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 to private interests."
Several of the ministries targeted by Grassley (and others not targeted) appear to provide excessive compensation to their celebrity leaders. So we encourage them to disclose their finances. We welcome IRS investigations into allegations of mismanaged funds, and we don't oppose a Senate query into whether further legislation is necessary. At the same time, it's hard to see how further legislation would be helpful. It would only amount to more government intrusion into church governance.
For now, Grassley says he's not interested in changing the law. "The IRS isn't doing its job. You don't have to change the law, you have to enforce existing law," he told CNN. Mostly, he's hoping that the investigation itself convinces the ministries to institute reforms, just as similar investigations sparked reforms in the Nature Conservancy, Red Cross, United Way, and the Smithsonian. "It's often the case that such investigations yield actions that are perfectly legal but shock the conscience," Grassley's office explained.
But churches—even ones that spout heresies like the health-and-wealth gospel—are protected by the First Amendment in ways that the Nature Conservancy and Smithsonian are not. Grassley was on dangerous ground when he told reporters, "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 [whether] it's right or wrong." There's an important theological question here, but a Senate investigation is not the place to ask it. There's an important legal question here, too (are pastors properly using ministry-owned cars and jets in church-related work?), but Grassley undercuts the legitimacy of his own question.
Shocking the Conscience
Grassley's comments are problematic, but his investigation is not irreparably tainted. While churches are right to sound the alarm against government intrusion, there's more to do than protest.
This is not the first financial scandal in the church. The silver lining to past embarrassments is the greater transparency they launched in the evangelical movement. In response to some nonprofit scandals in the late 1970s, George Wilson (Billy Graham's business manager) and Sen. Mark Hatfield took the lead in creating the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a "Christian Better Business Bureau." One concern was donor confidence, but another was fear of government intervention. Some similar reforms came out of the televangelist scandals of the 1980s.
Sadly, the health-and-wealth crowd seems largely impervious to such efforts. Investigative news reports and some severe critiques by evangelical and Pentecostal leaders have been met with little response. The TBN celebrities know that any real government intervention would be met with massive opposition, and there's little fear of donor backlash when your donors see opulence as a sign of God's blessing.
The difference between the evangelical push for financial accountability and the disregard for it in the health-and-wealth wing of the Pentecostal movement demonstrates how different these groups can be. Evangelicals split from the fundamentalist movement in the 1940s and '50s because they wanted to "speak the language of the culture," and saw financial transparency for their ministries as part of that strategy. Many of these health-and-wealth preachers, on the other hand, see money as a key part of the gospel. For evangelicals, it's "I once was lost, but now I'm found." For the health-and-wealth types, it's "I once was poor, but now I'm rich." Ironically, the bestseller lists suggest that the prosperity-gospel preachers may be doing a better job of "speaking the language of culture."
Whether they're proclaiming the true gospel is a separate question. And it's a question that the church, not the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance, should answer.
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More on the Grassley investigation is in our full-coverage section.
A 2003 Christianity Today editorial said financial transparency was a must, even when not legally required.
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