Senator Chuck Grassley of the good state of Iowa has apparently decided that ministers of the Christian gospel shouldn’t be getting rich off the donations of their flocks, at least not if they’re going to maintain tax-exempt status for their congregations. According to Sen. Grassley’s press release of November 6:
Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Committee on Finance, has asked six media-based ministries for information regarding expenses, executive compensation, and amenities given to executives. The inquiry is part of Grassley’s long-standing interest in making sure tax-exempt organizations are accountable to donors.
"I’m following up on complaints from the public and news coverage regarding certain practices at six ministries," Grassley said. "The allegations involve governing boards that aren’t independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls Royces. I don’t want to conclude that there’s a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code."
Two of the six ministries that are the subject of this inquiry are New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and World Changers Church International, both located in my own metropolitan Atlanta area. (Do check out the links, especially the intro from New Birth – I particularly liked their gym that they call the “Samson Fitness Center”.) Not surprisingly, the head honchos of these religious racketeering operations, I mean, um, faithful ministers of the faithful ministries, those being Bishop Eddie Long and Reverend Creflo Dollar (you just can’t make up a name like that) respectively, are objecting to this government intrusion into the free exercise of religion.
What these preachers are preaching is a perverted version of Christianity known as the “prosperity gospel”. In short, the message of the prosperity gospel is that God wants to bless you, and the more faithful you are in responding to God’s call on your life, the more God will bless you, both spiritually and materially. In other words, the more you give, the more you get, and material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing upon you.
It’s way too easy to take some shots at this message. Whether you start with the Book of James or the teaching of Jesus himself, you’ll quickly realize that the message of Jesus is clearly not one of Wealth = God’s Blessing and Approval. But there are plenty of folks out there who desperately want to believe that the prosperity gospel is true. New Birth claims a membership of 25,000, while World Changers claims 30,000. Oh, and New Birth has a 240-acre campus with a $50 million, 10,000-seat sanctuary, and a 22-seat Grumman jet, while World Changers has an $18 million, 8,500-seat World Dome and a 10-seat Gates Learjet.
Reverend Dollar defends his lavish lifestyle this way: "Without a doubt, my life is not average…but I'd like to say, just because it is excessive doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong."
Maybe that’s true; maybe his lifestyle is not wrong. Maybe when Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to give away all his possessions, he really meant that the ruler should give them all to Rev. Dollar and Bishop Long, because they deserved them more than he did. And if you want to preach a religious message that says the faithful should get rich, I say this is America, go for it, that’s your Constitutional right (as wrong-headed as you might be). But you shouldn’t get the protection of nonprofit status under the federal tax laws to promulgate a business empire that makes you rich. That's not religious discrimination; that's simply equal treatment under the law.