The evangelists who hoard for the Lord, and refuse to render unto Caesar

Kenneth Copeland, one of America’s most influential charismatic evangelists, is gearing up for a protracted war with the US authorities over tax.

"It is not yours, it is God's, and you are not going to get it." So says Kenneth Copeland, one of America's most influential charismatic evangelists, girding his loins for a protracted war with the US authorities over tax.

Copeland is one of six "televangelists" facing investigation for alleged financial wrongdoing, says The Times. But not all of them share his claim that God and money are intimately linked. Copeland preaches the doctrine of "prosperity theology": the faithful, he says, will be rewarded with financial as well as spiritual rewards especially if they dig deep for the Church. "You are not created for poverty," he booms to his congregation, encouraging them to deposit cash in a donation envelope, across which is written: "I am sowing $___ and believing for a hundredfold return."

The Lord has certainly blessed Copeland and his wife Gloria, who together preside over the Texas-based Eagle Mountain International Church, aka the Kenneth Copeland Ministries, and draw record audiences with their daily "Believers' Voice of Victory" broadcasts. The senate report on their finances claims that the ministry built them a "parsonage" the "size of an hotel" and got them a $20m Cessna Citation X Jet. Copeland's son counters that the jet which came his father's way after "the Lord spoke to me and said you're gonna believe for a Citation X, right now" is "just a tool to use in the ministry".

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But it is at the heart of the row over tax and churches splitting the American public. As The American Spectator points out, the targeting of churches could have a "chilling effect". American ministries are exempt from taxation precisely "to prevent the government from using its taxing power to constrain the freedom of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment".

True, counters Senator Charles Grassley. But there is evidence that some ministers have been abusing this privilege by channelling funds into lavish lifestyles and lucrative sidelines. Professional televangelist investigator Ole Anthony goes further. "They live like Middle Eastern potentates," he told the Canadian National Post. "They're just the antithesis of what an evangelist should be."

Certainly, Copeland's private airstrip and his for-profit company, Security Petrol which acquired oil, gas and mineral interests from the ministry might not please St Francis of Assisi. Senators are also asking about a planned hotel and retirement community that Copeland Ministries has asked donors to support.

Kenneth Copeland hasn't moved far from his Texan roots, notes the The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, but he's always made the most of his gift for the common touch. He was a pop singer before his marriage and Christian conversion. An early mentor was Oral Roberts, a "neo-Pentecostal" televangelist. Copeland took a job as Robert's pilot, but claims he and Gloria were "drowning in debt" until they found prosperity theology (see below) and formed their own ministry.

Kenneth and Gloria make a formidable double act, says the LA Times. She is admired for her homespun teaching (her book God's Master Plan for Your Life is a bestseller); he holds followers spellbound with his "fiery oratory and speaking in tongues". "They preach that God is a good God," says one convert. "It's good to know God's on your side."

God draws the line at just one private jet

The case of the six televangelists has sparked a war of biblical quotations. "Where in the Bible does it say you should have watchdogs and judgment groups that watch over ministries," demands the Copeland's son, John. That's typical of the nonsense you might expect from such an A-grade hypocrite", counters the blogger, Socratic Gadfly. "Copeland forgot these words from Romans 13: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established."

Kenneth Copeland vows he will go to prison rather than submit to the taxman. His followers argue that since right is on his side, it won't come to that anyway. Indeed, one of the more controversial tenets of the prosperity theology taught by Copeland is that "believers can specifically name what they need and God will give it to them from a heavenly storehouse", says the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We don't have to wait until we get to heaven to get God's blessings," he says. "Now's when we need them."

Copeland did not invent prosperity theology: the idea that faith can work wonders on the pocket-book goes back to the 19th century. But, in the case of the Copelands, "the Conrad and Barbara of evangelism", God is bent on luxurious blessings, says The Toronto Star although he doesn't always come up trumps. The pair had originally hoped for two Cessna Citation X jets. But despite setting up a dedicated fund, known as the Elite CX Team (entry-level contribution $2,000), they only raised enough for one.