Tax-Exempt? Lifestyles of the Rich and Religious

By Walton, Jonathan L. | The Christian Century, January 29, 2008 | Go to article overview

Tax-Exempt? Lifestyles of the Rich and Religious


Walton, Jonathan L., The Christian Century


REPRESENTATIVES OF five of the six ministries under investigation by Senator Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) made contact with Grassley's office by the proposed December 6 deadline, but reportedly only two organizations-those of Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer--provided the financial information requested. Spokespersons for Benny Hinn asked for more time.

It is no surprise that most of those under scrutiny proclaim some variant of the prosperity gospel--the belief that material wealth is God's desire for the faithful. In these circles, luxurious lifestyles are theologically expected and socially accepted.

The main concern of Grassley, as a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is whether these ministries are abusing their tax-exempt status. Recalling Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's matching Rolls Royces and air-conditioned doghouses, the senator asked evangelists Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Paula White and Eddie Long to provide detailed statements explaining their spending. His six individualized letters questioned excessive cash payments, multimillion-dollar mansions, private jets and a $23,000 toilet.

Several ministries not only declined to provide financial documents but responded with righteous indignation. Their talking points centered on churches' constitutional rights. Creflo Dollar told Larry King that he would not provide the requested information because he is under no legal obligation to do so. Paula White, whose one-woman ministry reportedly raised $39.9 million in 2006, expressed concerns about the precedent and ramifications of the inquiry. She is apprehensive about how it will impact the privacy of ministry supporters as well as the church's protection from governmental interference.

Bishop Eddie Long, the only televangelist yet to make formal contact with Grassley, described the request as "unjust" and "intrusive." He charged that Grassley "wants to impose the will of government on our religious rights." Lawyers for Long released a statement avowing that the senator's request "clearly disregards the privacy protections of the church under law and appears to cross the line of constitutional guarantees for churches."

These sudden appeals to the distinctiveness of the church's role in society reveal something of an identity conundrum. Aside from selectively quoting the Bible in order to justify their lifestyles, televangelists have become particularly adept at latching their social identities onto the cultural mores of the business world. The argument is essentially this: if it is all right for Donald Trump to live in luxury as the CEO of his own company, how can it be problematic for those who head multimillion-dollar ministries to do so? …

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