Fraud, private jets and a Lamborghini: 10 televangelists who have faced controversy

USA Today/June 17, 2019

By Joshua Bote

In the past year, televangelists — including Kenneth Copeland, who recently went viral for an inflammatory Inside Edition interview and Franklin Graham, son of legendary evangelical preacher Billy Graham — have been embroiled in controversy, one way or another. 

Copeland, a Texas evangelist, came under fire for a viral Inside Edition video in which he defended his three private jets.  But he's not the only one to make headlines in the past few years.

From buying a $200,000 Lamborghini SUV as an anniversary gift to reportedly turning away hurricane evacuees, these 10 televangelists have recently caught flak for their actions and sermons. 

Kenneth Copeland

Copeland justified his jet-setting by saying that he could not evangelize without the aircraft. "If I flew commercial, I'd have to stop 65% of what I'm doing," he told journalist Lisa Guerrero. 

Guerrero then pressed Copeland on a statement he made in 2015, where he compared flying in commercial class to getting "in a long tube with a bunch of demons" to fellow televangelist Jesse Duplantis.

"No, I do not, and don't you ever say that I did," he responded, pointing a finger at the journalist.

He currently owns an airport close to his Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Fort Worth, Texas.

Jesse Duplantis

Louisiana minister Jesse Duplantis, who himself was implicated in Copeland's jet scandal, has been in hot water for his own jet-setting lifestyle. He claims God told him that he needs a private jet — specifically, a Falcon 7X, capable of carrying 12 to 16 passengers at speeds up to 700 miles per hour. 

"Now, some people believe that preachers shouldn't have jets," Duplantis said in a video posted in 2018.

"I really believe that preachers ought to ... have every available outlet to get this Gospel preached to the world."  

In the same video, he showed off a photo of the three planes currently owned by his ministry, that bore the caption, "It's not about possessions, it's about priorities." 

Gloria Copeland

Kenneth Copeland's wife, Gloria, is a preacher herself. She co-founded Kenneth Copeland Ministries with her husband, and served as one of Trump's evangelical ministers.

In a video published on the ministry's Facebook page, she proclaimed that children do not need a flu shot because Jesus had already "bore our sickness."

"We don't have a flu season," she said. "And don't receive it when somebody's threatening you with 'Everybody's getting the flu.' We've already had our shot. He bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases."

Upon drawing widespread criticism, Copeland Ministries shared a list of scriptures on their website with the claim that they would help followers "stand strong against" the flu.

Franklin Graham

Franklin Graham, the son of famed preacher Billy Graham, was recently the target of criticism after inflammatory comments he made about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

"As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized," he wrote on Twitter.

"The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women." His tweet was in response to remarks Buttigieg made on CNN, in which he argued that "God does not have a political party."

Pat Robertson

As host of The 700 Club, Pat Robertson is one of the more visible televangelists to emerge on the national stage. In his extensive career, he has drawn controversy for comments regarding everything from the September 11 attacks to working with Buddhists.

In recent years, Robertson, 89, defended President Donald Trump before the 2016 election after Trump's locker room comments. Brushing it off as "macho" talk, Robertson compared Trump to a phoenix. "They think he's dead, he's come back. And he came back strong," he said on his show.

More recently, he called Alabama's abortion ban "extreme" and "ill-considered" on The 700 Club — though he has been a vocal opponent of abortion in the past.

Jim Bakker

Televangelist Jim Bakker was sentenced to five years in prison in 1989 for 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy after misappropriating funds from followers for his own use. More recently, Bakker has attempted to sell properties at his Christian-themed Morningside development, southwest of Branson, Missouri.

Bakker claimed his development, located in the Ozark mountains, is the safest place to live when the apocalypse comes. "Where are you going to go when the world's on fire?" he said in a 2018 broadcast of the show. "Where are you going to go? This place is for God's people and this place, we need some farmers to move here."

Joel Osteen

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, preacher Joel Osteen — who helms one of the largest churches in America with 50,000 members and a 600,000 square foot stadium — was criticized for not welcoming hurricane evacuees into his Lakewood megachurch. 

A social media post from the megachurch claimed the building was inaccessible due to "severe flooding." But locals said otherwise, posting photos around the church showing streets that were easy to get to.

Regardless of what transpired, it proved to be an issue of negative publicity for the church and Osteen, who has a reported net worth of over $50 million, as community members alleged his lack of hospitality.

"We have never closed our doors," said Osteen amid the controversy. "We are prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity. Lakewood will be a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm."

John Gray

South Carolina megachurch pastor John Gray gifted his wife a $200,000 Lamborghini SUV for their eighth anniversary in 2018. A flood of negative responses followed.

"God helped me to make my wife's dream come true," he wrote in an Instagram post showing off the luxury automobile.

Within days of the original post, he defended his purchase online — alleging it was bought with "not a nickel, not a penny" of church funds, including his salary, in a tearful video.

"My wife has pushed for my dreams and my vision, and she has toiled with a man who is still trying to find himself," Gray said. "That carries a weight. I wanted to honor her for how she’s covered me."

Robert Jeffress

Pastor Robert Jeffress has elicited much controversy for his sentiments towards the LGBT community, Mormons and Muslims, claiming Muslims practice a religion that "promotes pedophilia." The statements resulted in Tim Tebow cancelling an appearance at his First Baptist Dallas Church in 2013.

He was appointed as one of President Donald Trump's evangelical advisers, and gained national attention when he claimed "God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un," invoking the Bible's book of Romans to do so.

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