many biblical figures that have been blessed with vast amounts of resources, and money, and wealth, that that is evidence of God's ultimate plan for you in your life, and that it's up to you as the believer to tap into that by living out your faith in this very specific way. So if you're in bad circumstances, if you're low income, if you've had hardships, then that's only-- you are responsible.

And you need to be more accountable to God. More faithful. More faithful.

More faithful, right? And obviously, there have been some serious issues that have come out of this. So think about when tropical storm Harvey hit, people died.

And it was an absolutely horrible time. I remember my parents came to me in Austin with the dog. The flooding was just so horrible.

And at that time, the shelters were being overrun. There weren't enough places to put people. And so people were calling on the Lakewood Church, which is in the stadium, by the way.

Yes. Oh, so a big outfit. This is a former stadium that they're-- to open up and say, hey, we need more room to house people who've been flooded.

Wouldn't Jesus Christ offer basic shelter to the needy? Well, apparently not this particular brand of Jesus. And so at the time, they were like, oh, we can't open our doors, because the flooding is so bad in the area.

And then, of course, I mean, you can't say that in this day and age. And there were people who went and were like, there's no flooding here. I'm using my eyes to tell you the obvious then.

I'm telling you, you could have-- Are you going to trust your eyes? Or are you going to trust God to rule? Right.

So this hesitation-- he received a very large amount of blowback for this. There was also recently-- so back a few years ago, the church told law enforcement that there was a ton of money that was lost, like hundreds of thousands of dollars. And guess what is found in the walls of the church by a contractor?

Hundreds of thousands of dollars of checks and cash. Just like The Righteous Gemstone. I mean, it's pretty crazy.

And so while this behavior seems shocking, it just dovetails into this idea that though being wealthy and successful is the arbiter, it is the sign of spiritual and moral goodness. And if people are behaving badly or they need help, that's because of them. Right? [MUSIC PLAYING] We'd like to take another moment to once again thank our friends at Avast for sponsoring today's episode.

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He is also pretty heavily frowned upon even within the evangelical community who are on the opposite end of the spectrum of the sort of church that I went to. So one of the very problematic, but leaders of the style of church that I went to is John Piper who is a Calvinist preacher. And he once said, quote, "The prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus.

It will make people praise prosperity." And another pastor out in Utah, Rick Henderson, he said this. Quote, "He frequently misunderstands important matters of faith and doctrine when being interviewed. He repeatedly gets the gospel wrong.

And he does so while taking in millions." And of course, he's not the only one out there doing this. There is a rich tradition of prosperity gospel preachers. There is one in particular outside of him.

His name is Creflo Dollar, his actual name. So he's a televangelist. So what do you know about televangelists?

This is like a very specific brand. I know the life of Tammy Faye Messner. And I know the basic outline of her biography.

And that's about it. I've never even watched any of these. I know the 500 Club exists.

That's about all I know about that world. So televangelism obviously in the name, "tela," right? It came out of the revolution of TV.

I mean, all of a sudden, you have something in your home where not only you're hearing a message, stories, the news, but now, you can hear about Jesus in this new way. And televangelism-- I mean, that's why Billy Graham who most people will know and recognize that name-- he came out of that culture. And even within that, there are subsets of these, particularly what we would call charismatic leaders where it is this, "name it and claim it" culture like, put your hand on the TV, send me $500 and you will get a blessed napkin to put over your head when you pray, send another $30 through the mail.

And it's always a catastrophe, like breaking news, the end is coming. Pretty much. It's really more about you need to prove your faith by parting with your money.

So in googling these people and these names you're throwing out, I have to say, I've seen a lot of crossover with some of the plastic surgery inflation we'll be discussing on another episode. Oh, my gosh. They like filler.

So let me tell you, Kenneth Copeland is, I think, one of the major players in this game. He is considered one of the wealthiest pastors in America. He got his congregation to fund the purchase of a Gulf jet V which, by the way, he bought from Tyler Perry.

