A United States Senate committee is demanding a detailed look into the alleged lavish lifestyles of six prosperity gospel ministries, stirring both kudos and cries of concern from religious and First Amendment experts.
"If your house is in order, you have nothing to fear and much to gain from this process," megapastor Joel Hunter told Christianity Today. Hunter is senior pastor of the 12,000-member Northland, A Church Distributed, outside Orlando, Florida.
Some, however, worry that the Senate could be setting bad precedent.
"James Madison would be telling us, 'Take Alarm! Take Alarm!''' Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things, told CT. "This is cause for alarm that a Senate committee would presume to directly exercise financial oversight of religious ministries."
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate Finance Committee, sent letters yesterday to six ministries—those led by Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, and Randy and Paula White—demanding detailed accounts of spending practices. None of the ministries must file the IRS financial disclosure Form 990 because they are designated as churches.
"Recent television reports and news articles regarding the possible misuse of donations made to religious organizations have caused some concern for the Finance Committee," Grassley wrote yesterday to the ministries.
Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, for example, must provide "a detailed explanation of personal use of assets" of their tax-exempt organizations, including land ownership, "jets, employees, facilities," all monthly expenses used to "purchase, furnish, and maintain all residences," expense accounts, all car expenses, cash payments, "domestic and overseas bank accounts," mineral leases, "procedures for handling cash received for crusades," among other things.
Such itemized requests to all six ministries must be answered by December 6, 2007. Normally tax and money investigations are done privately by the Internal Revenue Service.
"There has kind of been an end-run here," contends Charles Haynes, director of the First Amendment Center. The Senate prying into church money matters could be a slippery slope, he said.
"It's legitimate for government to monitor whether or not the laws are being followed by ministries," said Haynes. "Having said that, this is an unusual approach. The danger here is that it can become a fishing expedition … into areas where the First Amendment protects ministries—for example, their beliefs and view of the gospel. They may be controversial or unorthodox or unpopular, but that is none of the business of government."'
Even if some doctrines seem highly questionable, that is not government business, said Haynes. Similar tensions exist for churches currently facing IRS reviews about political campaign spending.
By accepting the benefits of tax-exempt status, a church has "already given up some of their independence and autonomy," noted Haynes, "and agreed to have a certain amount of oversight by the government."
"There is a tug of war here," admitted Rodney Pitzer, managing director of research for MinistryWatch.org, which advises donors on charitable organizations' financial credibility.
Pitzer says donor have the right to know funds are well-handled, but the six ministries being targeted have no traditional means of accountability—like deacons or elders—to keep tabs on money matters.
Said Pitzer: "On the one side are the good, upstanding ministries that want to have no regulations because the minimal regulation will help them be more efficient to do their charitable work. But within that group, others are getting away with things they should not be doing."
Ministries need to be "open and transparent," Pitzer said. "Donors want to make sure that charitable assets are being spent the way they should be."
Hunter said Christians are "charged in Scripture to be 'above reproach' and to be submissive to the government that God has put in place. So every ministry should be pleased for the opportunity to confirm the integrity of its operations and show that it is spending money wisely.
"Similarly, when we are called to give an account, we have the opportunity to advance our credibility—both inside and outside the church. We should be eager to correct anything an examination would find, so that we can improve our performance and live up to our scriptural mandate."
Some ministries are giving "all of us a bad name because money has been misused," Charisma magazine editor Lee Grady told The Tampa Tribune. "This is an awkward time for the church. I believe God is putting his finger on some problems and demanding that we set our house in order. If we don't correct these problems ourselves, then the government may have to step in and do it. And that will be unfortunate."
While Grassley is not proposing any changes to the law or tax code, he's suggesting that he may do so after the investigation. "Based on initial review, the way ministries operate has changed significantly over the last 20 years to 25 years, while the tax laws governing them for the most part have not," his office said.
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The letters from the Senate to Randy and Paula White, Pastor Benedictus Hinn, David and Joyce Meyer, Bishop Eddie L. Long, Creflo and Taffi Dollar, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland are available on Grassley's website.
Ted Olsen reported on the Senate's investigation earlier.
Christianity Today reported in 2006 on a bill that would have compelled Massachusetts churches to disclose their finances.
Other news includes:
Senator requests finances of Hinn, Copeland ministries | U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is asking a handful of high-profile ministries, including two from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, to provide detailed information about their finances. (The Dallas Morning News)
Senate inquiry targets televangelists | The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee said Tuesday he has launched an investigation into alleged financial wrongdoing involving six well-known televangelists. (Associated Press)
Senate Panel Probes 6 Top Televangelists | Sen. Charles Grassley asks ministries to turn over financial records within one month. (CBS News)
U.S. senator to investigate televangelists, including ORU regents | A veteran U.S. senator announced Tuesday that he is looking into generous salaries, luxury cars and private jets provided to six televangelists, including three who serve as regents for Oral Roberts University. (Tulsa World)
Christianity Today has previously profiled Randy and Paula White's Without Walls.
Joyce Meyer has responded to criticism about her church's finances in the past.
A 2003 Christianity Today editorial said financial transparency was a must, even when not legally required.