(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.
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.
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.
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.
LM/MG END PELLOT