"Televangelists have called him a cultist, a fraud, and the Antichrist. He says he's just doing what Jesus would want." (The New Yorker) Ole Anthony, founder and president of the Trinity Foundation in Dallas Texas, joins us to discuss the work of his foundation investigating fraud and other abuses of the public trust within the religious broadcasting industry. After decades of research into televangelist 'household names', such as Robert Tilton and Benny Hinn, Ole Anthony shares with us what motivates him to pursue this difficult ministry.
Transcribed by Iris Chapman
Julian Charles: Today is the 10th of May 2013, and I’m delighted to be speaking to Mr. Ole Anthony, who is the founder and President of The Trinity Foundation in Dallas Texas, which is a religious, charidiv and educational not-for-profit organisation specialising in the investigation of fraud and other abuses of the public trust within the religious broadcasting industry. In addition to assisting journalists regularly in their investigations and working with news organisations around the world to expose fraud and abuse in the name of God, The Trinity Foundation also works to help and support those made homeless and otherwise damaged by such bogus ministries. So Mr. Anthony, thanks very much indeed for sparing the time to speak with us on The Mind Renewed.
Ole Anthony: My pleasure. Thank you Julian.
JC: I’d like to start by asking you to tell us a bit more about The Trinity Foundation. Could you tell us how the foundation came into existence, and also something about your own journey and what motivated you to start this particular work?
OA: I was an atheist one day and a sold-out believer the next. It’s hard to explain to people, but it's best expressed by the conversion of Paul: the Damascus Road conversion experience. It was violent and majestic, and it was as if I was taken into the heart of God; and everything within me wants to go back there. That was in January 1972. I’d visited hundreds of churches, but the one thing I took away from my conversion, other than the revelation of Christ in me, was the truth that I could never again do anything to help myself; that included spiritually. I had to simply abandon myself to the grace of God, and what happened would be His business. So in each church I visited, large ones, medium ones, small ones, when I heard them tell me how to get something from God I got sick to my stomach; it was as if the Holy Spirit told me, “No, this isn’t it”. So finally, I ended up joining a huge church, the United Methodist Church, because it welcomed all, whether they were charismatic or ultra-liberal or anything in-between. And, slowly but surely, I taught a Bible Study at that church. Then the pastor in charge of the Sunday School, who was a friend of mine, came to me and said, “Ole, we're going to have to ask you not to teach anymore because you're causing too much disruption.” And during that time Trinity Foundation was formed. I then began teaching Bible Studies at The Trinity Foundation.
JC: Why did they think you were causing so much trouble?
OA: The predicate of your Christianity is your death - His life - you’re gone - He lives. I said, “If your baptism wasn’t your burial, then you didn’t get baptised, you just got wet.” That offended quite a few people.
JC: Were you at that time already teaching against the idea that Christianity can be used as a tool for self-gain?
OA: Yes, because that was the heart of the conversion experience, that the whole idea of modern Christianity is really for self-realisation. And self-realisation in the Scriptures (the Hebrew being “avon”) means exactly that: self-realisation, sin.
JC: Indeed, whereas we are called to die to self. One of the things I want to do with this interview is to ask you to share with us some of the cases you’ve been involved with over the years. But before I ask you to get into the detail of that, could you give us a broad picture of the kinds of frauds that are taking place within the religious media world? What kinds of techniques are some of these people using to persuade people to part with their money?
OA: First of all, it’s in America, but it’s also throughout the entire world. There’s more fraud in the name of God than any other kind of fraud, by a substantial amount. Now that is just heartbreaking. If you took yourself out of time and looked down and saw that most fraud is in the name of your Father, then there’s something wrong with this world. It’s because we have left the First-Century Christianity. Evangelists in the First Century went out and stayed for a year, or two, or three years, and their words were tested by their lives. Now the evangelist goes and has a crusade, then moves on somewhere else, has another crusade, and takes the money and runs. It’s like leaving a newly-born baby in the middle of the highway. This is the fundamental problem: the idea that preachers and evangelists should live like the richest of the rich, without their words being tested by their lives, and moving freely from church to church and crusade to crusade; to me that's sickening.
