Last Week Tonight's John Oliver on Sunday set his sights on the people who use religion to make millions and millions of dollars.
"Churches are a cornerstone of American life. There are roughly 350,000 congregations in the United States, and many of them do great work — feeding the hungry, clothing the poor," Oliver said. "But this is not a story about them. This is about the churches that exploit people's faith for monetary gain."
Oliver walked through how televangelists take money from vulnerable and often sick people, and benefit from vague tax policy, which grants them tax-exempt status even for million-dollar mansions. He then made a big reveal: He set up his own church to test the limits of the law.
"Televangelism is still thriving in this country"
Preachers claim donations go to important church work. But very often, the spending seems frivolous — like when they spend money on large private jets.
"Preachers claim these jets are vital tools," Oliver said, pointing to the very successful televangelist Kenneth Copeland. "A few years back, he asked his followers to help buy a $20 million jet, promising it would only be used for church business. But a local news crew did some digging. And what they found will probably not surprise you."
The WFAA investigation found that Copeland ended up using the jet for ski resorts and an exotic hunting trip, among other recreational flights. "Now, Copeland's ministry will tell you that he reimburses the churches for trips like that," Oliver said. "But that still means he has private jet reimbursement money. And yet despite that personal wealth, people still send Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, and that asshole with two planes lots and lots of money."
The churches claim wealth is a sign of God's favor
The churches "preach something called the prosperity gospel, which argues that wealth is a sign of God's favor, and donations will result in wealth coming back to you," Oliver said. "That idea sometime takes the form of seed faith — the notion that donations are seeds that you will one day get to harvest."
Oliver rolled a clip of several televangelists making this claim. "All you've got is $1,000," televangelist Henry Fernandez said. "Listen, that's not enough money anyway to buy the house. You're trying to get into the apartment, you're trying to buy the house. That's not enough money anyway. You get to that phone, and you put that seed into the ground, and watch God work it out."
"The argument is sow your money in the ground and you will reap returns multiple times over," Oliver said. "Except, as an investment, you'd be better off burying your money in the actual ground, because at least that way there is a chance your dog may dig it up and give it back to you one day."
Televangelists benefit from vague tax policy
"And yet, not only is everything you've seen so far legal, but the money people donate in response to it is tax-free," Oliver said. "If you're registered as a religious nonprofit or especially a church, you are given broad exemptions over taxation and regulation."
Not only does the IRS not strictly define churches, but the agency makes no attempt to evaluate the content of any church's doctrine to see if it's religious — as long as the beliefs are genuine and not illegal — before giving it tax-exempt status. And that benefit can go to everything these churches own, even their owners' huge mansions.
The IRS also rarely holds these churches accountable, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report. In fiscal year 2014, they audited one church. In fiscal year 2013, they audited two.
Oliver set up his own church
In the end, Oliver concluded his segment with a big announcement: "That is when I realized the message [televangelist] Robert Tilton was sending me was that I should set up my own church to test the legal and financial limits of what religious entities are able to do."
Oliver's not kidding. The church, called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, is now open to the public at its own website. (The website's fine print says that all donations will go to Doctors Without Borders upon the church's dissolution.)
"There's only one thing left for us to do," Oliver said. "Let's go to church."