If it is the role of journalists and journalism to provide a voice for those who cannot be heard, John Oliver and his hit show Last Week Tonight may have fulfilled that role in a hilarious yet poignant way. Following his impassioned segment regarding televangelists and the remarkable lack of oversight the Internal Revenue Service exercises over churches and religious institutions, the IRS is facing significant criticism and pressure to conduct a more thorough investigation of televangelists and their use of tax-exempt donations.
As Oliver pointed out in his segment, oftentimes, not only are donations solicited in seriously questionable ways, but they are then used quite frequently for non-religious, non-church purposes. Rather, a number of televangelists, Oliver suggests, appear to be wolves in sheep’s clothing, taking advantage of the naïveté of their herd for their own personal gain.
In a CBS News report released shortly after Oliver’s segment aired, it was revealed that the IRS, which has previously made headlines for conducting unnecessary audits, has done quite the opposite when it comes to the loosely defined “churches.” In fact, between 2009 and 2014, the IRS conducted a grand total of three audits of such organizations, all of which took place between 2013 and 2014, with no such investigations occurring etween the years of 2009 and 2013.
The problem with this leniency, Oliver and CBS point out, lies in the manner in which the term “church” is defined. Although there are officially 14 criterion used to identify a church, Oliver’s facetious establishment of his own religious institution,Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, proved just how laughably riddled with loopholes these requirements truly are. Indeed, so long as church doctrines are “truly and sincerely held” and “not illegal,” everything from proclaiming peanut butter superior to Nutella and climate change as gospel truth could be considered religions.
Now, the Trinity Foundation, an organization that concerns itself with religious fraud, is taking renewed hope that Oliver and the power of ridicule (and social media) will finally prompt some action from the IRS. Ole Anthony, the president of the Trinity Foundation, told CBS News that the “prosperity gospel,” or the belief that giving one’s church money will bring the giver riches and health, is draining some people (particularly those who cannot afford it) completely dry. “They keep trying to send more money, more money, more money so they can get healed,” Anthony said. And preachers can continue to accept money risk- and tax-free because of the complete absence of the IRS.
Neither the IRS nor any of the televangelists whom Oliver called out in his segment (who asked their donors to help them buy private jets or promised to cure illness if they received a donation) have responded to requests from numerous sources for comment. But it may just be the case that one 20-minute clip on YouTube will bring down the reign of the fraudulent televangelists.