Get-rich-quick schemes drained my town’s wealth. At a Christian conference, their legacy lives on

Get-rich-quick schemes drained my town’s wealth. At a Christian conference, their legacy lives on

crowd holds up hands in prayer under screens showing benhams

David and Jason Benham, onscreen, emceed the Life Surge conference. Photograph: Josiah Hesse/The Guardian

Life Surge, where speakers include Tim Tebow and a Duck Dynasty star, ties together faith and financial planning

“As believers, we train ourselves to be valuable to the marketplace,” said the minor-league baseball player-turned-real-estate investor Jason Benham. “How do we use the talents, opportunities, abilities and resources that God has given us so that the Kingdom of Heaven may come to Earth through us?”

Jason and his twin brother, David, were our emcees for the day at Life Surge, a Christian finance conference in Denver. A blending of faith and finance, Life Surge tours the nation offering both motivational and practical lectures on building wealth the Christian way, with emotionally charged, musical worship services peppered throughout the day. The former NFL superstar and evangelical hero Tim Tebow and Willie Robertson of the hit reality show Duck Dynasty were among a host of conservative celebrities speaking at the event, catered by the fast-food restaurant Chick-Fil-A – a pariah among liberals and martyr to the religious right for executives’ public opposition to gay marriage.

children including boy with palm frond
Josiah Hesse, about eight years old, performing in an Easter Passion play. Photograph: Courtesy of Josiah Hesse

Life Surge follows a long tradition of evangelists offering financial advice through the lens of morality and the supernatural. The Iowa farming community I grew up in during the 80s and 90s was steeped in these institutions, which vampirically drained my family and community’s economic momentum. Many of our church’s leaders attended Oral Roberts University, named for the televangelist most associated with the “prosperity gospel”, which explained that your financial success or failure was directly tied to your Christian morality.

These teachings often find the most success in economically impoverished communities and developing countries. During the farm crisis of the 1980s – which radiated out into all avenues of the Iowa economy – many desperate families in my home town were susceptible to the get-rich-quick opportunities offered by proponents of the prosperity gospel. But they were often left with little but shame and debt.

When my dad filed his first of multiple bankruptcies after our retail waterbed store went out of business, people from our church explained that it was his affair that had caused this. While we remained poor, my parents gave an estimated $100,000 to our church over many years, partly in tithing 10% of our business income but also in extra “seed faith” donations, a practice that the prosperity gospel teaches will yield a seven or tenfold return – depending on which preacher you talk to.

I was working on a memoir about these experiences when I was inundated with social media ads to “Surge Your Life God’s Way”.

Tickets to Life Surge ranged from $52 to $500, and after purchasing the cheapest option, I found myself devoting nine hours of my Saturday to sitting in a packed arena, learning how to “Grow Your Faith to Grow Your Business”, “Change the Marketplace for Christ” and “Build for Tomorrow & Eternity”.

According to Pew, nearly half of evangelical Protestants never attended college, and more than half earn less than $50,000 annually (a third earn less than $30,000). Financial literacy is desperately needed in many of these communities, and while Life Surge offered some pragmatic advice on real estate, stocks and taxes, each speaker employed a litany of culture war rhetoric – prayer is needed in school, the snowflakes of cancel culture are coming for us, Hollywood hates Christians – implying an us v them worldview and fueling an ominous urgency for not only investment, but proselytization.

Crowd raises hands
Life Surge follows a long tradition of evangelists offering financial advice through the lens of morality and the supernatural. Photograph: Josiah Hesse/The Guardian

Life Surge declined “to answer any specific questions” for this story, saying it was “blatantly apparent that [I] and the Guardian have a strong bias against the Christian evangelical community and our values”.

‘Surge your wealth’

Employing a Smothers Brothers style of ribbing each other with sibling rivalry jokes, the Benham brothers blended humor with a call to “surge your wealth” (nearly every speaker worked this phrase into their talks) as a form of Christian duty.

They told the story of HGTV greenlighting their reality show in 2014, only to pull the plug following protests against them for, in their words, “saying politically incorrect things”. According to Right Wing Watch, David Benham led a protest in 2012 to stop, in his words, “homosexuality and its agenda that is attacking the nation” and “demonic ideologies tak[ing] our universities and our public school systems”. Additionally, he protested against plans for an Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York, saying: “The difference between Islam and Christianity: Islam takes life and enslaves it. Christianity lays its life down and sets you free.”

In response to their TV show getting the boot, Jason Benham told the Life Surge crowd: “Sometimes when God gives you a platform it’s not just to stand on, but sometimes to burn on.”

tebow on stage
Tim Tebow described wondering whether to join the Patriots and forgo a million-dollar ad deal. Photograph: Josiah Hesse/The Guardian

We were told the brothers had the opportunity to continue the show if they’d promise to keep quiet about social issues, but they refused. Similarly, Tim Tebow told a story later that day about rejecting a million-dollar ad deal so he could join the Patriots (which he ultimately did not): “I was willing to make that sacrifice for football, but would I be willing to do that for the Great Commission?”

The retired quarterback wasn’t talking about a sales commission but rather the order Jesus gave to his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations”.

This was the overarching theme of the day: Christianity is under attack in America, cancel culture is silencing us, so God commands you to earn a lot of money (which we’ll teach you to do, via the stock market and real estate) in order to fight the culture war and recruit new believers.

“Why on earth are we not buying Twitter?” asked David Benham. “Why can’t we get our money together and buy Disney, who have been so open-minded their brains are falling out? How many of you are sick and tired of seeing the devil take all the influence in this culture?”

The crowd rose to their feet and cheered.

