Religious liberty groups troubled by inquiry
By Rachel Zoll
Among the many conservative Christians who feel misunderstood by the general public, the six televangelists under investigation by a Senate committee are an embarrassment.
The ministers’ on-air faith healings and fundraising, backed by self-serving misinterpretations of Scripture, reinforce offensive stereotypes of greedy preachers and their unquestioning followers, critics say.
But traditional Christians aren’t universally celebrating the inquiry. Some are wondering whether the investigation led by Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa is the right way to end any wrongdoing, especially if the result is more government oversight of all ministries.
"We’re not representing any of the parties involved, but when I see a senator charging into organizations, wielding this kind of budget ax and laying bare religious figures and expenditures, huge constitutional questions are being raised," said Garry McCaleb, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious liberty legal group founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other influential evangelicals.
Craig Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters, a trade association, said the questions that Grassley sent the six ministries about their finances were too broad. None of the televangelists is a member of the NRB.
"We don’t have any inside information of the financial workings of the six ministries involved," Parshall said. "What we’re concerned about is the future of Christian broadcasting and Christian ministries — nonprofit ones — if this inquiry is either broadened or ratcheted up and hearings are held and new legislation is considered."
Grassley, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, has asked the ministries to submit records by Friday on compensation, board oversight and perks — from oceanside homes and expensive furniture to flights on private jets. IRS rules for nonprofits prevent pastors and other insiders from excessive personal gain through their tax-exempt work. Even so, the groups are not legally required to disclose financial information to the Senate.
The ministries under review include Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries of Tampa, Fla.; Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc. and Benny Hinn Ministries of Grapevine, Texas; David and Joyce Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo.; Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas; Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries of Lithonia, Ga.; and Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries of College Park, Ga.
All the ministries preach a form of Word of Faith theology, known as prosperity gospel, which effectively teaches that God wants believers to be rich. The ministries have said separately that they are committed to following the tax laws, but it is not known whether they will all comply with Grassley’s request by the deadline.
"This has nothing to do with church doctrine," said Grassley, who has been investigating nonprofit compliance with the tax code for years. "This has everything to do the with tax exemption of an organization."
But Grassley irked some religious leaders when he quipped about the lifestyles of the preachers under investigation, saying Jesus road into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a Rolls Royce.
J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, said he believes Grassley has "the best of motives," but his donkey comment gave the impression that the inquiry pits one religious view against another.
"They’re supposed to enforce the law evenhandedly without regard at all to religious expression," Walker said. "There is a fear of government theologizing and government overreacting to isolated problems."
Conservative Christians have worked hard for years to avoid this exact type of inquiry. In the late 1970s, then-Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon told influential Christians that they should create a voluntary financial watchdog agency to keep the government largely out of their work.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was formed in 1979, requiring its members to fully disclose their finances to donors. None of the six televangelists belongs to the group, according to its president, Kenneth Behr.
Pentecostal leaders and defenders of Christian orthodoxy have also challenged the TV preachers about their lifestyles or beliefs.
Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute, an evangelical apologetics group in Charlotte, N.C., has written and spoken extensively for more than a decade about what he considers the dangers of teachings by Hinn, Meyer, Dollar and others.
But even he says he has concerns about the impact of the Grassley investigation.
"I can assure you," said Walker, of the Baptist Joint Committee, "that people are watching this very closely."