Probing the Prosperity Gospel

I’m surprised that this story, “Going After the Money Ministries“, hasn’t gotten much attention on atheist blogs. Earlier this month, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, and Paula White – six notorious televangelists who preach the “prosperity gospel” – received an ominous letter from Senator Chuck Grassley, ranking Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee, asking them to account for numerous expenditures whose tax-exempt status seems questionable.

These items include jewelry, luxury clothing, cosmetic surgery (!), private planes, flights to Hawaii and Fiji, and most famously, in the case of Joyce Meyer, a $23,000 marble-topped commode. It wasn’t clear from context whether this was referring to a chest of drawers or a toilet. (Sen. Grassley’s website has copies of the letters sent to each televangelist.)

I’m surprised that a Republican would launch such an investigation, but separation of church and state needs all the friends it can get. And Sen. Grassley has certainly picked some large, juicy targets. As tax-exempt organizations, these ministries must use the contributions they take in to further a tax-exempt purpose. Diversions of those contributions for personal use of their leaders would violate the law, and it seems probable that this has happened here. I’d add Richard Roberts as another preacher whose secretive activities are just crying out for investigation.

Of course, it’s no news flash for freethinkers that powerful religious leaders almost always live in tremendous opulence and luxury. That goes double for “prosperity gospel” preachers, who teach that God will reward those who give as much cash as they possibly can to his self-appointed representatives on Earth. These televangelists are obsessed with money and shamelessly exploit the faith and gullibility of their flocks to enrich themselves. Sen. Grassley’s letters give a rare glimpse into the immense wealth and comfort these humbug artists enjoy, all the while telling their poor, struggling followers that they must give more than they can afford if they want to receive their heavenly reward.

Predictably, the friends of darkness are already crying religious persecution:

Remarks Charles Haynes, senior scholar with the First Amendment Center: “I’m worried that [the six] might be used to push for stringent transparency regulations that would affect all religious groups. They are extreme, and extreme cases can lead to bad law.”

Mr. Dollar said that he would comply, but that he planned to consult legal professors and scholars first. “The questions at hand are much bigger than World Changers,” he said, “as it could affect the privacy of every community church in America.”

To this, I say: yes, we should enact transparency regulations governing churches, and by all means, they should be as stringent as possible. Churches receive one of the most lucrative gifts a government can give – near-complete freedom from taxation. As I’ve said previously, I oppose that; but if we’re going to continue giving churches tax exemptions, then yes, they should absolutely be subject to strict rules governing accountability and disclosure, as any group that receives such a privilege should be. If anything, the situation we find now is usually the opposite, with churches getting away with bad behavior and sloppy bookkeeping that would never be tolerated from other kinds of tax-exempt groups.

I hope Senator Grassley hauls every one of these money-grubbing preacher hypocrites before his panel and questions them, under oath and in detail, about exactly what their followers’ contributions have been used for. Such a probe would be a welcome ray of sunlight into the heretofore dark recesses of these organizations, and would give us a glimpse of just how deep the rot of corruption and hypocrisy runs. When a preacher claims to be accountable only to God and not to the scrutiny of his fellow human beings, rest assured, there’s a good reason for it.

On Financial Independence
How Religious Bigotry Was Beaten Back in Indiana
Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
No, Belief in Satan Doesn't Make Us Moral
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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