I come from a diverse family where few are Christians and even fewer venture into the curious sub-culture of evangelicalism. For this reason a number of my relatives have an impression of Christianity based largely upon what they see while surfing the television - an impression that I do not fit and work hard to deconstruct. Televangelists are loud and energetic; I'm rarely the life of the party. Televangelists have big hair; I have no hair. Televangelists fly around in private jets; I ride a bike to work to save on gas.
My work to deconstruct the image of gold-gilded Christianity appears to be getting some help from the United States Senate. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, is investigating possible financial shenanigans on the part of six widely known TV preachers. From Ted Olsen's article at ChristianityToday.com:
"Recent articles and news reports regarding possible misuse of donations made to religious organizations have caused some concern for the Finance Committee," Grassley wrote to the ministries in letters asking for detailed financial records.
None of the ministries targeted - those led by Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, and Randy and Paula White - are required to file the financial disclosure Form 990 with the IRS because they are designated as churches.
The ministries have until December 6 to submit audited financial statements, compensation reports, records for ministry jet travel, and other documents.
Read Ted Olsen's full article here.
The Tampa Tribune has also published the letters sent by Sen. Grassley to each of the ministries concerning his investigation.
If your perspective and temperament is anything like mine, when you first heard about the Senate investigation you may have thought, It's about time! After all, the ministries listed are not exactly the Salvation Army. Most are identified as "prosperity preachers" who flamboyantly practice what they preach. Sen. Grassley cited $10 million private jets and $23,000 toilets as part of his investigation.
If there has been a violation of the law, and not merely stewardship, then we should not mourn to see these ministries held accountable. But there's another benefit to the truth being brought into the light. How many struggling people are suckered into sacrificially giving to these ministries in the hope of receiving God's blessing? How many people are led astray? And how many non-Christians are given a false impression of Christ, the Bible, and his Church?
But after my initial reaction I had second thoughts. This investigation may have a downside. First there is the "slippery slope" scenario. (We evangelicals are trained from childhood to spot slippery slopes.) If the government begins to investigate these ministries will it eventually be looking at my church too? Will the Senate, IRS, or other agency demand my church's expense reports? Admittedly, this kind of paranoia is what leads people to live in "compounds" and stock firearms next to their communion cups, but it's something to think about. In the U.S. churches enjoy significant independence. Could the (alleged) abuses of a few high profile preachers impact us all?
But there is also a more personal angle for me. Many in my family don't grasp the nuances and divergent streams of evangelicalism - let alone broader American Christianity. When any church scandal hits the media, they see it as an indictment on the whole faith the same way some Christians, unaware of the divergent beliefs of Muslims, can dismiss Islam as a faith of terrorists. To be honest, I'm just not looking forward to talking about yet another Christian scandal, no matter how overdue it may be.