Church Scandals and the “Specialness” of Religion

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The Megachurch, a church with an average weekly attendance of 2,000 or more, is perhaps one of the more notable developments among American Protestantism over the last half-century.  If you live anywhere near a large, metropolitan area, (especially in the Southern US where I currently live) chances are you’ve encountered one at some point lately. 

 

It seems obvious to suggest that the megachurch is specific to our particular historical moment, and that somehow it indicates something special about how a growing number of Protestants are religious in twenty-first century North America.

 

Scholars of religion expend a great deal of thought around what makes “religion” special, something worthy of our attention.  However, is there anything really exceptional about “the religious” that distinguishes it from other aspects of human life? 

 

Consider the scandal that has arisen over the last several days concerning Steven Furtick, the pastor of Charlotte-based Elevation Church, a multi-campus megachurch boasting 15,000 attendees weekly.  The church is relatively young and has grown rapidly since its inception in 2006, and Furtick has made a name for himself as both an author of inspirational books and a popular speaker to audiences around the world. 

 

It was Furtick’s decision, however, to build a $1.6 million mansion that has made him and Elevation Church the object of intense media scrutiny recently. WCNC, be local NBC affiliate in Charlotte, broke the story when it raised questions about the financing of the new 16,000 square foot home.  Their investigation revealed that Furtick’s name was not actually on the deed and that neither the church nor its pastor was ready to disclose financial information.

 

The “scandal,” which has rapidly spread to national media, has largely focused on two issues: the secrecy surrounding church’s financing and Furtick’s personal income, and the dubiousness of the “prosperity gospel” he preaches.  These stories have only just stopped short of calling Furtick a charlatan.

 

What is most illuminating here is not that the pastor of a growing congregation seems to be amassing a great degree of wealth at the expense of his followers.  The media has criticized popular evangelists in North America since George Whitfield first embarked on a speaking tour of the British Colonies during the mid-18th century. 

 

Rather, it is how these stories themselves uphold the notion that “religion” is something exceptional, something distinct from other aspects of culture, and subject to very different public expectations.  The media narrative attacks Furtick and his organization for violating these rules.  Most apparently, religious leaders should not accumulate sizeable amounts of wealth, even if it stems from sales of his books, as Furtick maintains. 

 

An article in the Daily Mail criticizes the formal structure of Elevation Church, citing that Furtick’s “salary and benefits are not set by his congregation or a congregation-elected panel of elders but rather by an ‘appointed’ board that consists entirely of other megachurch pastors.”  Is this statement suggesting that only democractically organized religious communities are legitimate?  What does this imply about hierarchical institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps even the Anglican Communion? 

 

Finally, with all of the emphasis on the extreme secrecy in Elevation Church, the media seems to be saying that legitimate religious organizations are transparent.  They don’t, as one reporter writes, fail to release annual financial audits to their congregations or demand, “employees and volunteers must sign a confidentiality agreement which threatens to sue if they disclose information about the church’s finances.”

 

Reading these stories, one gets the sense that there are special rules for things/persons/ communities deemed “religious.”  However, is there actually anything exceptional about the leader of a successful organization accumulating wealth?  Moreover, why, in a society thoroughly committed to idea that property is private, are leaders of religious organizations criticized for freely choosing how the spend their own income, regardless of its source?  And finally, what is special about an institution organized with a board or directors whose members serve on multiple boards?  This kind of organizational form is certainly well-established and widely accepted in the business world. 

 

The fact is that there is nothing that special about Elevation Church or its founder, for they reflect patterns common to contemporary American society.  It is in being labeled “religious” that these patterns become problematic.  Because we, sometimes even as scholars, treat “religion” as something exceptional and marked off from other dimensions of culture, these stories can told as “scandal.”

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