A Nation Teeming With Elmer Gantrys| 11/07/2007
Yes, that was the sound of 148 televangelists all trying to get through to their lawyers at the same time yesterday morning as the faxes from the Senate Finance Committee sputtered into their headquarters.
For those of you who haven’t yet read about it in the Tampa Tribune (first to break the story), seen it on CBS News (first and most thorough in the electronic media), or pondered its implications in the Wall Street Journal, here’s what happened:
Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican whose middle name is “Mr. Accountability,” concluded a two-year investigation of big “prosperity church” ministries with a few suspicions about whether the spirit of the tax code might be in peril. So he sent out letters requesting full voluntary financial disclosure to six of those organizations–three big ones and three not so big.
Less well known, unless you happen to subscribe to “Widow-Fleecing Monthly,” were Randy and Paula White, the couple whose Without Walls International Church in Tampa outlasted their marriage; Joyce Meyer and her loving husband David, of Joyce Meyer Ministries in Fenton, Missouri, who may have had to use their $23,000 marble-topped commode when they heard the news; and Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church of Lithonia, Georgia, who apparently made the list because of his healthy appetite for faith-based-initiative money.
Confused yet? We happen to know a few of the people at Trinity Foundation who did the nitty-gritty detective work on this, so we’ll lay it out for you:
There’s been a trend over the past 20 years for non-profit corporations, which are required to file reports with the Internal Revenue Service, to convert themselves into churches, which are not required to file anything.
Some of these churches have an appetite for Gulfstream jets, beachfront mansions, Bentleys and cosmetic-surgery funds. This is, of course, in conscious imitation of the Yuppie from Galilee.
People usually have one of three reactions to stories like this:
- So what? It’s fools taking money from fools.
- Yes, they’re greedy, but they still bring people to God.
- God helps those who help themselves. They’ve been blessed. (Admittedly, I don’t know anyone who believes this, but that’s sort of what the “prosperity gospel” is all about.)
All three reactions amount to “Let’s not get our panties all in a bunch about a few redneck preachers getting rich. We’ve got more important things to focus on.”
Unfortunately, it cuts a little deeper than that. The amount of information considered by the Finance Committee before starting down this road amounted to at least the suspicion of a vast criminal conspiracy. (And, lest you think I’m exaggerating, just check the interlocking directorates, shared board members, and shared jet leases of the top 50 or so players that the committee is looking at.) Some of these guys are little more than carnies. Others aren’t as self-consciously criminal but believe their own publicity—but they also know that they’re taking money intended for disaster relief, aid to the poor, and aid to orphans, and converting it into personal luxury items. If that’s legal, then the law should be changed. If that’s illegal, then there should be at least as much jail time for them as Martha Stewart got for lying to the SEC.
Considering the huge issues at stake here—Can the government demand accountability from a church? Can the government define what is and is not a church? Can a religious organization refuse to comply with requests for information on First Amendment grounds?—you might be wondering why Senator Grassley, not a stupid man, sent a mere six letters that have no real teeth to them. If the targeted evangelist were to pull a Bartleby-the-Scrivener and say “I prefer not to answer,” then theres no penalty for that.
But then these were not just any letters. These were very specific letters. These letters had the kind of specific questions that make you pucker up when you read them.
Imagine if you got a letter from Congress saying, “Do you have an AK-47 with serial number 43789467 stowed behind a toolbox in your garage? Please answer yes or no.”
They were those kind of questions. They were the kind of questions that give you the impression that perhaps the Congressman asking them already knows the answer. Hence the phone calls to the lawyers yesterday morning.
We’ll see how this plays out. My own prediction is that most will decide not to comply at all, and then the committee will move in the direction of subpoenas. That will throw everything into a political debate leading up to the 2008 elections, with Republicans asking, “Will this alienate evangelicals?” and Democrats, who actually run the Finance Committee, asking, “Are the Republicans bringing this up to make it look like we hate religion?” That will at least be the occasion for delays, but eventually hearings will be held, the head of the IRS will get pressure, lawsuits will be filed.
If you wanna follow along, check back with us tomorrow. I’ll have some of the best “Long Dong Silver” stories from the files of the Senate Finance Committee.