Just tell me why we should refrain from pointing to the wealth amassed by religious personalities like the late Rev. Berniece Hicks.

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The Main Street “house” owned by the late Rev. Hicks is up for sale.

Meanwhile in Indianapolis, I believe Session 5 of the estate auction is scheduled in October.

Even the auctioneer is thunderstruck.

In nearly 30 years as an auctioneer, I’ve never seen a collection as large as this one”, said Darin Lawson, CAI, President, Wickliff Auctioneers. “Our staff is eager to begin the process of sorting and cataloguing all items, and making them available for worldwide bidding.”

Hicks was a preacher, and she had a church. Maybe she owned the church; maybe it owned her. Obviously she owned lots of stuff. One needn’t devote hours of research to grasp that the church Hicks founded has been controversial almost from the beginning, as this front page from 1979 attests.

Note the effort made 40 years ago by the Courier-Journal to get Hicks’ and her church’s side of the story (naturally the News and Tribune didn’t bother in the aftermath of Hicks’ death, preferring the usual platitudes), and indeed, even I am compelled to admit there are two sides.

I heard from local residents over the weekend who’ve lost family members to what they consider is a cult. Others have spoken of love and service to mankind.

And: A million dollar house in New Albany, and a collection of valuable so vast that is makes a luxury auctioneer’s head spin.

I’m an atheist, and my skepticism pertaining to religion predates all the other aspects of my life (travel, beer, politics, small business ownership) that readers may know about me.

From mainline mega-churches old and new to Christianity’s hundreds of bizarre splinter sects, about the only points of agreement amid the cacophony is derision toward rationalists like me.

I’ve no desire to proselytize non-belief — it doesn’t even make sense to do so — but from my perspective as an onlooker, the “prosperity gospel” alibi used to shield personages like Hicks surely is the most cynical P.T. Barnum-like of all notions somehow derived from the figure of Jesus as handed down to us. Even a cursed, filthy, drunken atheist can read desert scrawlings and conclude that the Jesus narrative, real or contrived, had nothing to do with wealth accumulation. 

But didn’t all those church members tithe voluntarily?

I’m sure many did, although in any power structure there’s a long discussion to be had about the nature of “voluntary,” because it’s seldom all that simple. Significantly, even if the members tithed “voluntarily,” this fact in itself tells us nothing about the manner by which their faith was manipulated and their money spent.

Lifestyles of the ostentatiously rich and pious? Okay, but don’t expect me to look the other way. 

Following is an excerpt from Elmer Gantry, the classic satirical novel, which makes this point in gripping fashion.

Elmer Gantry, the traveling evangelist who loved whiskey, women and wealth, was conceived by Sinclair Lewis in a best-selling 1927 novel. Lewis went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Gantry went on to lofty-synonym status: Displays of hypocrisy and showmanship will often evoke his name, especially in reference to preachers — and, increasingly so, to politicians.

In this passage, the garrulous wealth-accumulating charlatan preacher Gantry converses with the humble and impoverished true believer, Pastor Pengilly – and it happens in Indiana, of all places.

He came with a boom and a flash to the town of Blackfoot Creek, Indiana, and there the local committee permitted the Methodist minister, one Andrew Pengilly, to entertain his renowned brother priest … when he heard that the Reverend Elmer Gantry was coming, Mr. Pengilly murmured to the local committee that it would be a pleasure to put up Mr. Gantry and save him from the scurfy village hotel.

He had read of Mr. Gantry as an impressive orator, a courageous fighter against Sin. Mr. Pengilly sighed. Himself, somehow, he had never been able to find so very much Sin about. His fault. A silly old dreamer. He rejoiced that he, the mousy village curé, was about to have here, glorifying his cottage, a St. Michael in dazzling armor.

After the evening Chautauqua Elmer sat in Mr. Pengilly’s hovel, and he was graciously condescending.

“You say, Brother Pengilly, that you’ve heard of our work at Wellspring? But do we get so near the hearts of the weak and unfortunate as you here? Oh, no; sometimes I think that my first pastorate, in a town smaller than this, was in many ways more blessed than our tremendous to-do in the great city. And what IS accomplished there is no credit to me. I have such splendid, such touchingly loyal assistants — Mr. Webster, the assistant pastor — such a consecrated worker, and yet right on the job — and Mr. Wink, and Miss Weezeger, the deaconess, and DEAR Miss Bundle, the secretary — SUCH a faithful soul, SO industrious. Oh, yes, I am singularly blessed! But, uh, but — Given these people, who really do the work, we’ve been able to put over some pretty good things — with God’s leading. Why, say, we’ve started the only class in show-window dressing in any church in the United States — and I should suppose England and France! We’ve already seen the most wonderful results, not only in raising the salary of several of the fine young men in our church, but in increasing business throughout the city and improving the appearance of show-windows, and you know how much that adds to the beauty of the down-town streets! And the crowds do seem to be increasing steadily. We had over eleven hundred present on my last Sunday evening in Zenith, and that in summer! And during the season we often have nearly eighteen hundred, in an auditorium that’s only supposed to seat sixteen hundred! And with all modesty — it’s not my doing but the methods we’re working up — I think I may say that every man, woman, and child goes away happy and yet with a message to sustain ’em through the week. You see — oh, of course I give ’em the straight old-time gospel in my sermon — I’m not the least bit afraid of talking right up to ’em and reminding them of the awful consequences of sin and ignorance and spiritual sloth. Yes, sir! No blinking the horrors of the old-time proven Hell, not in any church I’M running! But also we make ’em get together, and their pastor is just one of their own chums, and we sing cheerful, comforting songs, and do they like it? Say! It shows up in the collections!”

“Mr. Gantry,” said Andrew Pengilly, “why don’t you believe in God?”

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