“We don’t get our news from Fox,” my stepfather has been telling me for the past few years. He seemed offended when I joked that they probably got their updates on world events from John Hagee, a televangelist whose books fill my mom’s bookshelves and whose End Times “Blood Moon” posters have hung on her walls in the past, instead. But last summer when my mom was recovering in the hospital after a dangerous blood clot was removed from her brain, the two of them were unhappy with the cable offerings, and I learned that their actual news source these days is, in fact, another extreme televangelist operation: the viewer-supported Christian nationalist Victory Channel, which is owned and run by the church of self-proclaimed prophet Kenneth Copeland. As an extension of the church, the network is a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) organization. A donation link at the upper right of the landing page leads to a description of the site as a streaming network “that reaches millions of people with the uncompromised Word of God 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The fine print notes that viewers’ donations are tax-deductible.
I grew up with Copeland’s preaching but, until my mom’s hospitalization, wasn’t aware of his network, which—beyond advocating for a Christian country—breathlessly awaits the Rapture, and purports to bring “a prophetic perspective” to the news. In May of this year, Donald Trump appeared on the network’s FlashPoint news show, where he told the host he was “with you 1,000 percent.” He also promised to give preachers a stronger voice if he were to win the election in 2024, allowing them to speak directly on politics while continuing to allow their churches to operate as tax-exempt. “They’ve silenced you,” Trump said.
But Copeland, for his part, hasn’t exactly been silent. At a political rally last fall, he called Trump “my president,” characterized voting as a “sacred trust,” and asserted that “by covenant, this nation belongs to God.” My stepfather, thanks to FlashPoint, is pretty sure that Antifa was behind the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. He’s not alone—the show is an immensely influential part of the Republican radicalization pipeline. In June, the extremist U.S. Congresswoman Lauren Boebert told FlashPoint that she was directed by God to lead a vote to impeach Biden. Previously she appeared there to suggest Biblical citizenship training in schools.
I’ve watched as much FlashPoint online as I’ve been able to stomach, which isn’t much. My stepsister, who cared for our parents after our mom got out of the hospital, has been exposed to far more of it. Prayer is a constant on FlashPoint shows. The host and his guests, she says, strategize “constantly about reversing the separation between church and state.” A live FlashPoint broadcast from Decatur, Georgia, that went viral on Twitter last year probably best encapsulates the vibe. Several preachers led the crowd in reciting the “Watchman Decree,” which opens with a pledge of allegiance to God, maintains “we have been given legal power from heaven,” decrees that Congress “will only write laws that are righteous and constitutional” and courts will issue only “biblical and constitutional” rulings, and moves into a promise to “NEVER stop fighting!” The same video appears on the Victory Channel Facebook page, which exhorts believers to “download and decree along with us.” Like me, my stepsister was raised with our parents’ iteration of evangelical Christianity. Even so, the show “still shocks me sometimes,” she says. “Or makes me burst out laughing.”
But Copeland’s programs are not as niche as they may seem. His Believer’s Voice of Victory broadcast claims to reach 885 million viewers per day. And the Victory Channel is member-supported.
In 2018, Copeland’s net worth was estimated to be $760 million. Among secular people, he is probably best known as the owner of three private jets who in 2015 asked his viewers to help him buy a new one so that he could “avoid demons” (which he believes his heathen fellow passengers would be riddled with, and could spread to him) on commercial air travel. In 2019, he pleaded with his viewers to donate to fund his jet so that he wouldn’t have to get a COVID vaccine, which he called “the mark of the beast.” He avoids paying property taxes on his Fort Worth mansion by claiming an exemption for a “clergy residence.” Copeland wanted to be a pop star before he became a prosperity-gospel preacher. His music and teachings entered my life in the late 1970s, when I was a kid and my mom became a holy roller. “You’ve gotta keep on casting your bread upon the water,” he sang from the dashboard tape deck, “it’s gonna come back home on every wave.” My mom has cast a lot of bread his way in the decades since then.
Copeland is far from the only televangelist she’s supported. In the early 1980s, we made the trek from Miami to Tulsa for the Oral Roberts Camp Meeting every summer. Later I’m pretty sure she bought mail-order “prayer cloths”—oil-anointed pieces of fabric—from the televangelist Marilyn Hickey. She definitely bought many sermons on tape, and then on CD, and even more books, from Hickey and other ministers. Several years ago, my stepfather mentioned that she’d purchased solar panels from Jim Bakker, who does a brisk business in apocalypse-prep wares, and in 2021 settled a false claims case in Missouri for allegedly swindling viewers with his claims of a “Silver Solution” COVID remedy. By the time I heard about the solar panels, they didn’t work. I’m not sure they ever did. Working from my stepfather’s description, I looked them up online and estimated that she must have paid about $900 for them. I also discovered that the dehydrated meal rations she sent me years ago in large plastic buckets were the brand Bakker sells on his site. Those weren’t cheap, either, based on the listed prices. Mine are still sitting, now expired, in my basement.