The other thing is, in the First-Century church (which is the only model we have) they had at least ten but no more than twenty people. There was never a building called a “church”. There was no such thing as paid clergy. The idea of a pulpit for a preacher to speak from would have been anathema, because the preacher always spoke from the lowest seat and not the highest seat. He always lived as the poorest of the poor and not the richest of the rich. And so the whole mystery of God was forgotten when we started worshipping bigness and cut ourselves off from the Jewish tradition.
This lack of understanding about it creates an environment for fraud. This is the situation in America, but I’m sure it also exists in England. It’s called affinity fraud, which is where a preacher or a prominent person in a church introduces a conman who has a way to protect God’s money from the IRS or whatever taxing agency operates in your area. There are Ponzi schemes operating all over America and across the world. And now the success theology, which the Kenneth-Copland-types of America are preaching, has taken the heresy to another level, by denying what Paul said. Paul said that if they teach "gain equals godliness", turn away from them. But that's their whole theology. They’ve made the 'seed', which is an allegory for the 'seed of Christ', into money. So when you talk about “some ten, or thirty, or sixty, or a hundred-fold”, they’re saying that means money being given. It’s so against everything that is in the Bible, but they’ve twisted Scripture to make themselves rich.
JC: So this seed idea is where they persuade people to give money, which they say is the sowing of the seed, and then God will bless them for giving to that particular ministry.
OA: Right, and that’s absolute heresy without even any wiggle room.
JC: On your Foundation's website you have a quotation from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research which says that financial fraud in 2011 amounted to thirty-four billion dollars, and that a smaller amount was spent by Christians on global missions. This seems astonishing - that it really is at these proportions now.
OA: I believe it’s much larger than that, because most religious fraud isn’t reported.
JC: I had some experience of so-called “seed donations” thanks to Peter Popoff from whom I received a “personal letter.” In it he said that, if I gave him £27 wrapped in the prayer cloth he had sent me, God would respond and give me a miraculous £27000. I hasten to add I did not send him anything.
OA: In America alone there are approximately 2,500 electronic evangelists in radio and television, and others that just travel around, and he’s one of them. There are only about 80 who have national prominence. Their whole idea of success theology, or Word-Faith ministries, is sorcery; it’s like going to the most crooked gambling halls in Las Vegas and playing the slot machines. They’re just lying to people - outright lies. That’s what gets me. Let me tell you what first lit my fire.
I was on a programme that was making fun of Robert Tilton (who was prominent a few years ago). And afterwards, I got a phone call from a woman whose thirteen-year-old daughter had multiple sclerosis. This young girl had watched this pre-produced testimonial saying that a woman they’d had on the show had given Tilton $1000 “seed faith” – she had made a vow of faith, and when the money was paid she was healed. Well, obviously it was just a lie. But here’s what happened. The thirteen-year-old daughter secretly made the $1000 “vow of faith” – her grandmother gave her most of the money. At the end of twelve months, when the healing should have taken place, the girl called this “man of God” and told the person who answered that not only had she not been healed, but that she was much worse. And the phone minister said, “Well, it's because you have secret sin in your life.” At this age, teenage girls are very conscious of self in every way, especially one with multiple sclerosis. She went out in the backyard and committed suicide. That’s the thing that lit the fire under me. There are many others who died of natural causes, but that is the one that “burned my bacon” so to speak.
JC: These calls for money, and the ways they work on congregations to give almost painfully to their ministries, are extremely powerful. I have some experience of that with Morris Cerullo in London.
OA: So far you’ve mentioned two of the worst guys on television.
JC: He was doing one of these rallies at the Albert Hall in London while I was studying there. So, I went along, and halfway through he started this pitch for giving money, and he told everybody to get their cheque books out. And then he was doing the normal thing of saying: “Write in there as much as you can and God will bless you.” I really felt the power of that pitch. I left shortly after that because I was disgusted by it. Nevertheless I felt the power of that.
OA: It’s simple. Twenty per cent of the population, of any random group, are what’s called somnambulists. That means they are very easy to hypnotise. The word hypnosis shouldn’t be one word, because there are about six or eight different levels. The first one is suspending critical judgement. We took a guy from England, from Channel 4. He was an illusionist and now produces documentaries. This is just recently. We brought him here and taught him how to be an evangelist. But I kept insisting to the producer that it had to be presented in a way that would show people not to believe this garbage they're being told. We had a little crusade, he got up and preached, people were healed, and then he collected the money. (We gave it all back.) It was the idea that an atheist could do the same thing – you get my frustration.
