A few weeks ago, the L.A. Times put up a new story written by their religion reporter, William Lobdell:
When Times editors assigned me to the religion beat, I believed God had answered my prayers.
As a serious Christian, I had cringed at some of the coverage in the mainstream media. Faith frequently was treated like a circus, even a freak show.
I wanted to report objectively and respectfully about how belief shapes people’s lives. Along the way, I believed, my own faith would grow deeper and sturdier.
It took several years and numerous memos and e-mails, but editors finally agreed in 1998 to let me write “Getting Religion,” a weekly column about faith in Orange County.
I felt like all the tumblers of my life had clicked. I had a strong marriage, great kids and a new column. I attributed it all to God’s grace.
But, his faith didn’t get strengthened. Lobdell learned a great deal about Catholic priests, their abuse of children, the Catholic Church’s cover-up of those crimes and their shuffling of priests (which enabled them to repeat their abuse).
By this time, church leaders possessed a psychological report in which Catholic psychiatrists diagnosed Harris as having an attraction to adolescents and concluded that he likely had molested multiple boys. (Harris, who has denied the allegations, now stands accused of molesting 12 boys, according to church records.) But they didn’t step forward to set the record straight. Instead, a diocesan spokesman called Harris an “icon of the priesthood.”
Harris’ top defense attorney, John Barnett, lashed out at the priest’s accusers in the media, calling them “sick individuals.” Again, church leaders remained silent as the alleged victims were savaged. Some of the diocese’s top priests — including the cleric in charge of investigating the accusations — threw a going-away party for Harris.
At the time, I never imagined Catholic leaders would engage in a widespread practice that protected alleged child molesters and belittled the victims. I latched onto the explanation that was least damaging to my belief in the Catholic Church — that this was an isolated case of a morally corrupt administration.
And I was comforted by the advice of a Catholic friend: “Keep your eyes on the person nailed to the cross, not the priests behind the altar.”
Many of these victims were molested by priests with a history of abusing children. But the bishops routinely sent these clerics to another parish, and bullied or conned the victims and their families into silence. The police were almost never called. In at least a few instances, bishops encouraged molesting priests to flee the country to escape prosecution.
I couldn’t get the victims’ stories or the bishops’ lies — many of them right there on their own stationery — out of my head. I had been in journalism more than two decades and had dealt with murders, rapes, other violent crimes and tragedies. But this was different — the children were so innocent, their parents so faithful, the priests so sick and bishops so corrupt.
On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, spoke out for the victim.
I understood that I was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn’t see these institutions drenched in God’s spirit. Shouldn’t religious organizations, if they were God-inspired and -driven, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?
I found an excuse to skip services that Easter. For the next few months, I attended church only sporadically. Then I stopped going altogether.
And it wasn’t just the Catholic Church. He saw a lot of Protestant church leaders wallowing in their wealth by preaching to their followers that if they gave money “to God” (i.e. their churches), that God would reward them for their faith. (We all saw how well that worked out in the Peter Popoff story.)
SOME of the nation’s most powerful pastors — including Billy Graham, Robert H. Schuller and Greg Laurie — appear on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, benefiting from TBN’s worldwide reach while looking past the network’s reliance on the “prosperity gospel” to fuel its growth.
TBN’s creed is that if viewers send money to the network, God will repay them with great riches and good health. Even people deeply in debt are encouraged to put donations on credit cards.
“If you have been healed or saved or blessed through TBN and have not contributed … you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven,” Paul Crouch, co-founder of the Orange County-based network, once told viewers. Meanwhile, Crouch and his wife, Jan, live like tycoons.
I began looking into TBN after receiving some e-mails from former devotees of the network. Those people had given money to the network in hopes of getting a financial windfall from God. That didn’t work.
By then, I started to believe that God was calling me, as he did St. Francis of Assisi, to “rebuild his church” — not in some grand way that would lead to sainthood but by simply reporting on corruption within the church body.
I spent several years investigating TBN and pored through stacks of documents — some made available by appalled employees — showing the Crouches eating $180-per-person meals; flying in a $21-million corporate jet; having access to 30 TBN-owned homes across the country, among them a pair of Newport Beach mansions and a ranch in Texas. All paid for with tax-free donor money.
One of the stars of TBN and a major fundraiser is the self-proclaimed faith healer Benny Hinn. I attended one of his two-day “Miracle Crusades” at what was then the Pond of Anaheim. The arena was packed with sick people looking for a cure.
My heart broke for the hundreds of people around me in wheelchairs or in the final stages of terminal diseases, believing that if God deemed their faith strong enough, they would be healed that night.
Hinn tells his audiences that a generous cash gift to his ministry will be seen by God as a sign of true faith. This has worked well for the televangelist, who lives in an oceanfront mansion in Dana Point, drives luxury cars, flies in private jets and stays in the best hotels.
At the crusade, I met Jordie Gibson, 21, who had flown from Calgary, Canada, to Anaheim because he believed that God, through Hinn, could get his kidneys to work again.
He was thrilled to tell me that he had stopped getting dialysis because Hinn had said people are cured only when they “step out in faith.” The decision enraged his doctors, but made perfect sense to Gibson. Despite risking his life as a show of faith, he wasn’t cured in Anaheim. He returned to Canada and went back on dialysis. The crowd was filled with desperate believers like Gibson.
The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he’s never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?
In one e-mail, I asked John, who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?
He sent back a long reply that concluded:
“My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don’t know. And frankly, if I’m totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, ‘You, God, are infinite; I’m human and finite.’ ”
John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn’t reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.
And I considered another possibility: Maybe God didn’t exist.
My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.
Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don’t. It’s not a choice. It can’t be willed into existence. And there’s no faking it if you’re honest about the state of your soul.
Of course, many theists continue make silly arguments that atheists simply deny God (whom they “know exists”) because “don’t want to be held accountable to their Creator”. I happen to agree that the crimes of church leaders doesn’t necessarily invalidate the religion itself. The reporter does address this point when he questions the non-healing of amputees and says “I didn’t see these institutions drenched in God’s spirit”. In fact, the New Testament does say, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet, it’s often difficult to find that in Church leaders. No doubt, Ted Haggard (along with so many other preachers) struggled a great deal with his sexuality. I have yet to see a Christian who is truly “a new creation”.
I’m sure many Christians would agree with the pastor’s reply that “My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don’t know…” But for non-believers, this is just a good blanket reply that can be used to cover all problems in all religions. Jim Jones wants you to drink the cyanide-laced kool-aid? You don’t know God’s ways; drink up. Aum Shinrikyo wants you to set-off sarin bombs in the Tokyo subway, and that doesn’t seem right? God knows what you don’t. Your imam says that Allah will bless you for detonating yourself in a crowd of civilians? Who are we to question God’s ways? These are flexible excuses that can be used to justify and legitimize any situation.