Shortly after this, a flood of beach balls descended from the arena rafters as the crowd danced to uptempo worship music, many with eyes closed and hands waving. I engaged in this emotionally charged ritual every day until I was 20, and a heady mix of dread and euphoria swirled through me as I recalled those days, and the belief that anyone outside of this Pentecostal bubble wasn’t to be trusted.

“We need more Christians doing TV shows and music, because if we’re not filling those jobs we know who will,” said Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson (sans trademark long hair and bandanna), apparently referring to atheist liberals. “We said a prayer at the end of every [Duck Dynasty episode], which was unheard of at the time.”

The notion that secular America can’t be trusted and so “real Americans” need a Christian alternative in all avenues of culture and commerce has been around much longer than even Fox News. For nearly a century evangelicals have been branding their businesses as explicitly Christ-centric, even if the service is something as innocuous as plumbing or furniture restoration.

Robertson sits onstage
Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty spoke at the event. Photograph: Josiah Hesse/The Guardian

This presents ample opportunity for claims of religious persecution in any conflict – as in the gay wedding cake debacle Colorado endured in 2014 – as well as a devoted fanbase, who are taught to be suspicious of the secular competition.

“I could learn finance from an atheist, but getting it from a Christian gives it a relatability, and takes it to a deeper level,” says Jacob Hayward, a Life Surge attendee from Denver.

While Donald Trump’s name was notably absent from the event, each speaker seasoned their presentations with a variety of Fox News touchstones: everything from spineless American parents to Biden causing inflation to legalized marijuana.

“I may offend some of you, if you’re part of that cancel culture, you’re a snowflake fruit cup and everything upsets you,” said James Smith, a real estate educator who used his investment advice as opportunities for conservative commentary, speculating that Dick’s Sporting Goods stock is down because they pulled assault-style guns from their shelves, or that digital currency is a bad investment because of government surveillance.

“Did you know that a couple weeks ago the president signed an executive order allowing America to go on digital currency?” Smith asked the crowd. “Coincide that with 87,000 new IRS agents. Do you know why they did that? For surveillance of you economically.”

“The United States government wants us dependent on them right now so they can get your votes,” Jason Benham had said earlier in the day.

A simple message

Hysterical fear of a coming socialist takeover of America was at the heart of both the conservative movement of Barry Goldwater and the apocalyptic fever of evangelicals. Throughout the 90s, our Left Behind rapture novels and televangelists like Pat Robertson linking the Book of Revelation with the day’s headlines kept us in a constant state of panic, ready to blindly follow any conservative huckster with a surefire escape plan.

In addition to fears of Armageddon, the existential fear that you’re spending too much time at work and too little with your family is a common tactic among evangelicals preaching finance. Multilevel marketing companies (often pejoratively referred to as “pyramid schemes”) like AmWay are often founded by evangelicals, and use churches as recruitment centers, offering the opportunity to “be your own boss” and have more family time. (This was a common refrain at Life Surge as well.)

Believers are often encouraged to go deep into debt for these schemes, told to employ a “fake it till you make it” approach, growing their businesses and living a flashy lifestyle long before any profit comes in.

“The evangelical community has been one of the more susceptible groups that have been so infected by this and still is today,” says Robert FitzPatrick, author of Ponzinomics: The Untold Story of Multi-Level Marketing. “It spreads through churches, and is presented with this moral authority, you are told not to argue with anybody who criticizes it, they are non-believers … And in the end, only a fraction of one per cent of people who get into multi-level marketing ever turn a profit.”

box of food with sandwich, chips and water
Chick-Fil-A catered the conference. Photograph: Josiah Hesse/The Guardian

It’s the simplicity of the message that often captivates people like my dad, who invested not only in AmWay but in other MLMs like vitamin supplements, phone cards, gold, or phone cards with gold in them.

With these presentations, and at Life Surge, we are inundated with success stories of simple folks who went from pauperdom to prosperity, thanks to “one simple trick”. At one point at Life Surge we were presented with an algorithm that predicts stock trends – for “only a dollar a day” we could simply click “buy” or “sell” based on the program’s recommendations.

Whether subtly or overtly, this was the takeaway from every speaker’s message: that opportunities for wealth are all around us, at all times, in the stock market, real estate or internet businesses, and so climbing out of poverty is easy, having more time to spend with your family is easy, raising the funds to fully support a ministry is easy, if you’re not a sinner and are armed with the right financial knowledge and tools.

And at the end of each presentation, such knowledge and tools were offered to Life Surge ticket holders at the cost of $900 – no, wait, $500 – no, wait! Sign up now and only $99! – by hundreds of black-clad volunteers walking through the audience with clipboards.

I did not purchase the followup classes, feeling that $52 for nine hours of Christian right economics (and a Chick-Fil-A box lunch!) was sufficient to give me the Life Surge experience.

While there was significantly less materialism (only a few mentions of sports cars and mansions) than the AmWay or Oral Roberts seminars of years past, and a good deal more practical financial strategy than Tammy Faye Bakker ever offered, the Life Surge call to earn wealth in the name of spreading the gospel is just as insidious and manipulative a grift as any in the history of evangelical conmen.

It communicates that poverty is a reflection of sin, not circumstance. If attendees fail to become wealthy enough to fund missionaries, or Christian entertainment, or Christian politicians, it is explained, they will fail to convert potentially thousands to Christianity, damning them to an eternity of torture in hell.

For desperate people simply looking for an opportunity to keep their heads above water, that is a heavy weight to bear.

This article was amended on 28 October 2022 to correct the spelling of Tammy Faye Bakker’s surname.