Televangelicals packaging paradise

Billy Graham with Obama

US religious charities are privileged but not held accountable. Are the televangelicals taking advantage of gaps in US law?

With a few words, John Burnett captures televangelists (or televangelicals) in an article with a telling title: Can a television network be a church? The IRS says yes. He says “Flip on Daystar television at any hour of the day and you’ll likely see the elements of modern televangelism: a stylish set, an emotional spiritual message and a phone number on the screen soliciting donations.”

Incidentally, Daystar, together with Trinity Broadcasting Network and Christian Broadcasting Network are the largest three of a long list of televangelical enterprises. To Burnett’s characterization, I would add that televangelicals tend to be politically hyperactive, socially conservative and theologically fundamental. While the Christian fundamentalists are about 15% of the US population they are about a quarter of voters. Kevin Modesti points out that: “For four decades, one side in the fight over religion’s role in American politics was clearly overmatched. You might say it didn’t have a prayer”.

I have a personal testimony which points to what televangelists have difficulty with: religious tolerance. In working at the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (as the director of the Middle East Desk) for thirteen years I was immersed in a culture of ecumenism. Ecumenism may be viewed as a process of discovering one’s own faith and a mindset enabling believers to appreciate the religious perspectives of others.

Before starting a new career in church social service overseas, I had struggled internally for years to understand and reconcile with my Christian faith. I had been taught in traditional Sunday schools that “Christ is the only way to salvation”. This exclusive understanding of Christianity made me feel uncomfortable for being spiritually favored over the majority of the people on this planet. Thanks to ecumenism I am now able to shape my own beliefs.

In my Geneva workplace, I picked up a set of unwritten principles or standards. The first principle in ecumenism is to interpret the scripture figuratively, not literally. The second ecumenical norm is to realize that it is natural and wise for people to stay with the faith they grew up with. The third is to encourage people to live up to the ideals of their own faith; problems often arise in failure to understand one’s own faith. The fourth is not to argue with people of other religions about what is “rational” and what “makes sense”.  Religion is essentially not about science but spiritual truths: creative and uplifting narratives. The best way to appreciate the faith of others is to get to know them, and if possible to work with them on common problems. Do not delude yourself by trying to settle theological differences with people of different beliefs. There are many other conceptual elements in ecumenism but this is not the place to go deeper; I have introduced ecumenism to express my concern about the rise of American televangelism which totally rejects ecumenism for its openness.

For the past four decades, starting with the launch of the Moral Majority movement in the early 1980s, the US evangelicals have been on the rise (in building mega-churches, raising massive funds and gaining disproportional political clout) and the mainline protestant churches have been losing their appeal and adherents.

The Christian evangelicals are still part of the protestant churches but they are no longer energized by the ideas of the European Reformation movement which saved Christianity from a moral downward spiral in church institutions.  Martin Luther initiated a rebellion against medieval papal authority and promoted the freedom of interpretation of the bible. Unlike the extreme evangelicals of today, the early protestant movement challenged the wealth of the church and promoted compassion for the poor. Televangelists rationalize excessive wealth and consistently promote prosperity from the pulpit.

The source of the problem of the televangelists seems to lie in a politicized and power-hungry leadership, a lucrative industry of saving souls and a militant narrative which proclaims that Jesus Christ is returning to earth in flesh soon, to a specific country (Israel), to win a decisive battle against non-believers: end of time is near. It is important to note that not every evangelical is politically active or obsessed with end-of-time theology.

Well dressed televangelical pastors preach in mega-churches equipped with advanced technology, sound effects, and great music. Preachers have become celebrities. The messenger has become the message.

Dozens of televangelical networks bombard the airwaves with fiery sermons about instant salvation. These sermons are televised by broadcasting networks to over 100 countries, reaching over two billion people.

Televangelists preach rather than serve, convert rather than empower, telecast rather than listen. Televangelists sell Christianity as a consumer product.

There is ample literature covering the greed of televangelists. Many preachers are making several million dollars a year by feeding huge broadcasting networks emotional sermons which urge listeners to send money regularly to expanding ministries.

All churches and broadcasting religious networks enjoy tax exemptions. Churches do not have the legal obligations to disclose how they spend their money.  But when suspected of fraud, religious charities can theoretically be audited by the IRS. However, the IRS is not authorized to investigate churches or religious charities without the permission of a high-ranking official in the Treasury Department. Moreover, the IRS is too afraid of Congress to launch inquiries into the finance of religious charities. For the past ten years, the televangelists have been enjoying unchecked freedom in generating big revenue. They have built a large business in the solicitation for televised sermons, published books and prepared religious CDs.

In 2007, responding to the public interest and media pressure, Chairman of the US Senate Committee on Finance, Senator Charles Grassley, launched an unprecedented investigation of six prosperity oriented televangelical ministers. An elaborate and highly sensitive investigation produced an inconclusive report in 2011. The outcome of Grassley’s inquiry did not lead to penalties but to notes of caution for the three (out of six) ministers who did not provide the information requested in the inquiry. That Senate Committee’s search for violations of IRS guidelines was impeded by strong lobbying in defense of the church ministry; the defendants argued that it was the IRS, not the Senate which conducts such inquiries.

This legislative attempt to examine the possible irregularities of religious charity failed and it may have been counterproductive. The IRS and the legislatures today look the other way as televangelists continue to find new ways to build institutional and personal fortunes. There are many legal and political hurdles facing the IRS in investigating religious charities.

Apart from gaps in tax law, the business practices of televangelicals are virtually free of quality control. The money raised in prayer-based healing of medically incurable illnesses, and in pledging access to instant paradise to believers is a business enterprise; it is an immense revenue-generating operation. The business model of televangelists is tantamount to a health-care provider for the living and an after-life insurance scheme for the deceased. In this evangelical business, the consumer decides the fee (contribution) for service but the provider is not accountable for the quality of service.

The standards of legal scrutiny applied to proper insurance businesses do not apply to the business of religious charities.  In no other post-industrial country is religious charity left largely unregulated. One hopes that the US government will one day monitor the business ethics of religious charities the way it does secular charities and other businesses. What is lacking is the political climate willing to subject religious charities to fair tax law, a firm enforcement framework and an environment of accountability.

In a Trumpian world, evangelicals are thriving.