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‘Megareverend’ John Oliver trolls televangelists with new tax-exempt church

Television host John Oliver arrives for the TIME 100 Gala in New York on April 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

(RNS) “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver launched his own fiery brand of televangelism on Sunday (Aug. 16) to criticize the Internal Revenue Service’s hands-off approach to faith-based fraudsters who promise prosperity, at a price.

The HBO satirist, who goes by “Megareverend” and CEO of Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, said he established the church “to test the legal and financial limits of what religious entities are able to do.”

IRS tax laws and regulations governing churches and religious organizations are “purposely broad and sometimes a little vague,” tax law specialist Virginia Richardson said in an agency-produced video Oliver highlighted during the show.

So broad and vague that the IRS “makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious” as long as the beliefs are “truly and sincerely held” and the organization’s actions are legal, according to the agency’s tax guide for churches and religious organizations.

Houses of worship must theoretically refrain from participating in political campaigns to maintain their tax-exempt status. But in reality, the risk of having tax breaks revoked is slim to none.

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In the 2014 general elections, more than 1,600 Christian pastors openly endorsed political candidates as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a movement that began in 2008 to defy IRS rules on the grounds that they restrict constitutionally protected free speech.

Yet, since 2009, the IRS’ Exempt Organizations unit has examined just three churches to determine compliance with its tax-exempt regulations.

Generous tax breaks to unregulated churches allow some televangelists to enjoy extravagant lifestyles, critics have charged.

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In June, Georgia-based Creflo Dollar Ministries announced plans to buy its eponymous pastor a Gulfstream G650 jet, estimated at $65 million, which its board of directors described as a necessary tool “to fulfill the mission of the ministry.” That announcement came just three months after the group scrapped a much-ridiculed crowdfunding campaign to finance the jet’s acquisition.

The ministry’s assertion that fundraising for luxury jets is a “standard operating procedure for people of faith” has some merit. In Sunday night’s takedown, Oliver lampooned Texas-based televangelists Mike Murdock, who told congregants that he bought two jets with cash, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, who have used the $20 million “preaching machine” jet their followers helped finance to embark on skiing and hunting trips away from their $6.3 million mansion, where they live tax-free due to IRS rules on parsonage allowances.

Dollar, Murdock and the Copelands all preach the prosperity gospel, a Christian notion that God wants followers of the faith to have financial prosperity, and that “seed” donations to a ministry will ensure the material wealth of contributing congregants.

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Oliver said he tested the doctrine with televangelist Robert Tilton’s Word of Faith church. After seven months of correspondence, Oliver claims to have sent a total of $319 to the church and received in return 26 letters, two $1 bills, four packets of colored oil, some pieces of fabric, an outline of Tilton’s foot, and a check made out from Oliver to the church.

The frustrating exchange prompted Oliver to establish Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, a process he described as “disturbingly easy.”

Following IRS guidelines and a tax lawyer’s advice, Oliver registered his church as a nonprofit corporation in Texas, named his New York studio as its “established place of worship,” led audience members in a moment of silent meditation on the nature of fraudulent churches in order to establish a “recognized creed and form of worship” and rallied them in whooping to “profess belief in the church’s creed.”

He then enlisted comedian Rachel Dratch to play his poofy-haired wife and co-conspirator, Wanda Jo Oliver, in an inaugural sermon. “Praise be to the IRS, that most permissive of government agencies,” Dratch said, encouraging viewers to plant “an almighty seed” in the church.

Donation instructions can be found on the church’s website or by calling 1-800-THIS-IS-LEGAL, “because amazingly, all of this is,” said Oliver. “If Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland and all these pastors can get away with it and we get stopped, truly we have witnessed a (expletive) miracle.” 

Any assets belonging to the church will be donated to medical charity Doctors Without Borders, according to the website.


About the author

Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is based in Cape Town, South Africa.


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  • I was an idealistic journalist who stumbled into the role of co-host to Pat Robertson on The 700 Club during his presidential campaign, but when I was targeted in the cross-hairs of politics and religion, I left fundamentalism and am now a winemaker living in Oregon. I have documented my experiences in the book, Chiseled, A Memoir of Identity, Duplicity and Divine Wine. It is fascinating to see how these televangelists have grown even richer all these years later!

