Televangelists are scummy frauds—but that doesn’t mean we should let the IRS play theologian

“All you’ve got is $1,000. Listen, that’s not enough money anyway to buy the house,” the televangelist says, his tie glistening in the studio lights.

He stares straight into the camera and presses on: “You’re trying to get in the apartment, you’re trying to buy the house, but that’s not enough money anyway. You get to that phone and you put that seed in the ground and watch God work it out.”

His language may be opaque to the uninitiated, but to regular viewers, his meaning is clear: sending him your $1,000 is like planting a seed in the ground that will eventually bloom into far more wealth than you had at the beginning. Your donation to his “ministry” will make him a little richer, but eventually, he claims, it’ll make you a lot richer.

The first half of the formula—and the first half alone—works just fine. Money rolls into televangelism ministries constantly, enriching any silver-tongued preacher who is strong on charisma and light on ethics. But the donors who faithfully give their last pennies in hopes of future blessings don’t see their surrendered savings grow into anything but a heartless rip-off, a disgusting perversion of the Christian faith.

All of this is why late-night comic John Oliver’s recent exposé of televangelists rang so true for many viewers. And yet, as Oliver summarizes, people continue to give transparently selfish organizations “lots and lots of money.”

Since Oliver’s investigation aired, shrewd observers of his program have realized that his actual target is not just unethical churches, but also the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). You see, televangelists not only get away with duping people into paying for their lavish lifestyles, luxury jets, and—all too often—secret sex scandals, but they get to do it all tax-free.

Indeed, as Oliver notes, the IRS maintains intentionally loose guidelines for what qualifies as a church (and therefore is eligible for tax exemption). This key paragraph, which Oliver quotes, comes straight from the horse’s mouth:

The IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held by those professing them and the practices and rites associated with the organization’s belief or creed are not illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy.

Beyond this hands-off approach to doctrine, the IRS has a list of defining characteristics and prohibitions that it says legitimate churches should generally meet and avoid, respectively. The prohibitions—especially avoiding political campaigning—tend to get more attention than the characteristics, meaning it’s not super hard to get tax-exempt status as a church as long as you keep away from explicit political activism.

Oliver doesn’t get into too much detail about what sort of legal remedy he’d like to see the IRS implement, but he clearly wants some sort of action to be taken. In fact, he made a fake church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, in an effort to taunt the IRS into accelerating its currently almost non-existent activity.

So far, the federal agency hasn’t taken the bait, but it’s hardly inconceivable that Oliver’s celebrity endorsement could lead to actual tax law changes. After all, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley pushed for something similar back in 2011.

It should go without saying that Oliver’s critique of televangelism itself is dead-on, but it would be even more ridiculous to let the IRS start deciding what does or doesn’t count as a legitimate church.

As Rabbi Jack Moline wrote in response to Oliver’s exposé, “Religious life thrives in America precisely because the government plays no role in deciding what is or is not a legitimate faith.”

“[T]he common sense of most people will alert them to the absurdities of religious practitioners who take advantage of these freedoms,” Moline adds, “And when that fails, we count on you to point out those who are misusing the trappings of faith for personal or political gain.”

Oliver has done good work highlighting the absurdity of prosperity gospel televangelists. But it would be a grave mistake were we to enlist the IRS to fix the problem over which he is so rightly outraged.

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