Pastor Creflo Dollar recently explained to his flock why they should ignore his critics and give money toward his $65 million private jet:
“‘What does a preacher need with an airplane?’ They don’t know. They’ll never know because they’re not looking through the word. They will never know, never, never know.”
Sure, Dollar and his prosperity-theology message deserve scorn. He’s asking his churchgoers — many of whom could hardly afford a Honda Civic let alone a Gulfstream G650 — to give him their hard-earned cash with the promise that God will reward them for it many times over.
Some might shrug off the way others choose to spend their money. Not comedian and HBO host John Oliver: He’s outraged that Dollar can get away with it. And so he devoted a recent 20-minute segment on his news/humor show “Last Week Tonight” to slamming megachurches that ask for this kind of money.
Yet the real target of Oliver’s ire isn’t the churches themselves, but the IRS for letting them remain tax-exempt. He even puts up on-screen the IRS Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations, which reads in part, “The IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious provided the particular beliefs . . . are truly and sincerely held . . . and the practices . . . are not illegal.”
Just about anything can qualify, Oliver says: “Bros before Hos? That could be a religion. Red Vines are better than Twizzlers? That could be a religion.”
Funny, but Oliver’s got an endgame. He set up his own church — Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption — and established a regular worship service as well as certain rituals (silent meditation on fraudulent church practices, for instance).
He’s daring the IRS to investigate.
Oliver has gotten a lot of press for this stunt — and donations, too. The Washington Post reported Monday that he’s received thousands of dollars in the week since his plea. (The money will eventually go to Doctors Without Borders, according to the website.)
So what has he proved? Nothing, really.
America has long been host to wacky faiths, some held by only a handful of people. Some of them ask members to forgo medical treatment. Others ask them to live a cloistered life. Some require the donation of large sums of money or even your entire life savings.
Writing in The Los Angeles Times, filmmaker Alex Gibney, who has been harassed for making a film about Scientology, explains, “The Church of Scientology has a distinct belief system which, despite its somewhat strange cosmology — mocked by the TV show ‘South Park’ and many others — is not essentially more strange than, say, the idea of a virgin birth. Scientologists are entitled to believe what they want to believe.”
What they are not entitled to do, as Gibney notes, is to merely build a private empire on public dollars.
There’s little doubt that the IRS could do more in the way of enforcement when it comes to some of these hucksters. As Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, notes, “Insincere, self-serving entities that intentionally masquerade as ‘religious’ to take advantage of [IRS] protections are committing fraud and are a discredit to society and to the faiths they misrepresent. They should be exposed and their frauds punished.”
But John Oliver wants more — he wants the IRS to act against “ridiculous” churches.
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