Everyone I know is tired of worrying about people like my parents, and I get it. I’m tired of worrying about them too. It’s tempting to turn our back on believers like them who are being sucked dry by Copeland and his church and leave them to their End Times vigil. But this kind of exploitation isn’t something we should ignore simply because it’s dressed up as religious belief.
For most of her life, and mine, my mom’s bookshelves have overflowed with evangelical prophecy and self-help books and recordings. She is three years younger than Kenneth Copeland: 83. At one point, she even had her own storefront church and Christian bookstore, teaching the same kinds of things Copeland does. The prosperity she’s been seeking has never come her way. Jesus has yet to return. Her faith is undimmed, but her bank account is such that I helped out with grocery bills last year so she and my stepdad could afford full-time help during her recovery. She does not have a care plan outside of the Rapture.
Meanwhile, her and my stepfather’s house is paid off but not in great repair. The gravel road out front is eroding. The basement (where she sleeps) leaks in heavy rain. They live mainly on my stepdad’s retirement from the Postal Service. I’m not sure what will happen if they need significant financial help in an ongoing way in the future. I might be able to scrape something together to pick up groceries and other expenses again. My stepsister might be able to uproot herself and go down there and care for them in person, as she has in the past. But we wouldn’t be able to pay for a daily nurse or long-term care. Still, when I asked a few months ago, my stepfather couldn’t assure me that their money would not continue flowing in some way to televangelists, given my mom’s continued appetite for books and DVDs.
My mom isn’t the first in our family to give money to rich evangelists based in North Texas. Our ancestors are from Dallas, and she’s often reminisced about her paternal grandmother, Rindia, who donated her own son S.E.’s insurance settlement to their Pentecostal church after he nearly died at 18 in a truck crash. Doctors said he’d be paralyzed. Instead, S.E., who approved of the donation, was left with significant disabilities: a bad limp, difficulty controlling his limbs, and a halting manner of speaking that was hard to understand. After the gift, Rindia, S.E., and the younger children were so poor that they frequently couldn’t buy food or firewood. Sometimes they lived on squirrels that S.E. hunted near their house in Grand Prairie. My mom was born five years after the accident and four years after the donation, but Rindia’s poverty persisted to such a degree that my own grandmother, long after she was divorced from Rindia’s other son, often stopped by with food or money.
I assumed as a kid that my mom must have intended to strike some cautionary note in telling me this story, but when I asked about it again as an adult, I realized that my mom’s intent in sharing it was to highlight my grandmother’s generosity, not to condemn Rindia’s choice. Meanwhile, Rindia’s church, Bethel Temple, went on to be the largest and most prosperous of its kind in the country, a forerunner to today’s megachurches. Like Copeland, Bethel Temple’s pastor, Albert Ott, had wealth extending far beyond his church. I doubt he gave much thought to what Rindia and S.E. were sacrificing, just as I can’t imagine Kenneth Copeland worrying about people like my parents while he’s flying around on his jet.
And, yes, my mom and stepdad voted for Donald Trump and will surely vote for him again. Locked in their Victory Channel bubble, my stepfather didn’t realize that people have been prosecuted for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. I’m not sure he believed me when I said they have been. “If that was an insurrection, what happened in Tennessee was an insurrection too,” he told me in June, in an increasingly rare political conversation between us, spurred by the Black legislators in Nashville who were removed from office for protesting. I disagreed. He mentioned a video he’d seen on the Victory Channel that, according to him, proved—or at least strongly suggested—that Jan. 6 was the handiwork of Antifa. I said that wasn’t the case. Who could know, he asked, in the face of our “alternative facts.”
The last couple of times I’ve visited, they’ve had a holiday card from Donald Trump on the refrigerator. The front of the card features Trump, alone, in his red MAGA hat. “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!” it reads on the inside. “We are, together, going to Make America Great Again! I love you all, Donald J. Trump.” From this and other Trump paraphernalia in their house, I gather that my mother has sent him money, too. I asked my stepfather about this and he assured me that they would never make donations to a billionaire. But they’ve bought T-shirts and other merchandise. Last year, in one of her daily reports on my mom’s recovery in the months following her stroke, my stepsister texted: “I feel so gross that I helped her order sheets from the pillow guy,” followed by the poop emoji. “I didn’t know,” she explained, adding that they have “about twenty” MyPillow pillows around the house.
Trust me, if I knew the magical solution for reaching my parents, I would have implemented it decades ago. But having lived the problem, I can’t look away, and I hope you won’t either. I admit, “Let’s broaden our legal prohibitions against scams and rethink the tax exemption for churches” isn’t a particularly rousing or convincing response to the problem of people like my parents pledging to fight for a Christian nationalist country, buying overpriced sheets that they believe will hasten this vision and/or the Second Coming, and gearing up to vote in the next election. What I do know is that my parents aren’t the only elderly evangelicals in precarious health, in a crumbling house, watching the Victory Channel in place of news, and sending money they can’t spare to televangelists. My hopes around their situation are pretty small-scale now: that their gravel road won’t wash down the mountain in the next storm, that neither of them will need 24-hour nursing care, and that I can remember the passwords for their Ingles and Food Lion accounts if I have to start buying their groceries again.