JC: Absolutely – I can see that it proves the point. This can all be manipulated.
OA: That’s why we should test everything. The only people in the Bible who were really ever commended were the Bereans, because they searched the Scriptures to see whether these things be true. The Scriptures are our manifest guide.
JC: I suspect that some people would accuse you of denying the gifts of the Holy Spirit. How do you respond to that?
OA: I do believe in the gifts of the Spirit. I do believe in healing. Many people have been healed, but I don’t believe in trying to use the Spirit for your benefit.
JC: I thought that might be the case. I believe I saw some statement of faith where you say you that believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But I did expect that some people might accuse you of not believing in them as a way to get back at you.
OA: Yes, they accuse me of everything.
JC: I’m sure they do.
OA: Also that I’m the Antichrist. Then when we started working with the Finance Committee I became Satan incarnate, so I just wanted you to know who you are talking to.
JC: I have to say I haven’t heard any evidence for that, so I’ll have to take you at your word.
OA: [Laughs]There’s another point here. The reason for the smallness of churches is so that you know each other well, and you lay down your life for each other. You don’t have to turn around three times and tell people you love them, or some other little religious gimmick. You love them, because whoever is born of God automatically loves the others that are born of Him. You know it, because it’s been tested by life experience. This was formalised in the Didache, which is a manual of discipleship allegedly written by the twelve apostles. One of the teachings is that if anyone comes to you in the name of God asking for money shun him, because he’s a false apostle. Just think of the impact of that. The other was a vow of poverty, but it has nothing to do with money. It’s for a small group of people and it goes something like this: Whatever I own that you need, you can use; whatever I have that you don’t have, I’ll give it to you; whatever you need that I don’t have, I’ll help you get it.
JC: I have to say, I don’t remember Morris Cerullo saying that.
OA: No. These guys are just a cosmic joke, and it’s the western world’s spiritual infancy that’s giving them the power.
JC: Now, you mentioned earlier in the conversation Robert Tilton, and I understand that he’s one of the main evangelists you’ve investigated.
OA: He’s the one that put us on the map, so to speak, that we got all the national publicity for, because it was with Diane Sawyer.
JC: So, could you tell us something about that investigation?
OA: Well, it was shortly after the experience with that young girl I told you about. Apparently, one of Diane’s producers had seen that same television show on CNBC. I got a call from her producer asking me to work with them on the business of televangelism, because it had never been investigated. So that’s what we did. The programme investigated three television evangelists, one named Robert Tilton, another named W. B. Grant and another named Larry Lee. So we assisted ABC News doing those investigations. That finally aired in November 1991. It was a shocker. (I’ve been sued so many times. I’m not an attorney, but I could play one on television. It’s just crazy that you’re sued all the time; but that’s alright, I don't have anything.) But anyway, that’s what put us on the map. The thing that caused the biggest issue was the thousands upon thousands of prayer requests we found among the trash in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which Tilton could not possibly have read. Each of those prayer requests had a 'personal' letter sent from Robert Tilton telling them exactly what to do for this kind of prayer. It turns out that he had read-and-code employees in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They’d read the letters, send the money to the bank, and code the letters with "BBD" or whatever it was. We had all those codes, because we’d made trash runs to his attorney, his data processing and marketing firm at the church, and we had undercover people go into the church. Anyway, it was a big deal.
JC: Did you not yourself go undercover during this investigation?
OA: No, I went in as myself - for Tilton. Fox News wanted me to think about doing a national show. They asked us to put together a proposal of how we would do this, but we didn’t do it in the end. But we took the proposal that we’d sent to Fox and used it as the entrée into his data processing company. I went as myself. I told them we needed help handling the mail. (I’d run radio and television shows, and they always generated tons of mail.) I told him what we do, such as taking in the homeless. Then this this guy said an incredible thing: "You can write a book a week, or a book a month, blah, blah...", and then it was all about "names and addresses". Do everything you can to get "names and addresses".
JC: This was his advice to you on how to make your church grow.
OA: Yes, that was part of his proposal that, every month or so, we should ask for something or send something out - some gimmick like prayer cloths, or water from the Dead Sea, or something. Then he said that most people feel compelled to send something back. The programme was an incredible programme; it won the Investigative Report of the year. From then on, the phone never stopped ringing. We’ve assisted hundreds and hundreds of organisations, including the Federal and State Governments.
