He wears elegant silk suits, he drives a $350,000 Bentley, he lives in a $10 million oceanfront mansion, and he flies around the world in a private jet. Is he a billionaire investor, a corporate CEO, or a Hollywood celebrity? None of the above, it turns out. He's a pastor of one of the six mega-churches which are a target of an investigation by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who has requested a mountain of financial information from them. All six ministries preach the Gospel of Prosperity, the message that God bestows earthly riches on the faithful. (1) They are Benny Hinn's World Healing Center; the Rev. Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church; Paul and Randy White's Without Walls International Church; Joyce Meyer Ministries; Kenneth Copeland Ministries; and Bishop Eddie Long's Ministry.
Senator Grassley got leads about possible abuses of the tax-exempt status of these Gospel-of-Prosperity churches from reporters and whistleblowers. He assures us that his investigation is not "an attack on ministries in particular or tax-exempt groups in general. The strong majority of non-profit groups, including churches," the Senator says, "operate above-board and perform good works that make their tax exemption a bargain for the American people." (2) "(But), he continues, when I hear about leaders of charities being provided a $300,000 Bentley to drive around in, my fear is that it's the taxpayers who subsidize this charity who are really being taken for a ride." (3)
It will be difficult for the targeted ministries to impugn Senator Grassley's motives for three reasons: firstly, he is a darling of the religious right who got an 87% approval rating by the conservative Family Research Council in 2006; secondly, after 9/11 he spearheaded investigations into secular charities such as the Red Cross and the Smithsonian Institution; and thirdly, many members of the evangelical community are as suspicious about the targeted ministries as Senator Grassley is.
For instance, Ole Anthony, head of the Texas-based Trinity Foundation, an evangelical group which has spoken out for years against the lack of financial transparency by television ministries, welcomes Senator Grassley's initiative and says that it wouldn't be necessary if the established churches had stood up to the televangelists over the years. (4) Interestingly, none of the six targeted ministries belong to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a voluntary oversight group of Christian ministries to ensure transparency and compliance with the law.
It remains to be seen whether the information sought by Senator Grassley will be provided by the mega-churches. A December 2007 deadline came and went with only two of the ministries submitting any of the requested documents. Rev. Dollar openly defied the request for information. Rev. Long said that he considers the Senator's request "an attack on...religious freedom and privacy rights." (5) Senator Grassley is unlikely to relent, however. He says that his goal is to ensure that money that is donated under the tax exemption is used according to the law for legitimate non-profit purposes and not to enrich church officials. (6) My suspicion is that we've seen only the first skirmish in a protracted war. In reminding evangelists that they are not above the law, Senator Grassley has taken an important step which deserves our support and encouragement.
- Rob Boston, "Prophets, Profits, and Federal Tax Law," Church & State, January 2008, p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 4
- Ibid., p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 5.
© 2008 Tom Shipka