Imagine a husband and wife starting up a business in Texas with far-reaching TV advertising. Their business model is to recruit people to send them money, and in exchange they promise that someone else they have no ties to will not only refund that money, but pay them bonuses as a result of their investment. Now imagine that if this third party doesn’t pay up as promised, the husband and wife face no penalties. Annoyed yet? It gets better; the business and any money sent to them is tax-free for the husband and wife, as well as the land and home they live in/on. Finally, imagine millions of people, primarily families with heavy financial challenges, supplying them with over $300,000 each year through this business model, and not a penny of that is paid back as promised. Now imagine that everything I’ve said so far is perfectly legal.
That’s precisely the source of frustration for Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver as he explained the business model and inner workings of televangelists who preach what is known as the “Prosperity Gospel.” This line of teaching pushes the idea that donating to one’s church is proof of one’s faith in the Christian God and that riches are a sign of God’s favor. This simultaneously operates as a way to receive money from Christians as well as justification for their own affluence.
I don’t need to be religious to know that the Bible they preach about has a lot to say in contrast to their philosophies.
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” –Matthew 6:24
“For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” –Luke 18:25
“For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.” –James 1:11
All quotes from Holy Bible, English Standard Version
This aside, however, it’s truly easy to see that this type of “business model” shouldn’t be legal in any form, but the IRS’ generous loopholes for churches permits a lot of abuse that is constantly overlooked or justified in some manner. And, as John Oliver says,
“All of this would be amusing if the targets of these messages were not often vulnerable people…”
Growing up, I remember our family had significant credit card debt, yet somehow my mother always managed to send money to her “spiritual father,” a Texas-based Televangelist named Kenneth Copeland. I remember her being annoyed that I wanted her to send money to PBS (I was six and wanted Cookie Monster to eat my name, so my intentions weren’t exactly what they are today) because she had already sent money to Copeland and that was more important. It’s sad to think about today from her perspective, as sending money to a millionaire with private jets and a huge untaxed home with no promise (or actuality) of return was a higher priority than funding my favorite educational shows like Sesame Street, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and others.
In one of his most recent videos, John Oliver nails the Prosperity Doctrine’s exploitation of the poor for the benefit of these Televangelists. He goes over the IRS loopholes that allow this to happen and starts correspondence with one of these churches and shows the great and often absurd lengths they will go to get your cash. By the end of the episode, he reveals that he even started his own church to show how easy it is to begin scamming the populace out of its money. His church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, is a fully legal church that was apparently not very difficult to establish. He badgers watchers for money in tongue-in-cheek fashion, but according to The Washington Post, thousands of dollars in donations have poured in (plus some grass seed and jerky).
Oliver’s goal was to “set up my own church to test the legal and financial limits of what religious entities are able to do.” I personally hope the IRS takes notice and puts their foot down on abusive religious organizations (not just televangelists, but the politicking pulpits as well). Please note that this is not targeting churches who spend most of their money on food drives, shelters, and other good works. The IRS’ attention needs to be on those megachurches whose owners obviously profit off the desperation of his or her “sheep.”
Watch the full video below.