Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a lifelong Christian and conservative, has worked hard over the last few months to shore up Donald Trump’s bona fides on the religious right, addressing groups of evangelicals and making bold promises on issues like abortion. But on Thursday, he may be putting a dent in the Trump campaign’s promise to “save the middle class.” The Republican vice presidential nominee will be speaking at a mega-church whose founding pastor has been accused by some of his congregants of causing church members to lose thousands of dollars on bad investments—in part by preaching a philosophy that tied members’ donations to the church to God’s blessing of their investments.
Pence will be holding a campaign rally at the Living Word Bible Church in Mesa, Arizona. The church was founded by Dr. Tom Anderson and today has a congregation of about 8,000, a $10 million property with three sanctuaries, and two additional locations in the Phoenix area.
Anderson has made a name for himself by preaching about prosperity, both at his church and in his writings. His best-selling book, Becoming a Millionaire God’s Way, seeks to give Christians both the financial tools and the biblical context they need to achieve prosperity. The book argues that God alone won’t provide abundance—hard work and smart investments are also necessary—but that investing in God by tithing will help Christians achieve earthly prosperity.
“What should you invest in?” Anderson asks in the book. “The first thing should be in God. Get into the habit of taking your tithes and offerings off the top of your paycheck. Next, pay yourself. Lastly, pay expenses. If there is not enough money to do all three, then leave yourself out and pay God first, then expenses.”
He adds later, “You can give what you feel like giving, but if you don’t tithe ten percent, the devil will steal what you have.”
In the book, Anderson explains that although the tithe required by scripture is 10 percent of a person’s income, there are biblical examples of figures giving “offerings” beyond that amount—and prospering proportionately as a result. “The tithe protected their possessions,” he writes of one biblical anecdote. “The rest of the offering brought blessing.”
According to Don Enevoldsen, a former member of the church, Anderson brought similar ideas to the Living Word Bible Church—and some congregants suffered financially by following them.
Enevoldsen ghost-wrote several of Anderson’s books, including Becoming a Millionaire God’s Way, and he summed up Anderson’s philosophy to the local CBS affiliate in 2012: “If you tithe, God will protect all your stuff so the Devil can’t take it away from you. If you give offerings over and above the tithe, which would be 10 percent of your income, that opens the windows of heaven and pours out a blessing and you have to invest in something for that blessing to have something to multiply, and that investment would usually be real estate.”
Enevoldsen said that Anderson would give specific financial advice, recommending profitable neighborhoods for real estate investments, telling his followers when to buy and sell houses and cars, and providing stock-market advice. He told CBS that many of the congregants followed Anderson’s advice—and when the economy crashed, they still believed their investments were good “because God would bless their investments because they had tithed and gave offerings.” Enevoldsen said some congregants “ended up upside down a half-million dollars or more in just a matter of a month or two because they believed what the pastor said.”
Anderson did not respond to a list of questions from Mother Jones. He acknowledged to CBS that people have lost money following his advice, “because stuff happens in this world. It just means that whatever you get stolen you can get back seven times.”
Another former member of the church, Preston Gaiser, told CBS that he lost $60,000. While working as a personal security guard for Anderson at the church, Gaiser says he became close with Anderson and followed his advice to take out equity on his current house to buy another one, which he then planned to resell in three to six months. Even after losing money on that investment, Gaiser told CBS he kept listening to Anderson, because he believed that God would reward his tithes and improve the situation.
Anderson has also discussed his teachings internationally. In his 2010 book, C Street, author Jeff Sharlet describes how Ugandan associates of the Fellowship, a US-based religious group with ties to Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill, invited Anderson and his son to come to Uganda to preach about prosperity. “Both men were going to instruct Ugandans on how to get wealthy by getting godly,” Sharlet writes. A leader of the country’s anti-gay movement summed up Anderson’s talk to a Ugandan reporter. It included the gospel of punctuality, the gospel of work, the gospel of God-fearing, and “the Gospel of Purity: Ugandans, he said, have a special opportunity. They can stop the homosexuals before they get started.”
Update, September 27: The Living Word Bible Church responded by email to Mother Jones’ list of questions on Monday evening. “The allegations from Don Enevoldsen and channel 5 are false,” wrote Pastor Jason Anderson, Tom Anderson’s son. “Pastor Tom’s sermons never specifically identified an investment for people but always mentioned for people to pray and ask God before making decisions.” He added that Tom Anderson spoke about wealth “only a few months every three to four years,” that many congregants who attended the church “would happily refute such claims,” that “many investors lost money during the real-estate crash in Arizona and in the nation,” and that there have been no court filings by members of the church alleging the loss of money based on the pastor’s advice. He also said that Tom Anderson retired from his position as pastor of Living Word in 2015. (As of this writing, he’s still listed on the church’s “Meet the Pastors” page.)