By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar
In the world of religion, truth, like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder. What looks like faith from the inside might look like fraud from the outside.
That’s why a new investigation of six Christian ministries by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is a tricky business. Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, wants to know if the leaders of these ministries have misused donations to support their lavish lifestyles.
Here’s the rub: Most of the ministers targeted by Grassley — Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Randy and Paula White — preach the so-called “prosperity Gospel,” promising financial and other worldly rewards for those who give to God’s work (i.e., their ministries).
For those who buy the message, prosperity — nice homes, fine cars, private jets — isn’t an embarrassment of riches, but rather a divine gift.
Of course, the government has every right to require compliance with tax laws. When these ministries signed up for tax exemption, they agreed to play by the same rules as all other charitable groups. With shekels come shackles.
Under the First Amendment, however, government doesn’t have the right to determine which version of the Gospel (or any other scripture) is authentic and which is bogus.
Grassley sent the wrong message when he told The New York Times this week: “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 is it right or wrong.”
Well, if the question is “What would Jesus do?” the “somebody” providing the answers should be Christians themselves, not a Senate committee. Taking sides in theological disputes isn’t the business of government.
Having said that, I’d add that Grassley does raise legitimate questions about possible abuses of tax laws, including use of the organization’s assets for personal gain, excessive executive compensation, and unreported income. Unlike other nonprofit organizations, churches aren’t required to file IRS financial-disclosure Form 990, making it difficult to account for how donations are used.
But is a Senate investigation the best — or fairest — way to get the answers? Before going public (one group heard about Grassley’s letter from the news media before receiving it), why not ask the IRS to determine whether or not a formal inquiry is needed? That would protect the reputation of religious leaders while simultaneously ensuring that the tax code is enforced.
Only if the IRS fails to act — and only if the evidence of malfeasance is compelling — should Congress get involved. To preserve religious freedom, government must be careful to keep religious groups at arm’s length and refrain from excessive entanglement in their internal affairs.
It may be true that some of these ministers have brought this scrutiny on themselves with their endless appeals for money and their over-the-top opulent lifestyles. Longtime critics may be forgiven for a bit of schadenfreude.
When Congress gets involved, however, beware of slippery slopes. These ministries should comply with tax laws. But Senate investigations could go beyond requiring accountability under current law and lead to new IRS regulations monitoring the internal affairs of churches and other religious groups. And that would have far-reaching consequences for the autonomy and freedom of religious communities. Today Kenneth Copeland Ministries, tomorrow your church.
“Prosperity Gospel” is not my brand of faith — and none of these ministers will get my dollars. But they deserve a fair process that doesn’t prejudge their reputations in the press. When it comes to religious liberty, I’m an equal-opportunity defender.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].