US Christian Conservative Leaders Oppose Finance Inquiry

Letter claims investigation motivated by media opposition to “evangelical teachings and socially conservative policy positions”

American Christian Right leaders have come together to decry the Senate Finance Committee’s investigation into the finances of several “mega-ministries”. The leaders have written a letter, which is available on Townhall (I’ve reformatted the signatories to save space and for ease of reading):

United States Congress

U.S. Capitol

Washington, DC 20002

May 2, 2008

Dear Senate Finance Committee Member:

We write respectfully to let you know of our concerns about the Senate Finance Committee’s investigation into the finances of several churches, all of which share the same branch of evangelicalism, and all of which promote socially conservative public policy positions such as support for the traditional definition of marriage.

While we recognize that some evangelical teachings and socially conservative policy positions are controversial, and that these churches have been the subject of sensational investigative journalism, we are nonetheless concerned that this would possibly justify an investigation outside the normal confines of the Internal Revenue Service and established administrative and judicial procedures.

Congress passed the Church Audit Procedures Act in 1984 specifically to discourage politically driven audits of churches. The Act prevents the Internal Revenue Service from initiating an investigation into a church’s finances unless a “high level Treasury official” concludes that there is reasonable cause for such an investigation. The Act also protects a church under investigation from politically motivated leaks during the course of the examination.

We are unaware of any finding by a high-level Treasury Department official that there is reasonable cause to open an investigation of any of these ministries.

We are concerned that the Senate Finance Committee may be setting a dangerous precedent that may be difficult to reverse.  For one thing, controversy will always be a part of religious teaching.  And religious controversy is something the media will inevitably strive to exploit, since the media feed on controversy and have demonstrated a bias against evangelical Christians.  The Committee’s reliance on media reports in targeting subjects for its investigation would therefore only seem to reinforce this unfortunate bias, however unwittingly.

We cannot recall instances in the past where a congressional committee has targeted major ministries under threat of subpoena. The ministries have been asked to produce financial records and internal documents in what appears to be an exercise in disproving their alleged guilt.

Congress has a legitimate role to play in oversight of our laws, including tax laws governing churches. And ministries have the obligation to be transparent in their financial accounting. But the targeting of specific ministries by a congressional committee would seem to intrude on the free exercise of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We believe this is why churches are properly exempt from taxation in the first place — to prevent governments from using their power to tax as a way to limit the free exercise of religion.

We respectfully ask that investigations into the finances of specific ministries be left with the Internal Revenue Service, overseen and approved by a Treasury Department official who has affirmed that there is reasonable cause for such an investigation, in accordance with the Church Audit Procedures Act.

Signed,

Paul Weyrich, Chairman, Coalitions for America; Donald E. Wildmon, Founder and Chairman, American Family Association; Ken Blackwell, Chairman, Coalition for a Conservative Majority; William Murray, Chairman, Religious Freedom Coalition; Rev. Bill Owens, President, Coalition of African American Pastors; Victoria Cobb, President, The Family Foundation of Virginia; Dr. Gary Cass, Chairman/CEO, Christian Anti-Defamation Commission; Pastor Craig Polston, Kingdom Baptist Church, Fredericksburg, Virginia; Pastor Bob Emrich, The Maine Jeremiah Project, Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church; Dr. Carl Herbster, President, AdvanceUSA; Anthony Verdugo, Christian Family Coalition; Deal W. Hudson, Director, InsideCatholic.com; Rev. Rick Scarborough, President, