A few weeks ago on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver exposed televangelists—evangelical preachers whose sole purpose is to get on TV and ask for funds for their ministries—who prey on the sick, poor, and desperate in order to line their own pockets, funding lavish lifestyles that include mansions, airplanes, cars, vacations, and more.
Toward the end of the segment, which quickly went viral, Oliver revealed that he had incorporated his own church without any restrictions. Called “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption,” it worships the deity of the powerful and lenient IRS. Oliver said he would begin accepting “seed money” to build his new church, which would help him to cure people’s ailments.
If that seems like a comedic bit, perhaps the most terrifying thing should be how little John Oliver had to act for the sketch. He merely repeated things that real televangelists, such as Creflo Dollar, Robert Tilton, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Kenneth Copeland, have actually said.
Those televangelists follow the model of “prosperity gospel” in which they believe that wealth is a sign of God’s favor, and that by simply believing and praying for money—in addition to donating copious amounts of money to various Christian ministries—is what will take you there. This is actually a rare belief among fundamentalists, with only 7 percent of evangelical Protestant leaders saying that they believe in the concepts of prosperity theology. The 7 percent who do, however, have amassed a large amount of wealth, power, and huge audiences to beg for donations.
Not surprisingly, most of the victims of this harmful prosperity doctrine are those in the poor and working class—it’s like a monstrous pyramid scam of religions. They see prosperity theology as a supernatural lottery, which isn’t shocking, considering that 61 percent of people who play the lottery are from the poorest one-fifths of the population. But these televangelists claim that your faith, your very soul, is tied into giving “positive confessions.” And the fact that you are poor isn’t just bad luck: it’s not having enough faith, not praying enough, and, of course, not giving a big enough donation to their ministry.
How do televangelists get away with this? It’s easy. It’s the same method the Church of Scientology employs: getting 501(c)(3) status and declaring your corrupt, poor-robbing business model a “ministry,” which, as John Oliver demonstrated, is a painfully simple process. They then ask for large tax-exempt donations and keep as much of it as possible to buy acres of land, mansions, and jets worth $65 million. Joel Osteen, pastor of megachurch Lakewood Church in Texas, for example, lives in a 17,000 square foot home worth $10.5 million dollars. His entire net worth is estimated to be about $40 million.
The greed of scheming televangelists is just another symptom of a predatory line of thinking among the rich and powerful driven to further atrociousness by attaching the name of God to their actions. Just as Josh Duggar preyed on his sisters and hid his infidelity behind his position of power and fame, offering an apology only when he was caught, there’s a level of horrific hypocrisy espoused by those who claim to live for God and then go on to repeatedly take advantage of the people around them.
Josh isn’t the only one. Christian vloggers Sam and Nia Rader are willing to go to untold depths to gain wealth and fame at the sake of the privacy of their families: from Sam stealing his wife’s urine to get a positive pregnancy test to immediately broadcasting the details of their miscarriage for page views—over 4.6 million of them, in fact. In a faith-based vlogging community where videos about babies can make the difference for gaining higher levels of profit, it seems recording your children’s every move with or without their consent is just another way to get more money under the guise of evangelism (all the while, like Josh Duggar, having a paid Ashley Madison account). Unfortunately, far too many evangelicals continue to exploit vulnerable people to gain more wealth.
My grandparents, now retired, once owned a church bookkeeping business. The majority of their clients were small churches trying to stay afloat who needed help figuring out how to get started, keep online records when they didn’t know how to use computers, and make sure their bills were paid and forms were filed. However, they did experience their fair share of money-minded ministers who were out there hustling. A ceremonial sword given to them by Jim Bakker, a televangelist known for his involvement in sex scandals and fraud, hung proudly in their office.
One of their occasional clients was a man by the name of Phil Driscoll, a former resident of my hometown in Cleveland, Tennessee. A Grammy-winning trumpeter who performed with the likes of Joe Cocker and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, he was jailed in 2007 for a year after he was caught using his gospel music ministry as a means of personal tax evasion. But he saw this as a trial given to him by God, of which he was the hero. He later turned his experiences into a movie, which starred Danny Glover.
Even after his release, Driscoll returned to his old ways: using the “parsonage exclusion” IRS tax exemption to defend his right to own two large homes, free of taxes and completely paid for through his ministry. Just like God intended.
When I was in college, I worked at my grandparents’ business. It was a nice way to earn some money on a part-time basis without having to work retail or at a restaurant. But it was considerably dull. On a monthly basis, churches would send in their emptied tithe envelopes (these are envelopes for money in the church pews that you fill out and place into the offering plate during the offertory call) and I would enter their names and the amount into the system to record how much they’d received and who donated. At the end of the year congregants received yearly reports detailing their donation amounts. This meticulous record keeping is important to maintain the church or ministry’s 501(c)(3) status.
Usually, this was like any other monotonous and boring data entry job. Occasionally, though, my work would lend itself to saddening revelations. Some people would donate $5 and write on the envelope, “This is all I have.” Sometimes, when checking off boxes for what the donation was for on the envelope, people would write “praying for debt release” in the “other” category. Whatever was being preached in those services, the people there believed that if they gave away money—all of their money, in some cases—they’d somehow be freed from the financial burdens in their lives. The ideas behind prosperity theology had seeped into sermons of everyday churches. Meanwhile, the ministers who walked into my grandparents’ office for meetings drove incredibly expensive cars and wore elaborate 3-piece suits.
The church was meant to exist to serve all its people—not to support the wealth of its leaders. Of course pastors should be paid a salary, and if a church truly devotes itself to the causes of feeding the poor and helping its members, then it deserves a tax-exempt status. Churches, and subsequently, the freedom of religion, are certainly a cornerstone of our country. But because the IRS makes tax exemption so easy to obtain and keep, it has led to a modern-day indulgences system—the trading of money for miracles and blessings.
Televangelists conduct themselves like a twisted multi-level marketing model where the more you buy in, the richer the people are up top. But even the most evil of money-grubbing corporations don’t enjoy the benefits of tax exemption, and none of them are promising to cure you from illness or erase your debt in exchange for your hard-earned money. Most importantly, none of them claim to do so in the name of God, as if you could supernaturally control him and earn his blessings by throwing money at ministers with bad hair and plastic smiles and multi-million dollar estates.
These televangelists do not speak for God. In Matthew 6:24, Jesus stated, “You cannot serve both God and money.” Directly responsible for forcing faithful Christians into increased poverty by squeezing money from them to finance their own extravagant lifestyles, televangelists are in defiance of the very God they proclaim to serve.