John Oliver’s segment on televangelist prosperity preachers this week has exposed what some say is a massive system of fraud that is being carried out on vulnerable people with no government enforcement or oversight.
Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight highlighted some egregious examples, including Robert Tilton, Mike Murdock and Creflo Dollar. Dollar came under scrutiny for raising money to buy himself a $65 million personal jet. Murdock boasted to his parish that he bought a jet with cash, and because he could sense so much jealousy, he bought another one worth three times more, again with cash.
The preachers are subscribers to something called “prosperity gospel,” a suspiciously self-serving idea that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. They tell followers that sending them money will result in receiving money, for which of course, there is no guarantee in the real world.
“Really the best way to say it is, it’s fraud in the name of God, but because it’s in the name of God our legal system turns a blind eye,” said Andrew Seidel, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “It’s a religious pyramid scheme. And worse, it’s a religious pyramid scheme that’s based on spiritual blackmail.”
Non-profit organizations are audited regularly and have to submit detailed financial disclosure forms to the IRS yearly, said FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Religious organizations don’t have to submit anything. There is literally no oversight. This while taxpayers are footing the bill for lavish mansions prosperity preachers often live in. Religious leaders get to take advantage of a tax policy known as “parsonage,” meaning housing allowance provided by their church is not taxable income, plus they can deduct the interest if they have a mortgage payment. This, Gaylor said, is double dipping and it costs American tax payers millions.