JC: Was Robert Tilton himself prosecuted for any of these activities?
OA: No, he had a very good attorney that got him out of it.
JC: He lost a lot of followers, didn’t he?
OA: Yes, he just became a cosmic joke here.
JC: I understand he’s back in business these days.
OA: Yes, now he’s "archbishop" Robert Tilton.
JC: Oh right.
OA: But only to poor, black families; that’s his target audience.
JC: I looked him up on his website, and it does seem as if that’s exactly the kind of thing he’s doing. He talks about a vow. He says you can make a vow and expect a return. And, from what I see, he does seem to be targeting the poor. I’ll quote his exact words: “Step out in faith today and make a vow to God. Vowing is one of the best ways to stretch your faith, but only when your vow goes beyond your natural resources or abilities.” He also says: “I don’t need much faith to vow $100 if I have $2000 in a saving account, but if I don’t even have a savings account and can barely pay my bills then a $100 vow will stretch my faith indeed.” So he does seem to be encouraging people who have virtually no resources to give beyond what they can afford.
OA: Well that one’s tame compared to many. It’s the worst con there is. In England, it used be the case that anything aired had to be verifiable. Now that’s gone. Canada is the only one that still has that. The postal service should have had the same kind of thing: any promises made for the purposes of getting something of value, if they're not verifiable, should be illegal. But they don’t do this. I get so frustrated with politicians.
JC: One of the things it says on your website is that it’s very difficult to prosecute these people. One FAQ asks: Why hasn’t the Government stopped these practices? In answer, it mentions reasons such as: There are so many numbers involved; it’s difficult to oversee all this; the law doesn’t seem to be enforced very much; and there’s something about absolute church status as well. Could you tell us something about how they manipulate that?
OA: Church-state separation has been manipulated to the nth degree. The IRS and the Treasury Department can’t even investigate these type of abuses without three layers of upper management. They can’t even keep a file on them. The reason is, they say 1776 means that we can’t have the Government involved in religion. But you certainly can have the Government involved in fighting fraud; but our politicians are afraid to have such laws. We've tried many times over the years to get legislative bodies to enact laws, and prosecutorial bodies to prosecute fraud. We do what we do, because no legislative body is going to pass any laws. They're all afraid of losing their votes, and the same is true with the enforcement of laws; they're not really enforced like they are in other areas, because they're political issues. So, the only thing we can do is to try and get case law that will protect the victims. Unfortunately, we haven’t been very successful at that either, because every time there’s been a fraud case prosecuted for the things you’ve been talking about it was sent to an appeals court that was so afraid that it dismissed the case. So what I’m trying to do is probably stupid, because it probably has no end. But it’s what God has called me to do, so I’ve got to do it whether it’s successful or not.
JC: Do you feel you are having an effect by raising awareness of this problem amongst people?
OA: Oh yes, that’s for sure.
JC: Have you had any dealings with Benny Hinn?
OA: Yes, many dealings. I’ve met him personally. He made me all kinds of promises that he’s going to reform, but he didn’t do one of them.
JC: Is he someone you’ve investigated?
OA: Yes, sure. We’ve got masses of information on him - file cabinets full.
JC: I was very surprised to see on your website that there was concern expressed about Hillsong Church in Australia.
OA: Yes, a lot of concern.
JC: That’s the first I’d heard about that. Can you give us some idea of what’s going on with that?
OA: Well, it’s extravagant lifestyle, fundamentally. But you’d have to ask Pete about that, because he’s the one who’s looked into that more than I have. One of the best investigative programmes we’ve ever done was on Benny Hinn, for Sixty Minutes Australia. It’s wonderful; it’s just outstanding. The presenter said, "Benny Hinn is a fraud." After several months of investigation with us, in which we followed Hinn around to find out what he was doing (and also used a couple of informants), the presenter had the courage to stand up and say, "Benny Hinn is a fraud. Don’t send him any money. If you do, you're a fool." I wish America had the same broadcast freedom that Australia does. Anyway that’s another story. By the way, it’s one of my favourite places.
JC: I’ve never been there.
OA: Well, I haven’t spent much time there, but I spent three months in Alice Springs. It was like three months in hell. It got to 180 degrees, or so it felt. Really, I like New Zealand better than Australia.
JC: Well, I understand it’s a little bit more like the UK. Is it also right that you’ve been having some dealings with the Trinity Broadcasting Network recently?
