Televangelists Under Tax Scrutiny

I only caught this story today, although it’s been brewing for over a week and a half.  It’s front-page news today in the Des Moines Register print edition (and consequently on their all new web/blog site) authored by Jane Norman.  I suspect the Register went Front-Page AND above-the-fold mostly because the instigator of this inquiry is none other than Iowa Senator Charles Grassley (R).  You may already know that Grassley is an advocate for clean living and fiscal responsibility, and his target is millions of dollars in un-taxed moneys that are protected by non-profit status.  Of course, the preachers are complaining that their Religious Freedom is being redacted (okay, they didn’t use that word, but I’m trying to get the reading level up to High School here… the article said “meddling”).  Bishop Eddie Long from Lithonia, Georgia, is one of Grassley’s targets, and he has been extremely outspoken about how Grassley is attacking his church’s First Amendment rights. 

According the the Jane Norman story:

has nothing to do with it, Grassley says. “This is a tax issue,” he
says. “It’s not a First Amendment issue. We’re not interested in
doctrine or anything. In fact it would be wrong for me to be involved
in those sorts of things.”

My point being that if Grassley were trying to mess with their
Religious Freedom, he’d 1) actually pick on just one of these groups or
2) use some aspect of their faith as a reason to say their not exempt
and 3) be a complete idiot (which, frankly, would scare me since I
happen to consider him to be one of the smartest politicians in office
today).  Grassley and his office have collected specific information
that looks extremely questionable, and he appears to be concerned about
the credibility of our tax laws.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Because the groups have tax status as churches, they are not required to file tax forms open to public inspection.”.  Nice. 

So, what would these God-fearing people have to hide anyway, you ask?  How about over $3,000,000 in compensation to Bishop Long over 4 years (1997 to 2000, so that would be in 1999 dollars more or less)?  This guy has been in the ministry building and bilking business for years, it seems, having founded at least 20 nonprofit and for-profit corporations over the past 20 years.  The Atlanta Journal Constitution published a nice little in-depth story when the Grassley investigation was announced on November 6.  I think the best part was this quote from the Bishop:

“We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation, ” Long said. “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation.

“You’ve got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that’s supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering.”

Ouch!  Nice.  We can hold the “little black preacher” accountable, but not Eddie.  Eddie’s bigger, better, more important, he talks to really important people, and so he deserves to be paid lots more money! 

I don’t want to use this blog site as my faith pulpit (I’m working on a separate site for that), but I think this is incredibly relevant here.  One of the biggest issues I will raise (as will many others) when talking about the election process is integrity and accountability (okay, maybe you think that’s two issues, whatever).  We spent a tremendous amount of time talking about why Hillary Clinton’s husband was worthy of impeachment because he lied to America about his tryst with Monica Lewinsky.  Reagan and GW have been harassed because it’s believed they were not honest about what they knew about covert military activities and questionable intelligence used to support initiating the Iraq War. 

A great deal of the commentary on integrity and accountability will come from the so-called Religious Right, or Conservative Christians.  There will be no moral high-ground available if groups like Eddie’s are allowed to deceive the government, their own constituency, and mis-represent the cause of the Christian faith by hiding the use of money.  Some of the groups in question may be sincere in their faith, mission, and internal accountability, but they need to be held to the same level of external accountability as other non-profits if they are going to keep their non-profit status and if they hope to avoid the appearance of impropriety.  People are people, and if there are not appropriate measures in place, people will sometimes do the wrong thing… money and power are both strong motivators to do wrong.  I have always been an advocate of accountability, separation of duties and regular open audits to protect both the organization from inappropriate actions, and to protect those who have control of the money from accusations.

There are organizations that provide great external auditing for faith-based organizations (the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, or ECFA, is one) that can help. 

I’m glad to see Senator Grassley addressing this.  I hope to see changes in the law to enforce open accountability for churches. 

Organizations that are under Grassley’s scrutiny are:

Joyce Meyer Ministries – Joyce Meyer
New Birth Missionary Baptist Church – Bishop Eddie Long
Kenneth Copeland Ministries – Kenneth Copeland
Without Walls International Church – Randy and Paula White
Benny Hinn Ministries – Benny Hinn
World Changers Church International – Creflo and Taffi Dollar

About the Author

Mr. Smith is the Publisher of The Conservative Reader. He is Partner/Owner of Ambrosia Web Technology as well as a Systems Architect for Wells Fargo. Art hold a degree in Computer Science from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and is a political blogger at the Des Moines Register. Art's views are purely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wells Fargo.


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