Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Apocalypse Con

When Harold Camping predicted that the Rapture would occur on May 21st I reported on it as though he was at least sincere. After all, he'd stuck with his ministry for many years despite setbacks including a previous failed Judgment Day prophecy back in 1994, and Dispensationalists are often quite secure in their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Also, even though Camping admitted pulling in big donations he claimed that he was spending most of the money on advertising - and there was a lot of advertising, all over the country, which must have been pretty expensive.

Nonetheless, as it's coming to light just how much money Camping was able to raise with his false prophecy it's looking more and more likely that his apocalyptic predictions could simply be an elaborate confidence game. Even with a large advertising budget the millions flowing into his radio ministry were far more than would have been needed for the blitz of billboards and vans leading up to the appointed day. And while Family Radio is officially a nonprofit, there are a lot of accounting tricks that you can use to enrich yourself even when working for such an organization. For example, I haven't seen anyone reporting on what Camping's official salary is. Nonprofits are allowed to pay their employees as much as they want without any of that money counting as "profit."

Regarding the donations Camping's failed prediction racked up, CNN Money reports on the story of Eileen Heuwetter, whose aunt left about $300,000 to Camping's Family Radio when she passed away before the predicted Rapture.

When the world didn't end on May 21, many people who had given up their earthly possessions were left with nothing.

But one believer never lived to see the day. She left nearly her entire estate - around $300,000 - to the group behind the failed prediction, leaving some family members out in the cold.

Eileen Heuwetter was shocked to find out that her aunt left the majority of her estate to Family Radio, the group responsible for the doomsday warnings that the world would end on May 21. She and her sister were each left $25,000 from their aunt's estate. The rest is going to Family Radio.

The network of Christian radio stations based in Oakland, Ca., is almost entirely funded by donations. According to IRS filings, the group brought in $18 million in contributions in 2009 alone.

That's a lot of money right there, 1.7% of the ministry's entire 2009 take, from a single listener. Camping has many, many more, and it will be very interesting to see just how much his organization really made over the course of the last year and a half, and of course how much of it he and his family members personally "earned," when his tax records for 2010 and 2011 become available.

Camping announced that he was sticking with his doomsday prediction for October 21st of this year, but told the the New York Times that this time around there would be no advertising blitz.

“The world has been warned,” said Mr. Camping, who said this would be his last interview. He added that his company — which had bought billboard space nationwide to promote the May 21 date — would not promote his new prediction, Oct. 21.

“We don’t have to talk about this anymore,” he said.

The case could still be made that Camping is so utterly convinced by his Bible chronology that he won't even entertain the idea that not just his timeline but the whole idea he's working with could be wrong. It's failed a whole lot of times at this point, ever since William Miller first worked it out. But then there's this, from the same article:

But Mr. Camping said his company — which is a nonprofit — would also not return donations given by his followers in advance of the May 21 prediction. “We’re not at the end,” he said, “Why would we return it?”

Mr. Camping also said he had no plans to fold his company in advance his new doomsday date. “If it’s the end of the world, God will dissolve it,” he said.

If there's not going to be another advertising blitz, what is he planning on doing with the rest if the money? It was coming in right up to the Rapture date and probably still is, though I'm guessing at a slower rate now, so he couldn't have possibly spent it all on billboards. Maybe he's eyeing a fantastic vacation property or private jet or amazing estate that God's telling him he has to have. You know, so he can enjoy it before the end.

Jesus did once tell a rich man that in order to be saved he should give away all his possessions to the poor. But Christians considering a donation to Family Radio in light of that passage should keep in mind that at this point "the poor" cannot possibly include Harold Camping. Thanks to his apocalypse con the man is now plenty rich himself.

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V.V.F. said...

I couldn't have said any of this better myself. I was suspicious of him from the start.

Ananael Qaa said...

I was too, but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and simply made fun of his predictive abilities rather than accusing him of outright fraud.

What absolutely convinced me is that from this point on he has no plans to spend most of the money that's still coming in. So I suppose he'll just keep it for himself rather than bothering to "spread the word" any more.

Pallas Renatus said...

Endless fun :-)