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Gazette: The awkward question of blacks and fraud

Faith & Reason: Pentecostalists are susceptible to confidence tricks for the same reason that they believe in miracles - they see life as a gamble in a rigged casino
YOU WOULD have thought that no one could have been more comprehensively disgraced than Jim Bakker, the American televangelist who with his wife Tammy Faye set up a kind of fundamentalist Disneyland in the late Eighties in which the pious could buy timeshares for Jesus. Unfortunately, what they were really buying into was the Jim and Tammy Faye retirement fund, and the preacher was found guilty of embezzling $150m and sentenced to five years in gaol.

While in gaol he had a very hard and miserable time, and Tammy Faye ran off with his best friend. But now he is on the comeback trail, performing for ecstatic audiences in black Pentecostal churches; and has sold 100,000 copies of his autobiography I Was Wrong at $25 each, though the only wrong to which he admits is sexual shenanigans with his secretary. The fraud and embezzlement he claims were an invention of the prosecutor and of a jury of unbelievers. Curiously, for someone who is surrounded by miracles, he does not point out what a miracle would be required to find a jury of 11 atheists in North Carolina.

When I was reading an account of his comeback in the Washington Post the other day I was struck, though, by an embarrassing question: why are black churches so tolerant of fraud? The Post article pointed out that black Christians in the United States are generally more forgiving of failure and weakness than their white counterparts: they have never turned their backs on Bill Clinton, for example. But, as well as this general tolerance for sinners, there is a peculiar tolerance, or so it seems to me, among Pentecostalists for liars and confidence tricksters: for people who are making claims that simply cannot be true. Often, the preachers involved are white: all the stuff I have heard with my own ears has come from white preachers to black audiences. I have heard three white preachers promising cures for Aids at big Pentecostal meetings.

I once found in the bazaar which springs up in the front of Morris Cerullo's rallies one advertisement simply demanding that people give their savings to a fund which would invest them for the Lord's purposes and miraculously redouble them. Outside Internet stocks, which are also, in their own way, promising miracles, you do not find anyone else trading on the gullibility of their audiences to that extent.

And here, I think, lies the key to this extraordinary behaviour and its connection to revivalist religion. In both the Internet market and the Jim Bakker prayer meeting, what is being promised is a lottery win for everyone. There is a difference. The people who attend revival meetings are more sophisticated than the day traders. They know that there is no such thing as a lottery where everyone wins, and they know, too, that if there were such a thing it would be rigged to favour the big boys. But they are also more desperate. That is what makes the behaviour of those who exploit them so repulsive. Someone who knows they need a miracle does not have this need diminished by knowing that miracles no longer happen.

So perhaps the audience at these rallies are more rational as well as more sophisticated than the day traders. For there are only two situations in which it makes sense to take a long-odds bet: when you can afford to lose and when you can't afford not to win. Those are the only two circumstances in which losing, though overwhelmingly likely, will not make you any worse off than you would be without betting. So you would expect tolerance of fraud and belief in miracles to go together in a certain sort of religious subculture, one in which life is experienced as a gamble in a rigged casino.

What I especially like about this theory is that it throws light on an apparently unrelated phenomenon: the deep hostility that Methodism has to gambling: for Methodism, in its origins, was every bit as exciting and charismatic as anything now to be found on the stadium circuit. It also appealed to the poor as modern charismatic religion does, and they must have been more tempted than most to gamble. So, just as you find the prohibitionist churches strongest in the countries where incapacitating drunkenness is the national sport, so you would expect churches that abhorred gambling to grow among the people who have little, rather than nothing, to lose.

The relationship between economic sense and theological correctness is complicated and not one of simple cause and effect in either direction; but the two do stay roughly in synch, so that you would expect the theological doctrines of any flourishing church to promote behaviour that makes economic sense for its adherents. Gambling is abhorred by Methodism for the same reason that drink is: they are both the characteristic vices of potential Methodists, or at least they were in the days when the denomination was growing. But what about the middle-class white charismatic churches which exhibit quite as much credulity as Morris Cerullo's audiences? The answer there is that they are not themselves risking anything.

When stories of teeth miraculously filled with gold by God's power spread through Latin America among people who can't afford a dentist at all, they represent a different sort of wish-fulfilment from when they spread among the suburbs around the M25 where poverty means having to go to an NHS dentist. For a modern Christian, belief in miracles need never entail suffering in the way that it did for the Christian scientist.