Religion

Kenneth Copeland: Texas religious icon or spiritual pickpocket?

Kenneth Copeland has a long history of preaching in Fort Worth. This ad for a two-week meeting at the Will Rogers Auditorium appeared in the July 1973 edition of the Star-Telegram.
Kenneth Copeland has a long history of preaching in Fort Worth. This ad for a two-week meeting at the Will Rogers Auditorium appeared in the July 1973 edition of the Star-Telegram. Archives

Anyone who has spent a few minutes strolling around downtown Fort Worth this week has likely run across a crowd of conventioneers wearing bright yellow lanyards and Kenneth Copeland Ministries badges.

I did, and had to confess that I didn’t know much about Kenneth Copeland or why he had attracted so many people to our fair city.

Turns out, the Texas prosperity preacher and his wife, Gloria, have been bringing their Southwest Believers’ Convention to Cowtown for more than three decades. It is one of the city’s largest gatherings of the year, attracting thousands of people from all over the world.

And, according to kcm.org, millions more are watching on the Believers’ Voice of Victory network livestream and on the KCM app. Millions more still are following along on Copeland’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. The convention continues through Saturday.

Copeland, who was born in Lubbock and went to Fort Worth’s Polytechnic High School, presides over a religious empire that was founded in 1967 and now extends to six continents. The more I learned about the story of this self-proclaimed billionaire and newly minted spiritual adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the more remarkable it seemed.

Or shameful, depending on whom you believe.

A Star-Telegram archive story from 1981, the first year of the Southwest Believers’ Convention, details Copeland’s rise from Poly High football player to nightclub singer (Pledge of Love made the Billboard Top 40) to Army pilot to up-and-coming evangelist. Twice divorced by age 25, he found love and spiritual salvation after marrying Gloria Neece in 1962, the article said.

A few years later, they started Kenneth Copeland Ministries and traveled across the southwest in his beat-up Pontiac, preaching in small churches and theaters. An ad in the July 13, 1973, edition of the Star-Telegram promoting a two-week prayer meeting at the Will Rogers Auditorium features his message in bold type:

“It’s High Time We Quit Blaming God for Sickness, Poverty and Misfortune! ... Victorious Living through Faith.”

That message remains much the same today: “KCM helps believers live the victorious life God promised by spreading ... faith, love, healing and prosperity,” according to its website.

But Copeland’s detractors, and there are many, say he preaches the gospel of greed by asking followers to donate money in hopes that God will bless them with riches in return. Copeland and his family, many of whom hold high-paying positions in the ministry, exploit blind faith, critics say, for the sole purpose of filling their own pockets.

On Monday evening, I was talking to a minister friend of mine and mentioned that Copeland’s convention was in town and that it sure seemed to be attracting a lot of people. The usually calm and thoughtful man, who helps Hospice patients, shook his head and his voice began to rise.

“He is the worst kind of Christian,” he said.

For the next 15 minutes, he told me about Copeland’s opulent lakeside compound in Newark, Texas, the $20 million jet he asked followers to buy him, and the Senate Finance Committee investigation into the Copelands and other televangelists who were accused of using their tax-exempt status to defraud donors and amass personal wealth.

Spiritual pickpockets” is how the Copelands were described in the New York Times article he suggested I read. Charlatans is another popular label for Copeland and some of his featured speakers in Fort Worth this week.

Like Creflo Dollar, who continues to make headlines because his Georgia-based ministry is raising money from followers to buy a $65 million Gulfstream G650 private jet. They need it, he says, to “spread God’s word,” and because his previous, 30-year-old jet was damaged in November.

Just about every televangelist at the Believers’ convention has been accused of cashing in on the generosity and gullibility of their faithful followers.

But none of that seemed to concern the near capacity crowd in Fort Worth on Wednesday afternoon, as they listened intently and nodded as Dollar preached about putting faith in Jesus with nearly every decision in life.

“What should I wear on this job interview, lord?” he asked. “What should I have for dinner?”

He preached about personal responsibility, too, and wealth -- spiritual and actual.

It’s the same basic message that’s been resonating with KCM conventioneers in Fort Worth for 35 years.

Personally, I tend to trust my minister friend’s take on Kenneth Copeland. Any religious leader who asks people to prove their faith by paying for it in cold, hard cash, seems like a false prophet. Better yet, a for-profit prophet.

But are Copeland and his kind spiritual pickpockets?

I don’t see that, either. People hand over money to them willingly. You can debate whether that’s a wise thing to do, much the same way you can argue that people are wasting their money playing the lottery.

But it’s their money. Their beliefs. And if it gives them hope -- even false hope -- that’s their business.

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