On any given Sunday in America, you can turn on the television and find an overly tan man in a glossy suit with his beautiful wife — "Isn't she just the greatest, folks?" — asking you to give him money. Send in your donation, he says, and with God's blessing, you'll be richer and happier than ever before.
Most of us realize this is complete and utter nonsense.
Indeed, outside the prosperity gospel movement, the shadiness of televangelism is so self-evident as to be laughable. When John Oliver recently devoted a 20-minute segment of Last Week Tonight to exposing "the churches who exploit people's faith for monetary gain," he was by and large preaching to the choir. Sure, the choir may not have been all that well-informed about how truly unscrupulous these TV sermonizers can be, but Oliver did not have a hard sell as far as his general thesis was concerned.
Yet before we ungraciously look down on those duped Pentecostals sending their savings away to buy luxury jets for scam artists, we would do well to look in the mirror. Because Sunday television also features another class of too-tan people using homey vocabulary, invocations of God and family, and wildly unrealistic promises to convince you to send them your cash.
They're called politicians.
If the comparison seems unfair, I'll allow that there are some differences. For instance, a politician is at least theoretically obliged to spend your contributions on campaign expenses, while the televangelist can more directly funnel money to his personal bank account. Also, even a televangelist won't stoop to embarrassing photo-ops with corndogs to convince people to write him a check.
Nevertheless, the similarities abound. Anyone who was shocked by the bizarre fundraising letters featured in Oliver's expose — some mailers included a dollar bill, while another featured small, fabric mountains — has clearly never been on a politician's direct mail list. The 2012 Obama campaign's comically desperate emails have nothing on physical direct mail, which I've observed using the exact same dollar bill strategy for political fundraising.
The basic promise of the televangelist and the politician is the same, too, albeit dressed up in a different gloss. Unethical preachers offer a story of "seed faith" and magic oils, while even the most explicitly "Christian" candidates tend to keep their promises in the secular realm. Still, the underlying prize for supporters in each case is personal wealth, health, security, and happiness — all available if you can contribute even $5 right now!
I'm not talking about specific policy promises. No, I'm thinking a little bigger — like when candidates pledge to "make America great again," to be our "champion," to "rebuild the American dream," to "reignite the promise of America," or to launch "a new American century."
While President Obama perhaps deserves credit for making his "change" slogan so vague that he could technically fulfill it simply by getting elected, the broader feel of his near-messianic 2008 campaign in particular fits well within the oeuvre of political televangelism.
And the history of American campaign slogans suggests that recent pledges, as ostentatious as they are, are less the exception than the rule. As far back as 1860, Abraham Lincoln announced you could "Vote yourself a farm."
We should know better. As Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt wrote in his classic text, On Bullshit, the realm of politics is dominated by "exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who…dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right."
But however "studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds," Frankfurt adds, "it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something." We typically recognize this in televangelism, but the signs of a scam are all there in politics, too — if only we'd look.
Though no politician can actually deliver on the grand promises our candidates toss out like candy, the money keeps rolling in. The 2016 presidential race is predicted to have television ad buys alone running some $4.4 billion, with total spending topping $5 billion, $6 billion, or even $10 billion. (The 2012 campaign cost $7 billion to $8 billion.) Televangelists, for all their conniving, earn just a tiny fraction of that kind of money, with salaries often in the mid six figures plus perks, and organizational income below $50 million annually.
These scummy preachers certainly deserve the critique John Oliver heaped upon them. But they're hardly the biggest swindlers you'll find on TV this Sunday.