John Oliver scored a major success on Sunday when he took on televangelists – but you could argue that is inherently more of a "soft target" than, say, Argentinian debt, which he has also examined. Yes, I wonder as well why it takes a comedy show to address these issues.
People often ask me how these televangelists get away with their clearly outlandish money grabs. Let me tell you about the unlikely guy who actually tried to take them on, was crushed in the process and eventually ended up coming to their defense.
Consider the tale of U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). In 2007 Grassley, then a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, asked six major televangelists to answer some questions about how they’d accumulated their vast wealth – and how they spent it.
Remember, these aren’t your typical tycoons. These men are technically ministers, and they represent tax-exempt churches. Grassley’s inquiry, which did not even include subpoenas, was more than fair.
But the Religious Right went bonkers. Our old friend, the Alliance Defending Freedom, condemned the investigation. Its chief solicitor, Gary McCaleb, said, “From the get-go he's acted more like an investigator and not at all like a senator on this and that’s unnerving. He has a right to get facts, but this has looked, felt and smelled like an enforcement action.”
And the televangelists themselves? Most claimed Grassley’s investigation violated their rights. As AU’s Rob Boston wrote at the time, Bishop Eddie Long, who earned roughly $1 million a year, called it “an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights.”
Creflo Dollar, lampooned by Oliver for attempting to raise money to buy a $65 million private jet, questioned the constitutionality of Grassley’s actions.
“Are we saying the First Amendment is null and void by allowing this to happen?” he asked the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Fundamentalists were so outraged, in fact, that they banded together to deny Grassley a seat in the Iowa delegation at the next year's Republican National Convention.
One or two ministries did give him a modest amount of information. Eventually, the senator closed the investigation, saying that it hadn’t produced “definitive proof” of wrong-doing. That doesn’t mean, however, that wrong-doing hadn’t occurred then, or still occurs now.
I recall being on a major Christian radio program where I debated a prominent conservative lawyer every month. This usually resulted in a spate of unpleasant voicemails and other communications from very conservative listeners. But when we hosted a show on this very topic, every single caller agreed that Grassley did nothing inappropriate.
They made the points that seemed like common sense to me: Christian groups ought to be completely transparent for the sake of their donors, and Grassley just wanted to make sure that money was being used for community purposes and not personal gratification. The IRS allows you to make all kinds of outlandish claims, but you’re not supposed to use tax-exempt donations for what tax lawyers call “inurement:” raking in mounds of donations and using it to enrich yourself. If a secular non-profit does that, the IRS will take action. These TV preachers get away with it all of the time.
Well, Grassley learned his lesson; no hearings were held. Worse yet, he decided that these religious non-profits were being mistreated by the tax code--because they were not allowed to endorse candidates from the pulpit or otherwise use contributions for partisan political purposes.
Meanwhile, abuses occur unchecked, and it’s time for the IRS to act. And this wouldn’t require much effort from the agency. All it needs to do is name a senior official who will have the authority to initiate audits when there is strong evidence of possible abuses of tax-exempt status.
This is something we’ve repeatedly ask the IRS to do when it comes to pulpit politicking. We’ve filed more than 120 complaints that are, I fear, collecting dust on a bureaucrat’s desk because this one simple alteration has not been made.
Because the IRS won’t crack down on clear cases of church intervention in partisan elections, it sends the message to televangelists and other unscrupulous figures: You’re free to flaunt the law however you please.