More scrutiny of television evangelism is in store, as the U.S. Congress holds hearings on whether money from donors is misused.
U.S. Rep. J. J. Pickle (D-Tex.) will hold hearings to determine how contributions to television ministries are used and whether income from commercial businesses run by religious organizations ought to be considered “unrelated” to the purpose of the ministry. In a column published in USA Today, Pickle wrote, “Should an amusement park be exempt from taxes because it is owned by a religious organization?… These are not questions involving religious beliefs, constitutional rights, or separation of church and state. These are questions of tax policy.
“Government has absolutely no right to interfere in the practice of religion,” Pickle wrote, “but we in government have a responsibility to prevent fraud and abuse from being practiced under the guise of religion.” Pickle chairs the oversight subcommittee of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.
Television ministries and most other religious groups are classified, for tax purposes, as nonprofit organizations that do not pay federal taxes and whose contributors may deduct donations made to the ministry. In order to qualify for tax-exempt status, they must not engage in partisan politics or substantial lobbying, and must not divert donor funds to purposes unconnected to the mission of the organization.
Money raised by such an organization cannot be used to greatly enhance the personal wealth of the ministry’s leader. In addition, profit-making activities are subject to taxation unless their income can be considered directly related to the purpose of the ministry. This is so nonprofit organizations will not enjoy an unfair competitive advantage over tax-paying businesses.
These questions are being examined carefully by federal agencies investigating practices of the PTL ministries, formerly headed by Jim and Tammy Bakker. In addition to a television network, PTL includes the Heritage USA amusement park, which has been operating as a tax-exempt arm of the Bakker empire.
Spurred by revelations about PTL, Pickle sent letters to at least ten top evangelists asking if they would cooperate with a congressional investigation. They include Ernest Angley, John Ankerberg, Jim Bakker, Paul Crouch, Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, James Kennedy, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and Robert Schuller. A spokesman for the House oversight subcommittee said replies were received from all except Bakker, and most who answered expressed their willingness to cooperate.
In July, Pickle met with several of the evangelists and with Ben Armstrong, executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters. Questions being raised on financial responsibility and tax matters, Armstrong said, are appropriate and welcome. However, he said it would not be appropriate for the subcommittee to ask television ministers how they have been affected by negative public perceptions following the PTL scandal.
Falwell spokesman Mark DeMoss said the evangelist is “certainly favorable toward the idea and willing to cooperate [with congressional hearings].” At the same time, Falwell has questioned why the subcommittee is focusing on television preachers when hundreds of thousands of other nonprofit organizations collectively raise billions of dollars annually.
Pickle has assured the broadcasters he is not out to investigate religious organizations. Armstrong noted that Pickle, an active United Methodist, does not appear to be antagonistic. “He is a Texas gentleman who can be tough but very approachable,” Armstrong said. A date for the hearing was expected to be set shortly after Congress reconvened this month.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more