OA: I can’t talk about that because they’re deposing me. I have to be released from that deposition. We’ve already had the depositions, but they have to be certified before I can talk about it.
JC: Okay fair enough. One other question: People listening to this podcast might feel a certain amount of frustration and wonder, "What can I actually do to help with this. I can’t set up a foundation and investigate these people. So what can I actually do as an ordinary citizen?" What would you advise?
OA: Well, sure. Use your common sense. Visit a number of churches. Follow the Holy Spirit. One thing you can do is, if you’re suspicious about something you experience, report it; we have a religious abuse form on our website. We're not experts in all this either; we just follow our nose. If you see something in a church that you think is suspicious, just go and attend and act like you’re interested. If you think there’s some criminal activity report it to your District Attorney. It’s just common sense. But I tell you, you've got to be moved by cases like that girl who committed suicide; you can’t just be intellectually put off by it. And there’s no reward for this; you’re just called names.
JC: Well, I was quite affected by one testimony that appears on your website. It was a communication to your foundation in 2012 from a man who wrote: “What is the true Gospel? ...not too sure anymore. ...been lied to way too much. I have issues with the 'Gospel' I hear on television. I have illnesses, HIV etc., so I’m home a lot. They say if I pay God money, God will heal me. I’m a poor man. I have to live with people to survive. I have no job." Then he goes on to say that he’s given thousands of dollars in wages over four years, and he’s ended up with nothing. But he does end his email by saying: “I still believe, thank you Jesus, but I’m never going to do it again." That got to me, as a testimony of someone who is absolutely ruined by these people.
OA: And killed, by not taking their medicine, because some of them think they would not be living in faith if they took their medicine. There’s so much of this going on that it's sickening, and it’s getting worse.
JC: One of the things that first grabbed my attention - apart from those who are really badly affected by it like the person we’ve just been discussing - is the effect is must have on non-believers who are looking on. They see the so-called evangelist on TV, and they must think to themselves: "Well, this is what Christianity really is." And then think: "Well, I don’t want anything to do with that." There must be people who are put off Christ by what they see.
OA: Oh yes. I’ve been appalled by the same thing since we started. And one day I was praying, and I said: “God, what would You say to these people who are being turned away from You?” Now, the day I was saying that, I was on Diane Sawyer’s programme; she was interviewing me. So, Diane said: “What would you say to the people that we’ve just talked about?” And I said: "Diane, I don’t think you’re asking for the people, or what I would say, but rather: What would God say to you?" Do you know what came out? I was talking to Diane Sawyer, and this just came out: “Stubborn and rebellious child, has My love no longer the power to melt your heart? Have you been driven away by those who claim to know Me, but were filled by hypocrisy and greed, and drunk with the stench of a dead faith? Let the Dead bury the Dead. Let ignorance reproduce itself, until it’s weary of its own offspring. This is between you and Me. You can no longer resist My Spirit without suffering pain. Come back, all is forgiven.” Diane was sitting there sobbing. Of course, they didn’t air that part. But that’s what I would say. I think that’s what God would say, actually, because that certainly didn’t come from me.
JC: You say that you don’t really have a lot to do with the website at the moment. Is there a way that people can get in contact with you, or your ministry, if they feel they need help?
OA: Yes, the website is Trinityfi.org
JC: So if people go to that website, they will be able to find ways of contacting you, and find out more about your ministry.
OA: Yes, there are ways to contact for different things.
JC: Well, it’s been a very interesting discussion - quite a moving discussion in many ways. Is there anything else you would like to say before we end?
OA: I would say: Don’t let what you see others doing affect your walk with God. Understand that Christ is totally involved, but He can never occupy where you are. His way is always emptying. So stand before Christ, empty yourself, and let God show you the way.
JC: Thank you very much for agreeing to come on the show. I know you haven’t been very well recently, so I’m very grateful to you for putting this time aside to come on the Podcast.
OA: Thank you, Julian; I enjoyed it. If you ever get to the US, come and see us; we have a great guest house.
JC: That sounds fantastic; I hope that’s possible.
OA: We have a whole family moving here from London soon.
JC: Thank you for the invitation; that’s wonderful. God bless you.
OA: God bless you, Julian.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by Ole Anthony in this interview are his responsibility alone; they do not necessarily reflect those of The Mind Renewed.