This article belongs to Great American Dumb Ideas column.

Television religion is a hugely profitable American business.


Organizations like Focus on the Family and the 700 Club beg and wheedle millions of dollars from Americans each year. They pay few taxes because Americans can't seem to realize that religion is a profit-making entertainment business. It is a business that sells what it doesn't have (spirituality) to a huge, uneducated and insecure population that would not understand or want what they need if they got it. Sadly, shopping at Wal-Mart and eating at McDonald's are spiritual experiences for millions of Americans, and that's about as good as it gets.


In the beginning: America was founded by Christian religious fanatics, trouble makers who, quite properly, were not wanted in England and Europe. In the days before television in America, enterprising preachers traveled around setting up their tents and attracting the local people to their miracle shows. Americans have always been noisy church members, and more Americans than almost all other modern countries believe Darwin was wrong, that the earth and all the different species appeared only in the recent past in their present form.


The Appeal: Insecurity dwells within a majority of Americans because, of course, the public school system is a disaster. Public schools dump people out early or leave them thinking they are educated when, in fact, they have little skill or knowledge. While knowing very little about the world and how it works, most Americans are taught to believe that America is number one in everything. Befuddlement and insecurity haunt us when life doesn't work out as promised, when pain and disease strike, when a war is lost, when leaders lie, cheat and steal, or when the power goes off and the television stops working. We have to send our skilled jobs out of the country or import well educated people to keep us going.


The first thing the preachers do is try to convince us that there is something morally wrong with us, and then they flatter us and promise wonderful rewards in life (or in heaven). They act as feel-good therapists whose happy effects wear off quickly and must be renewed at least weekly.


Many popular preachers turn out to have hypocritical secret sex lives or are financially corrupt. Back in 1988, Jimmy Swaggart was exposed for his use of prostitutes. Head of a major religious movement, he resigned from his ministry after pictures were taken of him with a prostitute. Sobbing crocodile tears, he confessed his sins on television to his congregation. He's back now, of course, on weekly television and radio shows, back in the big bucks selling religion and gospel albums. One of his spiritual goals these days seems to be to kill homosexuals.


Jim and Tammy Bakker broke up when Jim went to jail for financial crimes. Tammy tried, but was unable to reestablish herself as a TV preacher. The Bakkers once worked for Pat Robertson, boss of the popular 700 Club. Robertson made friends with Mobutu Sese Seko, the criminal dictator of Zaire, a man who died in exile. Pretending to send charity to Zaire, Robertson bought diamond mines and used his air fleet to transport not material for starving people, but machinery for his mines.


Robertson is a multimillionaire living off the donations of suckers, over a million of who tune in to his daily broadcasts. He has advocated the killing of foreign leaders such as Hugo Chavez, and he claimed that recent severe storms visited cities like New Orleans as God's punishment. The man will say anything to hold the attention of his mindless, impoverished viewers. He uses the money to influence politicians, and he thrives on our hunger for controversy, tension and sensationalism.


If a million daily viewers sent only a few dollars every month, think of the wealth just for running a big mouth.


Then there's the recent flap over the teleligion preacher Ted Haggard, also a rich man. As head of the National Association of Evangelicals, he preached against homosexuality while abusing drugs and visiting with a male prostitute. In what is certainly a miracle, he was recently turned into a real heterosexual in only three weeks of therapy by other ministers.


Making money on it: You could start, perhaps, with a store front church if you register with the government as a religious organization. Get on the new community low power FM stations springing up across the country. If you have a church or get on TV, you'll need to invest in a good organ, recruit a well-costumed choir, decorate with lots of flowers, and learn to perform miracles on stage with a few friendly stooges.


It will help to be tall, good looking and have curly hair. Carry a big Bible around as you preach, and encourage lots of audience participation. Make the people feel special, but in need of saving, and then offer your path to salvation (send money). Lecture against things people most love or need, things such as abortion, buying prostitutes, pornography, and greed. You know, the things you'll want to do yourself when you get rich. It's an old formula, and it works every time.


Visit the second hand store and stock up on canes, crutches, eye glasses and, if you really feel the spirit, a few artificial legs and arms. Use these to decorate your stage; they will provide the proof that you can work miracles. Speaking of a stage, this profession is only for people with some acting ability. Honest, shy introverts need not apply.


It never stops with just making money. Sooner or later, the desire for power and control will grow in your mind. You will want to tamper with government, public education and join with major corporations so you can contract your own army of Christian Storm Troopers to take over the country.


The price: The investment is usually small. Pat Robertson started with only few bucks in his pocket. You could set yourself up in an old church or storefront for just a few thousand dollars. Many radio stations specialize in religious broadcasting and have air time to fill. Sooner or later you will need a creative accountant and a good lawyer.


Is there a better idea? This is a field where morality doesn't count. The very last thing you want to be is a basic, honest Christian. If you were seriously interested in religion and in helping others, you would enroll in a program leading to a real degree in theology, join an established church, and spend the rest of you life doing the Lord's work quietly and modestly. You might, in the extreme, take a vow of poverty and - hope of all hopes - a vow of silence.


Better ideas for all of us include taxing the teleligionists as businesses, forcing them to label their productions as potentially harmful to mental health, and making them responsible for their nonsensical claims.


Next month: Disneyism