The cult of celebrity

Leah Remini’s Emmy-winning documentary Scientology: the Aftermath has struck a chord with the nation. People are horrified at the abuses within the church, and with how vehemently the church denies any allegations, even with mountains of evidence continuing to pile up. There’s been word that Remini’s show will tackle other religious cults in future seasons. What about America’s foremost religion, Christianity? With power comes corruption, and Christianity has been the most popular and powerful religion since America’s inception.

Many documentaries have been filmed about charismatic Christian churches, and there have been a number of recent academic studies on the subject, particularly when children are involved in things like faith healing (Case, 2016; Shields, Miller & Yelderman, 2017; Jacobson, 2017). When a society clings to things like religion as much as ours does, how can one speak out about abuses? Is there a way to quantify the damage megachurches do?

In her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Kate Bowler detailed how the legitimacy of megachurches was fostered and enhanced in the mid-late 20th century. While mainstream America did not take this gospel seriously at first, Bowler explains how capitalist ideology was woven into the fabric of the messages, detailing televangelist Paula White’s workout tapes, Norman Vincent Peale’s wildly popular The Power of Positive Thinking, and Hillsong United’s annual conference and album release party as evidence. The pastors of these megachurches are essentially celebrities with flocks as loyal fans. These churches have also been intertwined with the mainstream Republican party, with these televangelists becoming advisors to the President, and Presidential candidates holding campaign events on Evangelical Christian campuses like Liberty University. 

Within these megachurches, there is a circular scheme happening, where preachers go to each others’ churches in order to gain a speaker fee and what they call a “love offering.” When one considers that churches are not taxable by federal law, it is easy to fathom the depth of possibilities for fraud and corruption. How can we examine relationships to show how power, wealth and status are concentrated and distributed among these networks? There are a number of ways one could study these ties using social network analysis.

A preacher could be considered a source, with churches he visits seen as targets. The aim of the research would be to see how these churches differ in ideology, or if they differ at all, and how resources flow among the leaders of these churches but not to its followers. The project could be done demographically; for example, one could take all churches with a congregation of 2000 members or higher and determine which of their speakers has been to which churches. Or, it could be done at a national level, with no demographic categories but looking at the church’s annual revenue or operating costs.

There are a number of different ways to go with this research, and helping people who are victims of what essentially boils down to a giant scam would be rewarding. These preachers taint the sanctity of religion with their corruption, and SNA is a great tool to map out exactly how they do it.

Bowler, K. (2016). A Successful Calling: Women, Power, and the Rise of the American Prosperity Gospel. Women in Pentecostal and Charismatic Ministry: Informing a Dialogue on Gender, Church, and Ministry, 184.

Case, A. I. (2016). Faith healing: Religious freedom vs. child protection. Skeptical Inquirer.

Jacobson, M. (2017). The Role of Government in Cases of Faith Based Child Medical Neglect. Scholarly Horizons: University of Minnesota, Morris Undergraduate Journal, 4(1), 4.

Shields, T. D., Miller, M. K., & Yelderman, L. A. (2017). Relationships Between Religious Characteristics and Response to Legal Action Against Parents Who Choose Faith Healing Practices for Their Children. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

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