Recently, Senate offices on Capitol Hill received what at first glance appears to be a routine invitation from a religious leader offering prayers on their behalf.
"On January 30th and 31st, Robert Gray will be in Washington, D.C., to introduce Pastor Benny Hinn to several senators for [a] five-minute prayer session," reads the message, which goes on to request a meeting with the senator.
"Pastor Benny Hinn is one of our most famous international citizens," continues the message, which comes from a firm run by Robert K. Gray, a former official in the Eisenhower administration who now runs a real estate company in Florida. "In addition to dozens of crusades in stateside cities in 2006, Pastor Benny personally preached to over a million citizens in major countries like Italy, Japan, England, Greece, Korea, Denmark and Australia. He also preached to several hundred thousand in areas as remote as Fiji, Trinidad and Indonesia."
Senators considering Hinn's offer might want to think twice – unless they want to have a photo op with a man widely considered to be one of the biggest charlatans among the television evangelists.
Hinn's ministry has repeatedly been the target of journalistic exposes focusing on his high-flying lifestyle, shady finances and grandiose faith-healing crusades. About two years ago, NBC's "Dateline" ran an expose on Hinn's ministry, noting that Hinn lives in a ministry-owned seven-bathroom, eight-bedroom mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean valued at $10 million. He claims this house is a "parsonage."
When traveling, Hinn stays in five-star hotels and once bedded down in a suite in a London hotel that cost more than $10,000 per night. "Dateline" also reported that Hinn once spent $1,700 in a Lebanese restaurant during a single evening out. His ministry owns a private jet, and Hinn gets around town in a Mercedes SUV and a Mercedes convertible, each costing about $80,000. He wears $800 Versace suits and routinely finds time when traveling to crusades for multi-day layovers in places like the south of France, Italy, Cancun and so on.
But perhaps even more alarming than Hinn's "prosperity gospel" is his faith healing. Over the years, NBC and other news outlets have interviewed several people whom Hinn claims to have healed of afflictions like diabetes, cancer and blindness. Follow-up visits showed that many were not truly healed. Some had even died.
A 2003 investigation by the Los Angeles Times told the story of William Vandenkolk of Las Vegas, then 11 years old and legally blind, who attended a Hinn healing crusade in 2001. Vandenkolk was brought up on stage and "healed" by Hinn, but there's just one problem: He's still blind.
"It's pretty sad when you mess with a little boy's mind," Randy Melthratter, the boy's uncle and guardian, told the Times. (For more on Hinn, visit the Trinity Foundation, an evangelical ministry that serves as a watchdog on TV evangelists.)
One of Hinn's most famous tricks is "slaying in the spirit." The people he claims to heal often fall over at his very touch. It makes for an impressive display – and critics say it all boils down to showmanship.
Financial information about Hinn's ministry is hard to come by. The Times reported that the organization brought in $160 million over a two-year period. Hinn has repeatedly refused to disclose his salary.
Hinn's ministry has never been particularly political. He seems more interested in piling up riches on Earth than endorsing candidates. But his D.C. foray could signal a change in tactics. Here's hoping senators nip it in the bud by declining to meet with him. Better yet, they could sit down with Hinn – and challenge him to explain how a man who leads such an extravagant lifestyle and gives false hope to the sick could possibly represent the founder of Christianity.