Last Week Tonight with John Oliver recently featured what Entertainment Weekly called a “blistering segment” on televangelism. To be clear, John Oliver wasn’t attacking all churches or religion itself. Last Week Tonight had a very specific bone to pick with “prosperity preachers.”
These men and women claim that by sending them “seed” money, God will perform all sorts of miracles in their lives. In other words, the richer you make these preachers, the richer you will somehow become.
— Vox (@voxdotcom) August 17, 2015
Aside from the controversy caused by taking advantage of vulnerable people, Last Week Tonight also revealed the rather lax approach the IRS has when investigating churches. Often concepts of what defines a church and why they are tax-exempt are kept purposely vague.
This vagueness is so easy to exploit that John Oliver and the Last Week Tonight show runners decided to test it by starting their own church. The church, known as “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption,” even has its own website.
“When John Oliver found out that Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland, and pastors of their ilk have been taking advantage of the open-ended IRS definition of the word ‘church’ and procuring a litany of tax breaks, he founded the ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption,’ a tax-exempt organization that you can’t say is not a church.”
The Last Week Tonight segment wrapped with a parody of televangelist programing (featuring SNL alumnus Rachel Dratch). Since being uploaded to YouTube, the 20-minute exposé has been viewed more than five million times.
— UPROXX (@UPROXX) August 22, 2015
According to CBS News, the episode just might pressure the IRS to crack down on “prosperity preachers” and hold such fraudulent individuals accountable. The IRS failed to do church audits between 2009 and 2014; between 2014 and 2015, only three churches were audited.
While there are calls for the IRS to crack down (and this segment has undoubtedly increased the pressure), some worry that forcing such a change would endanger the work that law-abiding churches do as well as violate their Constitutional rights. Trinity Foundation president Ole Anthony said as much to CBS News.
“There is no surer way to destroy that free exercise of religion than to begin to tax it.”
Instead, Anthony believes that the church community should outright condemn “hucksters” and emphasize that “fraud is illegal in the name of God.”
Do you think the IRS should make a greater effort to police church tax-exemption? Share your thoughts below!
[Image Credit: Screen grab from YouTube/LastWeekTonight]