Oh, my gosh. Yeah. And I mean, this is the kind of person that he is.

So during COVID, Copeland said that the pandemic was going to end very soon and that his people were going to be healed from the virus. And he encouraged his followers to continue paying tithe, even if they lost their job. Oh, boy.

Because the only way to get out of that hardship would be to keep giving me more. Exactly. And I don't know what it is with these televangelists and their jets.

But Creflo Dollar, who we talked about, also petitioned his church members to prove their faith by helping him buy a $70 million private jet. Oh, my gosh. Yeah, and they did.

It actually happened. And the messaging around this isn't that these jets are for them personally. Oh, no.

These are supposedly preaching machines. Yeah, so it's not wasteful. No.

Because it will save the environment, if anything, once everybody respects the work of God. Exactly right. Exactly right.

Oh, boy. It seems to me that this is one of those situations where it's such a gray line. Because money is inextricably going to be linked to your spiritual and psychological journey and your worldview.

But it sounds to me like there needs to be-- I mean, someone has to step in. The tax-free status of churches at this point is such an outsized benefit. And it's such an advantage for the parishioners.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, think about it. So there's a thing called a parsonage, which is basically a tax-free place to stay.

And some of these televangelists have labeled their mega-mansions as a parish. Right? Looks a little different than the monks you picture.

And I just think it's interesting. It almost seems like the church is trying to be the ones who are the arbiters of how resources are allocated, rather than the government. Right?

Because they're like, the government shouldn't get this money because they're going to do whatever with it. But if we get the money, we're going to do the right thing. We're the authority, not the government or anybody else.

Exactly. Exactly. And millions of Americans are listening to this message and really associating poverty with a moral failure, which means that we can get out of addressing this issue on a broader scale.

If you can put that issue on the individual, your hands are clean. Yeah, you're a good person. Because ultimately, it's on you.

Exactly. Ultimately, it's on you. It's not the systems that we've put in place.

It's not the power structures that are created and upheld by laws that are codified. Those are how to remove-- Exactly. --so you can believe different things about them. Exactly right.

This is, obviously, I think an extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to the financial messaging and what money is really for. Ultimately, it's for expanding the name of Jesus, according to this. And so, who expands the name of Jesus?

This church that you are going to. Who is going to have the charisma, and the messaging from God, and the call from God, specially to do this work? The pastor.

Right here. Yeah. So it's like a funnel, right?

And this person gets to set the standard around who they are of what you should be. Bingo. So they can fit it perfectly.

Yeah, exactly right. So I do want to say, again, that this is an extreme part of the spectrum. But that "name it and claim it" meets personal responsibility is far more prevalent across the evangelical spectrum at this point.

So what is tithing? I should probably make that clear. So a tithe is a portion and a very specific portion-- 10% of your income to be given as an offering to the church.

And that's compulsory? This is where it gets tricky. The evangelical world is based on this idea that we as believers have been set free from the laws that govern the Jews.

Right? So we have been set free from those commandments that are all up in Leviticus. Right?

You can't do this, you can't do that, you can't do this. This is how you set yourself apart as a follower of God, Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible, as you well know. But we are supposedly free from that.

However, they really like to cherry pick the things that are still-- they think that other people-- Men should not lie with a man still applies. Bingo. Exactly right.

They love to cherry pick. And tithing is one of those things. So while I can just tell you that at my church, it was not compulsory.

If you did not, it was a sign you had work to do. Right? If you were so tight fisted and couldn't trust that you would be taken care of if you gave away 10%, go read.

If you didn't believe that giving the money was a necessary and important thing, you wouldn't be there anyway. Here's what Lindsey had to say. [MUSIC PLAYING] Just very weird to see pastors accumulating all of this wealth, driving up in their Bentleys, and then telling me to give, as a kid, $5 if I had it, putting it in the plate. And I would feel better about myself.