  • John Oliver is simply being a troll. There are a few fake organizations out there, but you can’t convey that EVERY Christian organization is bad because of a few fakes. The largest religion is Christianity whether he likes it or not. This just goes to show how little minded he is.

  • Lighten up, the video is really well done and funny. “True” Christians should take a look and address this issue to protect their (church’s) tax exempt status.

  • Some people deserve trolling. Especially those who prey upon the poor, indebted, elderly and scared to enrich themselves. The only criticism I can make for John Oliver is that he picked a rather easy target.

    So where is the great Christian moral indignation against these pernicious hucksters? They aren’t calling those preachers fakes right now, nor ever have. Christians clearly accept them as their own.

    If Christians are so concerned about their fellow people and seek to do good works, where is their criticism of these televangelists?

    Where were you when fellow Christians were being fleeced by these “ministers”?

    Why do they continue to let these greedy immoral scumbuckets preach in the name of their Lord?

    Christians only get indignant when outsiders criticize them. The defensively try disavowal long after the fact. You want to blame a man for pointing out things you were unwilling to confront. Christians have nobody to blame but themselves.

  • if you watched the segment, Oliver opened with that most churches do a world of good and seek to better their communities before roasting charlatans like Creflo Dollar and Kenneth Copeland over an open flame

  • “So where is the great Christian moral indignation against these pernicious hucksters? They aren’t calling those preachers fakes right now, nor ever have. Christians clearly accept them as their own.”

    … This isn’t even remotely true.

  • Really?

    Then where is the great uproar and resistance by Christians to these hucksters?

    Why are they able to operate for decades, using Christian broadcasting resources for their message of greed?

    Who is trying to shut these people down? Where in the Christian community are people even criticizing these hucksters?

    Links would help here. Because it sure isn’t apparent to anyone looking.

  • Lin, pay attention to an early statement. Many churches do great work. Exposing scum IS Christain! And Jewisg. And Islam. And…

  • The First Amendment is the reason why you can set up your own fake religion and get tax exempt status for it — at least initially.

    The rationale is that taxation power over a church gradually but inevitably leads to government control over religious beliefs and practices (a lesson history has repeatedly taught us).

    So, you allow “free exercise” for the few outfits that are obviously insincere in order to protect the overwhelming majority which are not.

  • John Oliver is hilarious! Unfortunately, the list of “name it and claim it” televangelists is huge and they are ripping off money from those least able to afford it, so they can buy multi-million-dollar jets to do what? “Take the Gospel around the world”. Give me a break! There are at least 6,000 languages and dialects in the world with no scriptures.
    Some names from the past and present to avoid like the plague, because they are phonies: Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Oral Roberts, A.A. Allen, Benny Hinn, Marilyn Hickey, Joyce and Dave Meyer, R.W. Schambach, Lester Sumrall, T.L. Osborn, Pat Robertson, Rodney Howard-Browne, TBN and Jan Crouch, Paula White, Robert Tilton, Eddie Long, Juanita Bynum, Fred Price.

    Great song about America’s prosperity preachers, written and produced by Shai Linne:
    See the words of the song, below.

    Here Shai talks about his song:

  • I’m so glad you found the light, Danuta. You were incredible, of course, on The 700 Club. But Jesus Christ is the real deal. Be blessed…

  • These people are vile, they pray on the most vulnerable/gullible to line their own pockets.
    Once again we see the evil that is dressed up as “religion”

  • I see someone on here called John a troll. He was NOT lumping every Christian group or church into this message. He made that clear in the first 90 seconds talking about some who feed the poor, clothe the poor, etc. John was actually going after the ones who manipulate and use the IRS leniency against them in regards to the tax laws in order to line their own pocket books. I have researched these same people for years, and yes, they ARE using the law to get richer and take from those who would benefit from charity they espouse. I support this video. Many of the televangelists you are seeing on TBN and other networks are using the Word of God in order to hurt others at a profit.

  • I think churches and the elite should pay taxes back taxes and fines . churches and trickle down economic theory along with chriistians beliefs have sold out our country in part and should be accountable for fixing this economy. But they are protected by the fear of whatever could or might happen.. Democracy doesnt work and religion has become a super power and we need to fix this mess were in. This is the core problem because it depends on the honor system and most humans are selfish creatures.
    Shame on religion this is enough to turn the world athiests. God is our worst enemy .if you disagee then your part of the problem. The christians won the war on religion. Fools