Earlier this month, the Agape Christian Fellowship in Arlington, Texas filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It’s former leader, Pastor Terry Hornbuckle, was convicted of rape late last year and now the church is facing multiple lawsuits. The city of Arlington and Tarrant County are suing the Agape Christian Fellowship for back property taxes and related penalties; Hornbuckle’s rape victims have filed civil suits.
Agape’s Chapter 11 filing is part of a growing trend. Faced with hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits, the Roman Catholic diocese of San Diego, California filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month. And it’s filing follows the 2004 bankruptcy-protection filings by Catholic dioceses in Tucson (Arizona), Portland (Oregon) and Spokane (Washington) and a 2006 filing by the diocese in Davenport, Iowa.
It goes without saying that pedophiles and sexual predators are bad candidates for help in God’s front office. He obviously needs to screen His mortal representatives more carefully. But He should also go on-line and get an MBA. With all the financial and regulatory breaks that churches and religious organizations are getting these days, it’s ridiculous they can’t stay in the black.
Since 1989, hundreds of special protections, exemptions and arrangements for religious groups and their adherents have been approved by Congress. Places of worship are granted zoning code exceptions and church-run business are often exempt from state licensing, public health standards, equipment inspection and professional certification. Religious employers are protected from legal complaints about faith-based hiring practices because they enjoy a kind of “diplomatic” immunity. As diplomats or “agents” of God, they are exempt from civil rights laws and, in most cases, don’t even have to provide unemployment benefits or pensions for their workers.
While religious organizations are being granted all these special privileges, they’re investing in commercial enterprises that used to be reserved for public and private entities. In the last few years, they’ve opened fitness centers (with tanning beds, video arcades, etc.), funeral homes, bookstores, coffee shops, ice cream parlors, biblical theme parks, broadcasting transmission towers and more and more schools. And all these ventures have enjoyed the heavenly tax breaks that come with the perks of non-profit religiosity.
To keep the special treatment coming, religious organizations engage in politics, supporting born-agains and faith panderers and swinging elections. Though they are historically expected to observe the separation between church and state, they constantly jockey for political representation. So much so that David Kuo, former second-in-command of the Bush-initiated White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives recently revealed that faith-based initiatives amount to little more than a political-religious patronage system.
Ultimately, most contemporary religious organizations behave like the typical, prosperous American corporation. They pledge their support for local, state and national political candidates who, if victorious, reward them with preferential treatment and exemptions from the disagreeable requirements and regulations that beset the unfortunate sots (i.e., us) who don’t have deep pockets.
It’s the epitome of spiritual hypocrisy. Religious groups purport to hold themselves above and apart from politics and the private sector, but cozying up to sympathetic political bedfellows serves their “higher” purpose too well. And if they run into trouble (caused by their own depravity or otherwise), they ditch their church duds and dawn business suits, so -- righteousness notwithstanding -- they can seek refuge in financial protections designed for the private sector that they consider beneath them.
Here miracles happen. Spiritual groups miraculously part the red tape of religious non-profit ambiguity and emerge as what they really are. Businesses. Plain and simple.
As much as they try to maintain a respectable modicum of earnest religiosity, praying doesn’t pay the bills. They must generate earthly revenue because they can’t just sit around in shabby breechcloth waiting for their treasure in heaven. And besides, in terms of day-to-day functioning, a dollar sign is more sacred than the sign of the cross.
In fact, in the heart of the Bible Belt, many churches are augmenting collection plates with ATMs. Dubbed “Giving Kiosks,” these ATMs allow financially viable church members to instantly access funds and transfer them to the church. As grace is hardly free, believers can amass it at will. They simply swipe a credit or debit card, punch in a pass code and Hallelujah, they’re one step closer to that glorious cash register in the sky.
Clearly, the ridiculously popular Left Behind series that scared the bejabbers out of the religion industry’s easiest marks was misnamed. Like the private sector, skeptics and freethinkers aren’t being left behind; they’re being left out, chiefly of the spoils of faith.
In the accounting of American spirituality, what’s being left behind isn’t the unsusceptible; it’s the religious community’s moral compass and dignity. They’re bartering their faith and placing bar codes on their souls.
Hopefully, St. Peter isn’t an attentive scanner.
E. R. Bills is a writer from Ft. Worth, Texas. His recent works have appeared in Dissident Voice, Fort Worth Weekly and Flashquake.
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