The thing I could never really-- and, look, I could not make this make sense at any age when I was in evangelical Christianity, is the obsession with evangelical Christians to take the Bible literally, except in the area of Jesus very literally saying in Luke and Matthew and probably other places, sell everything and give to the poor. It's so hard for a rich man to get into heaven. It's like, oh, Jesus was speaking in parables.

Oh, OK. But then I would find something else that Jesus was very clear about. And then it would be, oh, that's actually literal.

So it was this picking and choosing. And if I questioned it, I was made to feel like I did not have strong faith. [MUSIC PLAYING] I think I should just say this to be super honest with people. Tithing is something that I continue personally.

And I'm really happy to. And I do it not out of a compulsion anymore. I do it because just for me personally, I see it as a way to just keep a bit of a healthier balance between me and my relationship with my assets.

I love to give. I guess it's maybe a bit selfish. I love being able to go to a restaurant, and buy a super cheap meal, and then give $100 on a tip.

It gives me joy. And I love to give specific amounts to local organizations and national ones. So you're not tithing, necessarily, just to a specific church.

No, I'm not doing that anymore. But to me, it was just a valuable thing that I've just decided to continue doing. But when it comes to that compulsory thing, using it as evidence of somebody's moral failure is manipulation.

There's no other way to put it. Yeah. I mean, it's putting a prison in your mind of you planting the messages of the self-hate and self-actualization so that you will give more.

And it's just this-- it's such a mental trap built for people who are probably looking for salvation. They're looking for a spiritual connection of community. So the entire amount of money being taken in by the church through tithing and various donations is also completely tax exempt at that point.

Right? They don't have to report what they're doing with it? Correct.

So all of this money that is flowing to their mansions and their-- Jets? --Gulfstream jets. Yeah. I mean, it is tax exempt.

Oh, that really stings my wallet. [LAUGHTER] As it should. As it should. One more time, here's ex-evangelical, Lindsey Leaverton. [MUSIC PLAYING] I would like to consider myself a smart, intelligent, bright individual.

And I was still taken to the cleaners on this. I somehow bought into this bag of BS. And I just didn't see it.

And so the right and this move toward extremism-- what they have on their side is it's really easy to exploit people who are scared and who have been told probably since they grew up-- don't question, just believe. And now that we have these echo chambers, the chances of our message breaking through that-- our message of love. And, hey, by the way, Jesus was a poor homeless dude who hated religious elites.

That's not breaking through. Because our Facebook and Instagram feeds have been curated to tell us more about what we believe and confirm our biases. [MUSIC PLAYING] And so though there is varying different perspectives within Christianity, would you say that this is the overarching majority of the voices that get attention? Absolutely.

I would say that, like I said, even though there's a spectrum, there are people within the community that don't agree with this. They are, by far, the loudest. They are very media savvy.

And the amount of people who listen to them and who attend their churches-- so Lakewood Church alone, Joel Osteen's congregation, has more than 50,000 members. And that's just one. And they're in the Compaq Center.

So this place that I was telling you about-- it is a 600,000 square foot, 16,000-seat church. So, yeah. And I know for sure that he had contact with then former President Trump.

And so these people are in positions of power. I mean, the evangelical voting block is the most powerful in the country. Absolutely.

It is at this point. There's no question. So I'm actually excited to now shift out of this world of complete opulence where it's actually really easy to distance yourself from if you're not in Joel Osteen's church.

You can be like, well that guy is crazy, right? Look at these insane things that he's buying. Obviously, bad.

But I don't listen, so no problem. This is where we get into the more insidious nature of this and how it's showing up in American culture outside of a church itself, which leads us to Dave Ramsey. And that will be the subject of our next episode.

We hope you stick around. Well, that's the show for this week. You can find Too Good To Be True wherever podcasts are available.

And while you're there, we'd love for you to rate the show and leave us a review. I've been Ryan Houlihan. And you can find me on all social media @ryanhoulihan.

I've been Julia Lorenz-Olson. You can find me on YouTube at my PBS show-- Two Cents. And every once in a while, I'll look at Instagram.