Years ago I attended a business conference in San Francisco. Our hotel was just off Union Square, and each day as we walked to the Moscone Center for the seminars and exposition we were accosted by numerous people begging for money. I’d seen a lot of begging when I was a missionary in Bolivia, but the aggressiveness and sheer numbers of beggars that week in San Francisco were startling. But one guy sat on the sidewalk, his back against a building, quietly sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup. On the ground next to him were a hat and a hand-lettered sign: “Nonaggressive Panhandler.” That was it. No hard-luck story of joblessness or hungry children, just a frank acknowledgment of what he was and what he was doing. It worked. People were putting money into his hat while they fended off other, more assertive beggars.
Sometimes the direct approach works, though most people aren’t going to say directly that they need money for, say drugs or alcohol or a G4 jet. That’s why most scams appeal either to people’s basest desires (greed or lust, for example) or, failing that, to loftier pursuits (some people who wouldn’t think of investing in a get-rich scheme are happy to send money to religious leaders). Generally, scams appealing to piety tend to have a longer shelf life than those that appeal to greed. Hence, Joseph Smith’s brief career finding treasure and lost items through his “seer stone” gave way to a more fruitful use of the stone to translate the word of God and build a religion.
Occasionally con artists come up with frauds where faith and greed intersect, and I have a hard time understanding why anyone would fall for them. We Mormons are well aware of the frauds built around the promises of God to believers. The Book of Mormon teaches repeatedly that “inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” (2 Nephi 1:9, 20,31; see also Alma 48: 15, 25; Mosiah 2:22-31, among others), and church members have taken this promise to heart. We’ve heard of investment “opportunities” where people had to have a temple recommend (i.e., be in good standing in the LDS church) to be allowed to participate, or where financial miracle-workers tout their church experience or BYU degrees (see, for example, Jeff Mowen’s case), or where someone claims revelation that will bring prosperity (the Salem Relief Mine comes to mind). I have a relative who lost almost everything he had to one of those temple-recommend frauds (it was even endorsed by a General Authority, so how could he lose?). I’ve never asked him about it, but I wonder what it was that made him fall for such an obvious fraud?
But then this morning I saw something on television that made my jaw drop for its sheer shamelessness. Some guy calling himself “Dr” Todd Coontz has started Rockwealth International Ministries, whose aim, he says, is to help believers “sow seeds” and reap a “financial harvest.” And by sowing a seed, he means “giving money to Todd Coontz.” The harvest, by contrast, is pretty nebulous. For a mere $1000 annual donation, you get the following “4 Miracle Harvest That Are [sic] Guaranteed In Scripture”:
1) Divine Protection (Mal. 3:10, 11)
2) Triple Favor (Luke 2:52)
3) Supernatural Increase (Deut. 8:18)
4) Uncommon Health (Isa. 53:5)
But if those amazing promises aren’t enough for you, rest assured that you’ll also get monthly “in-depth” teachings (and a letter!) from the good doctor, access to “exclusive” parts of his web site, a “beautiful and durable Increase 3000 Partner card” good for 30% off Dr. Todd’s products, “periodic gift items and ministry tools,” your very own “Increase 3000 Partnership PAK,” and most importantly, “the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others” (notably Todd Coontz’s).
On his infomercial this morning, Dr. Todd constantly asked for viewers to get out their credit cards and send him money, saying that if they called within a specific time window, they would receive blessings that any delay would cause them to forfeit. He reminded me of Oral Roberts’s famous plea for $8 million or God would call him home (which also worked). To no one’s surprise, Dr. Todd’s website sells a book by Oral himself.
Wandering around Dr. Todd’s web site, one finds a lot of entry forms for credit card information but almost nothing about where the money goes and what it is used for. The only direct statement of expense is a discussion of Feed the Hungry, a charitable ministry started by fellow “prosperity” preacher Lester Sumrall. Dr. Todd personally assures us that “your precious Seeds sown each month enables [sic] RockWealth International Ministries to join hands with Feed The Hungry and sow a substantial monthly Seed helping support this worthwhile effort.” I suspect Dr. Todd and I would disagree as to what constitutes “substantial.”
Dr. Todd’s program is quite ingenious: He asks for quite a bit of money and promises nothing but platitudes and prayers in return. It’s so transparently evil that it’s a wonder that anyone would take him up on his offer. But someone must be. Dr. Todd’s web site and TV broadcasts aren’t cheap, and even Benny Hinn himself is using Todd as a fundraiser.
So, my question is, who is sending money to this guy? I wonder how he sleeps at night knowing he is taking money from the weak and credulous, but then he’s a good reminder to me that there are soulless predators out there. And maybe I’m wrong for saying so, but I have a hard time feeling sorry for anyone stupid enough to get sucked into this kind of scam.
But just as I’m feeling smug and superior, I remember that for 40 years I sent ten percent of my income to a religion that promised little more than the good doctor promises. I was promised that I would prosper in the land, and the windows of heaven would be opened unto me. But if I needed financial assistance, I should go to my family, not my church, for help. And if I needed personal counseling (you know, the kind of thing clergy are supposed to do), I was supposed to go to my family lest I be guilty of “counselitis.”
And I didn’t even get a beautiful and durable card.