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A Virginia pastor was convicted of fraud after government officials uncovered his multi-year, $740,000 scheme to supposedly build a Christian theme park called “Miracle Mansion.” Michael Mandel Baldwin wasn’t actually building that park, though. He was pocketing the cash.

According to the indictment from 2021, Baldwin started this scheme in 2009 when he created videos and other promotional materials to sell Christians on his vision of “Miracle Mansion,” a place that would “provide a high-quality performing arts experience that promotes family-focused inspiration, entertaining and enrichment anchored by a Biblical worldview.” Among other things, he said the 73-acre complex needed 7,300 people to give $73 a month for 73 months. (If you do the math, that would have come out to $38,901,700.)

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To get Christians on his side, he told them he already had support from high-ranking executives at Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A. (He did not.)

He managed to convince one pastor and his congregation to fork over lots of money. Instead of depositing those checks in the bank account for the business, however, he put them in his personal account. As both accounts got larger, he began making “Ponzi type payments,” using cash in hand to pay back earlier investors. The fraud eventually ballooned to over $800,000.

On Thursday, a federal jury found Baldwin guilty of wire fraud and securities fraud. He now faces up to 40 years behind bars and fines of up to $5,250,000.

“Baldwin’s Miracle Mansion was a house of lies,” said U.S. Attorney [Dena J.] King in announcing the guilty verdict. “Using Biblical themes and empty promises to cover up the fraud, Baldwin engaged in an extensive scheme that caused significant monetary losses to his victims. My office is committed to uncovering investment fraud and ensuring that perpetrators like Baldwin face the criminal justice system.”

Why was it so easy for Baldwin to deceive so many people? Did the victims do their due diligence before making an investment or did they just trust a confident man with a church background who claimed to want to spread the Gospel?

I hope the pastors who supported this plan ask themselves why it took secular authorities to see through Baldwin’s lies when they couldn’t. The conversations should’ve ended with the words “Christian theme park.”

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.