Sheep to the Slaughter

Peter Popoff is a German born American televangelist and self-proclaimed prophet. He was extremely popular in the 1980s when he conducted revival meetings in which he performed miraculous cures and bewildering feats of the Word of Knowledge.[1] His ministry was so big that he was broadcast nationally across America. However his supposed miracle cures featuring subjects rising up from wheelchairs were all fabricated. His assistants would put fully able people into wheelchairs and wheel them onto stage. In 1986 James Randi, a magician and sceptic, with the assistance of crime scene analyst and electronics expert Alexander Jason, revealed that Popoff’s divine revelations were being transmitted to him by his wife via a wireless radio transmitter. Moreover the transmissions revealed that Popoff’s wife used some very ungenerous words when describing the victims of his ruse. The information that Popoff revealed was gleaned from prayer request cards which were submitted by victims prior to the meeting. Randi presented one of Jason’s videos of Popoff on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Despite initially denying the accusations, Popoff eventually admitted the existence of the radio device and tried to downplay their scam. His ministry’s viewer ratings and donations dropped after this airing and in 1987 he declared bankruptcy. Popoff’s attorney “attributed the collapse of his ministry to financial mismanagement more than to disclosures about Popoff.”[2]

So why am I talking about this? Isn’t this just an embarrassing entry in the history of modern Christianity? One scam artist does not disprove the existence or goodness of God. I agree, in fact this article is not even really about Peter Popoff! Any scam artist might target Christians as an easy mark for his con. This article is not so much about Popoff as it is about the Christians who followed him – or should I say the Christians who follow him. One would imagine that exposure as a scam artist would be enough to end anybody’s career, especially in a profession which is supposed to be about integrity and character. The really interesting part about this story is what happened after his exposure. In 1986 the Committee for Sceptical Inquiry distributed pamphlets explaining how Popoff’s feats could be accomplished without any sort of divine intervention. Yet crowds still turned up. Dan Barker an ex-Christian fundamentalist preacher and musician went to one of Popoff’s rallies after his scam had been exposed on the Johnny Carson show. Barker revealed that the meeting was full of people who still followed Popoff’s ministry. In fact, when Barker stood up and outed Popoff as a fraud the people in the meeting turned on him and he was forced to leave the venue. Despite being told directly and provided proof that Popoff was a fraud his followers still continued to follow. Not only that, but in 1998 Popoff kicked off a resurgence. Still using the same methods that exposed him in 1986, Popoff rebranded his particular flavour of Christian prosperity doctrine for an African-American audience.

He has been exposed again and again as a fraud by experts outside of Christianity. But his ministry has grown exponentially. In the late eighties Popoff was collecting almost $4 million a year. By 2003 his ministry received over $9.6 million, and in 2005, over $23 million. There are no financial records for his ministry after 2006 because that is when Peter Popoff Ministries changed to become a religious organisation, making it tax-exempt.[3] Popoff has a home in California worth $4.5 million and drives a Porsche when he is not in his Mercedes.

What is going on? Popoff is certainly a crook who deserves to be behind bars, I hope we can all agree upon that. Is he actually a Christian? I would doubt it. He might be, but surely someone running a scam like this must simply be exploiting those that he considers vulnerable. The big question for me is “what does this say about Christianity.” Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me! If Popoff was collecting $23 million in 2005 he must have millions of followers. One would have to presume that the vast majority of these followers are believers. But why would they follow someone who has openly admitted to scamming Christians in the past, and is still using the same methods? I think that this tells us something about the human brain and how it functions… poorly! This also exposes the vulnerability that people are placed in when they adopt a belief system that encourages them to accept things without evidence. Certainly, Popoff is playing off people’s greed. Most of the people who give to his ministries will undoubtedly be those who don’t have an awful lot and want God to provide them with more than they have. Their greed, or need, may overwhelm their logic, but come on! Trying to think through how people could continue to follow such a man is bewildering. It defies all logic, but then that is the modus operandi of religion. It exploits the fact that our brains want to believe what they want to believe and are prepared to deny all evidence to the contrary. Unless we operate in a critical, higher mode of thinking everyone is susceptible to this type of beguilement. Gullibility has to play a role surely. No one wants to think that they are gullible, but that is why scammers have such a good trade. The credulity of these people who blindly follow Popoff’s ministry is something to be marvelled at, and should stand as a warning for everyone else. The potential for this kind of vulnerability is present in our minds. If we are believing something without evidence, or especially believing something in spite of the evidence, then perhaps we should take a deeper look at our thinking.

 

[1] The Word of Knowledge is a Christian spiritual gift in which the recipient apparently knows things about the subject’s life from their past or present.

[2] Dart, John (September 26, 1987). “Evangelist Popoff Off Air, Files Bankruptcy Petitions”. Los Angeles Times.

[3] Maag, Christopher (22 September 2011). “Scam Everlasting: After 25 Years, Debunked Faith Healer Still Preaching Debt Relief Scam”. Business Insider. Retrieved 15 August 2013.

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