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Like many of us, Senator Chuck Grassley is concerned about the lavish lifestyles of many prosperity-gospel preachers he sees on television. "Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, corporate jets, $23,000 commodes in a multimillion-dollar home," he said on CNN. "You know, just think of a $23,000 marble commode. A lot of money going down the toilet, you could say."

But Grassley isn't like many of us. He's a United States senator. And while the U.S. government has the authority to ensure that churches and their leaders aren't breaking the law, several of the Iowa senator's comments mix an important and legitimate inquiry with a troubling government intrusion into the free exercise of religion.

Grassley, unfortunately, seems ill informed on several fronts. Take that widely published joke about the commode. It's actually an antique cabinet, not a toilet. You can see it yourself at Joyce Meyer's headquarters, part of the $5.7 million décor. You can also see at Meyer's headquarters, or at her website, audited financial statements that answer many of Grassley's questions about the ministry.

And take this comment, published on Grassley's website: "As a Christian myself, and a person who believes in tithing, I feel I have a right to know where my money goes."

But the law allows churches not to disclose their finances, even to their own members. Indeed, it was Grassley himself who introduced the Church Audit Procedures Act in 1983, which significantly limited irs investigations into church finances.

That doesn't mean churches can do whatever they want. Churches can't endorse or oppose candidates for political office. A church's net earnings cannot "inure to any private shareholder or individual," and a church can't "provide a substantial benefit ...

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In the Magazine

January 2008

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