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 Moveon.org?” 

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