Friday, May 19, 2006

Crooks in the pulpit - Botswana Guardian

On the 25th January this year the Daily News reported that Ogomoditse Matsila, the Acting Director of the Department of Civil and National Registrations said that it was "possible that some churches and other organisations could be used for money-laundering or tax evasion".

She also mentioned that the powers her Department have to regulate and monitor churches are limited and don't give them the right to inspect and record the goings on within the churches.

Excellent! I don’t think we really don't want the religion police running around and checking up on the activities of honest, respectable church-goers do we? No, we don't. Most churches are, of course, respectable, charitable and honest. Despite not sharing their beliefs I obviously recognise the good works so many do, the sense of community they give to their followers and the personal morality they teach.

However I think that Mma Matsila and her colleagues deserve credit for realising that religion and spirituality are very often covers for fraud, deception and, in quite a few cases, crime.

I really worry about the flow of churches of all descriptions and varieties into the country. For instance can there really be that many varieties of the Christian message? Is there really a need for another charismatic preacher when we have loads of them here already? What else have they got to preach to us? More importantly, what else is it they want from us?

At the simplest level I suspect that a number of preachers get a real kick from the performance they deliver. Most people who have become comfortable with public speaking will confess, if you push them, that they get a kick out of being the centre of attention. I know that I do. I enjoy standing in front of people and have them listening to me. It makes me feel good, makes me feel that what I have to say is important and, here I go confessing again, it makes me feel important as a person. Even though I know I'm not!

I suspect that many preachers feel this way as well, but even more so. They are having a real influence on people's lives. They are changing people's behaviour, their values and their outlook on life. What a feeling that must be! I don’t have a problem with this so long as what they are doing is legitimate.

My problem is with the con-artists. I'm not going to be silly enough to mention any here in Botswana but consider one of the most famous cases. An American evangelist called Peter Popoff. He was famous for his televised gospel shows where he would heal the sick. "Miraculously" he would call out the names of people in the audience who he had never met. He would announce before actually meeting them what was wrong with them, what they desperately desired and amazing personal details that he couldn't possibly know. Or could he?

Popoff was exposed as a con artist several years ago by one of my great heroes, James Randi. Randi has devoted much of his life to exposing charlatans, frauds and crooks and has set up an educational institute to continue his good work. I urge you to visit his web site at to learn more about what he and his associates do. If you don't have access to the Internet please write to me at P. Box 403026, Gaborone and I'll sent you more information.

Randi was convinced that Popoff's so-called abilities were not even slightly miraculous. He and his team went to one of his so-called miracle crusades with a radio receiver. Pretty soon they picked up signals being transmitted by Popoff’s wife to a tiny receiver in his ear. Before entering the hall every attendee had been asked to fill in a card outlining their personal details, their ailments and what they needed. Popoff's wife would then read these to him over the airways, allowing him to appear to have miraculous abilities.

Popoff went bankrupt shortly after he was exposed by Randi and his team. However the bad news is that he’s back again on the Internet preaching about how his followers should ignore his critics because they are the agents of Satan. I suppose that means me as well now. I’ve been called many things in my time but an agent of the Devil is a new one.

However how many of the TV evangelists we see on Channel 77 are up to the same tricks? Last year Carte Blanche on M-Net broadcast a major expose made by the Canadian Broadcasting Services on Benny Hinn and the staggering amounts of money he raises (and keeps for himself it seems). What’s that I remember about rich men entering the Kingdom of Heaven and something to do with camels and the eye of a needle?

I’m not suggesting that all the new preachers flowing into Botswana are crooks like Popoff. Clearly that wouldn’t be true. I just think that before we trust a new charismatic preacher or religious group we should do our research. We should think carefully about what they say. We must take step back and start from a position of scepticism, not trust. Only when they have proved themselves should we consider trusting them.

Maybe I can put it more simply. Never trust a preacher in a Mercedes.