The wretched, venal life of Rev. Ike
Even in death, Rev. Ike tried to keep the hustle going that made him a millionaire many times over. "In lieu of flowers," Ike Ministries announced before its scheming patriarch was cold to the touch, "Rev. Ike would ask that tributes and/or Offerings be sent to: Rev. Ike Ministries ..."
The Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II -- that's "Rev. Ike" to us rubes -- died last week in Los Angeles from complications of a stroke he suffered two years ago. He was 74. We were so consumed with the White House beer summit, the health care debate and the president's slipping poll numbers that the passing of one of the nation's most remarkable scoundrels almost slipped by without notice.
Rev. Ike was a staple of AM radio when I was teenager in the 1970s. His sermons from the pulpit of the United Church Science of Living Institute in New York could be heard on 1,770 radio and television stations across the country. An estimated 2.5 million people tuned in every week to hear why enlightened greed and self-interest was closer to godliness than what our parents and Sunday school teachers taught us. He was our generation's Father Divine -- a media-savvy African-American huckster who made up the rules of the prosperity gospel as he went along.
It helps to think of the prosperity gospel movement in terms of the early history of rock 'n' roll:
Norman Vincent Peale would be the movement's Hank Williams. Rev. Ike is its Little Richard. Benny Hinn is its Bo Diddley. Robert Schuller is Chuck Berry. Ernest Angley is Chubby Checker. Jim Bakker is Buddy Holly. Jimmy Swaggart is Jerry Lee Lewis and Joel Osteen is Elvis. Creflo Dollar, Rev. Ike's most slavish imitator, is either Jackie Wilson or James Brown.
Unlike many of his contemporaries and rivals, Rev. Ike never claimed he was a "Christian minister," though he could fill Madison Square Garden with money-grubbing acolytes as fast as any preacher. "This is the do-it-yourself church," he would say tossing aside the Apostle Paul and channeling Ayn Rand. "The only savior in this philosophy is God in you."
When it came to the worship of Mammon, Rev. Ike was as transparent as they come. "It is the lack of money that is the root of all evil," he used to say. "The best thing you can do for the poor is not to be one of them." Decades ahead of Oprah and the author of "The Secret" in the mainstreaming of greed as a middle-class virtue, Rev. Ike's theology was indistinguishable from the fever dream of the most unrepentant capitalist: "Forget about the pie-in-the-sky; get yours here and now."
Thanks to an inverted gospel that despises the poor and exalts the rich, those of us who bothered to watch him on the blurry UHF channels for laughs learned that President Grover Cleveland's face graces every $1,000 bill. Rev. Ike used to preach in front of wall-sized blow-ups of those bills, wiping the sweat from his brow with handkerchiefs that cost more than what most of his parishioners made in a day. Clearly, money was the only denomination he truly respected.
There was never any doubt about which side Rev. Ike was on when it came to the dispute between Jesus and the money changers in the Temple of Jerusalem. Rev. Ike was always the one yelling that Jesus had no right to shut down his business. He would have argued that God personally told him that turning the Temple into a den of thieves didn't violate any zoning laws. After that incident, he would have gone out of his way to attend Jesus' early morning trial weeks later to make sure his feelings about the anarchist were well known. He would have been the first to shout: "Guilty, guilty!"
In the end, Rev. Ike shuffled from this mortal coil without his fleet of 16 Rolls Royces, mansions or the millions he extorted from his gullible flock over the decades. In parodying Jesus, he used to joke that if it was difficult for a rich man to get into heaven, it would be impossible for a poor man. "He doesn't even have a bribe for a gatekeeper," Rev. Ike would say, generating laughter among his pigeons.
There is an old biblical verse that comes to mind whenever I hear folks like Rev. Ike or fearmongers on right-wing talk radio hawking gold or other financial investment schemes to save them: "You say 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked."
Rev. Ike is dead, but, alas, the spirit that made his lies so compelling lives on.
First Published August 4, 2009 12:00 am