Sen. Grassley’s Televangelists Results In

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January 7, 2011; Source: Religion Dispatches |  In 2007 Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) initiated reviews of how some of the nation’s most prominent televangelists were using or misusing their tax-exempt charitable status for personal enrichment.  Now, the results are in. 

Last week, Grassley’s staff released findings about Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, Paula White, and Creflo Dollar.  The staff report acknowledged the responses and reforms undertaken by Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer, but noted a pattern of incomplete responses and insufficient cooperation from the other four (Creflo completely stiffed the investigation). 

Religious leaders have hardly applauded Grassley and the nonprofit sector has been a bit reticent to comment.  One argument against was that the review violated the barrier between church and state. For example, Copeland refused to provide information to the Grassley investigation because, he said, “it belongs to God.”  Others suggested that Grassley was biased against Pentacostals (Grassley himself is a Baptist). 

Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee warned that Grassley’s investigations into these televangelists was one step on the slippery slope toward government investigations into nonprofits:  “It’s a little chilling when you start thinking about is Congress going to start going after nonprofit organizations? And if so, are they going to do all nonprofits? Are they going to start looking at” 

It is probably irrelevant that Copeland supported and raised money for Huckabee’s presidential campaign.  But like Grassley’s reliance on nonprofit self-regulation, as recommended by Independent Sector’s Nonprofit Panel after his 2004 hearings, he has apparently decided to do the same about televangelists.  Instead of recommending changes in the tax law, he has asked the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability (EFCA) to create a commission to review the reports on the six televangelists and, as stated in the EFCA press release, “to lead an independent, national effort to review and provide input on major accountability and policy issues affecting such organizations.” 

Like the Independent Sector effort in the previous decade, it is impossible to know with certainty to what extent Grassley simply turned to the EFCA versus how much EFCA and others lobbied for this review to head off precipitating regulations.  Religious institutions – including televangelists – qualify for tax-deductible charitable contributions.  They are a significant part of the tax-exempt sector.  We should all watch what this EFCA commission does – and how it does it.—Rick Cohen

  • Bob Andringa

    I think asking sectors to investigate themselves, then make their conclusions known, is a good strategy before passing laws which always have unintended consequences. ECFA is known for thorough and careful work.

  • Pam Pugh

    one small correction – it’s ECFA rather than EFCA

  • rick cohen

    Egad, I crossed wires/letters as I was scribbling. My apologies to the ECFA and to the NPQ readers, thanks for making the correction (and so nicely!).

  • Sharon Charters

    I think that asking this sector to regulate itself is like asking the fox to guard the hen house. There is a history of financial abuse within the sector that requires a higher level of due diligence and accountability.

  • Dave Estrada

    Great article. Without regulation there will always be abuse. I applaud the senator for attempting to hold non profits accountable for how donors hard earned money is spent.

  • Lenny Bart

    I agree with Dave. I think we should all be held responsible to our donors and our books are already open. I see nothing wrong with looking in on Televangelists as well as

  • Bruce Glasrud

    My foremost thought is that churches and other places of worship, should not be tax-exempt. While *most* secular nonprofits can prove they are a PUBLIC benefit, the same, despite much posturing to the contrary, can not be said of centers for the performance of religious practices. That said, while increased government regulation might indeed be onerous, entities like the ECFA need to step-up and become highly-visible watchdogs, to thus propel meaningful self-regulation. I highly doubt that any of the credulous donors to these Televangelists have even ever heard of the ECFA.