Embarrassment of riches: Grassley targets ‘prosperity ministries’

Sunday, November 11, 2007

In the world of religion, truth, like beauty, is often in the eyes of the
beholder. What looks like faith from the inside might look like fraud from the

That’s why a new investigation of six Christian ministries by Sen. Chuck
Grassley, R-Iowa, is a tricky business. Grassley, the ranking member of the
Senate Finance Committee, wants to know if the leaders of these ministries have
misused donations to support their lavish lifestyles.

Here’s the rub: Most of the ministers targeted by Grassley — Joyce Meyer,
Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Randy and Paula White — preach the
so-called “prosperity Gospel,” promising financial and other worldly rewards for
those who give to God’s work (i.e., their ministries).

For those who buy the message, prosperity — nice homes, fine cars, private
jets — isn’t an embarrassment of riches, but rather a divine gift.

Of course, the government has every right to require compliance with tax
laws. When these ministries signed up for tax exemption, they agreed to play by
the same rules as all other charitable groups. With shekels come shackles.

Under the First Amendment, however, government doesn’t have the right to
determine which version of the Gospel (or any other scripture) is authentic and
which is bogus.

Grassley sent the wrong message when he told The New York Times this week:
“Jesus comes into the city on a simple mule, and you got people today expanding
his gospel in corporate jets. Somebody ought to raise questions about is it
right or wrong.”

Well, if the question is “What would Jesus do?” the “somebody” providing the
answers should be Christians themselves, not a Senate committee. Taking sides in
theological disputes isn’t the business of government.

Having said that, I’d add that Grassley does raise legitimate questions about
possible abuses of tax laws, including use of the organization’s assets for
personal gain, excessive executive compensation, and unreported income. Unlike
other nonprofit organizations, churches aren’t required to file IRS
financial-disclosure Form 990, making it difficult to account for how donations
are used.

But is a Senate investigation the best — or fairest — way to get the answers?
Before going public (one group heard about Grassley’s letter from the news media
before receiving it), why not ask the IRS to determine whether or not a formal
inquiry is needed? That would protect the reputation of religious leaders while
simultaneously ensuring that the tax code is enforced.

Only if the IRS fails to act — and only if the evidence of malfeasance is
compelling — should Congress get involved. To preserve religious freedom,
government must be careful to keep religious groups at arm’s length and refrain
from excessive entanglement in their internal affairs.

It may be true that some of these ministers have brought this scrutiny on
themselves with their endless appeals for money and their over-the-top opulent
lifestyles. Longtime critics may be forgiven for a bit of schadenfreude.

When Congress gets involved, however, beware of slippery slopes. These
ministries should comply with tax laws. But Senate investigations could go
beyond requiring accountability under current law and lead to new IRS
regulations monitoring the internal affairs of churches and other religious
groups. And that would have far-reaching consequences for the autonomy and
freedom of religious communities. Today Kenneth Copeland Ministries, tomorrow
your church.

“Prosperity Gospel” is not my brand of faith — and none of these ministers
will get my dollars. But they deserve a fair process that doesn’t prejudge their
reputations in the press. When it comes to religious liberty, I’m an
equal-opportunity defender.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101
Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.