[Update: ‘CBS This Morning’ interviewed Trinity Foundation president Ole Anthony in a follow up to John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” piece.]
John Oliver skewered televangelists, the Prosperity Gospel and abysmal IRS oversight in a way that’s uniquely his own during an episode of Last Week Tonight, which aired Sunday on HBO. Oliver put it all together in one of his signature takedowns. (See above)
Nowhere in the program does it mention the source of most of this information: Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based, public religious non-profit charged with keeping tabs on religious fraud and helping its victims.
Trinity worked for months with the program, providing video, photos and reams of documentation. The result, of course, was hilarious. But after we’ve all had a good laugh and the smoke clears, the televangelists will continue to ply their trade, defaming the Christian gospel and the selfless work of millions of believers around the world, many suffering fierce persecution.
And that’s the way it’s been going for Trinity Foundation since it started monitoring religious broadcasting in 1974, before many in John Oliver’s audience were born.
In a rather sad retrospective of its history earlier this year, the foundation’s newsletter ticked off its failed attempts to get something done about religious fraud, and laid out the problems:
- Televangelists seem to thrive on bad publicity. Despite numberless segments on media news programs (PrimeTime Live, 60 Minutes, major newspapers and local TV across the country), these exposes only strengthened the loyalty of televangelists’ followers (Satan is attacking us!) and had no effect on the money they sent in.
- Law enforcement is hamstrung. Trinity worked with numerous state attorneys general and U.S. Attorneys across the nation, exploring different tactics to stop the fraud, without significant effect.
- The IRS is restrained by vague guidelines and political fears. As Oliver pointed out on the program, the IRS has no real way to define what a church is. A direct-mail operation can call itself a church, or a comedy show, as Oliver did by registering his Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.
- Congress won’t act. Trinity threw itself into helping Chuck Grassley’s Senate Finance Committee investigation of the top money-making televangelists. After five years, the investigation fizzled, and Grassley, the chairman, asked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) to make recommendations that didn’t include any new legislation at all.
Just before throwing in the towel, Trinity President Ole Anthony saw a disturbing piece of information that rekindled the flame.
A respected scholarly missions journal – The International Bulletin of Missionary Research – reported that money embezzled by Christian workers and religious leaders around the world will exceed the total funding for world missions again in 2015, and then will double in the next 10 years to $100 billion.
Anthony was stunned.
“In the past, we’ve estimated that the business of televangelism rakes in $3-5 billion annually through fraudulent promises and techniques,” Anthony explained. But because religious TV is ubiquitous around the world, the lavish lifestyle it models and the prosperity gospel it preaches create an atmosphere of spiritual entitlement that can overwhelm other moral considerations.
“More generally, the example of opulent mega church buildings or lavish lifestyle all send a subliminal signal that says God’s plan is all about the success of self.”
“For years, we’ve been criticized for concentrating on a fringe problem, putting energy into something that wasn’t important to the mission of the church; it was even seen by some as an attack on the church itself,” Anthony said. “These current findings show – to the contrary – that our concern has been directly relevant to the church’s overall mission.”
So instead of quitting, Trinity broadened it scope to include religious fraud around the world, not just in the United States.
But Trinity has a problem.
In the past it has benefited from a small number of people giving (very) occasional donations to fund it’s meager staff [Its office is in one half of a duplex in old east Dallas]. But IRS regulations require that, as a “public” foundation, it must have a broader public base, with a multitude of small donors.
That’s right. The same IRS that is unwilling to prosecute blatant religious fraudsters could shut down the only organization that is keeping an eye on them.
Anthony, although gifted in investigations and gaining access to the media, is so averse to (and inept at) asking for funds himself that the organization could falter within months. I believe that would be bad for America and for the cause of Christ. So, this is really a plea for everyone to throw a little money Trinity’s way.
You can do that by going to their website here.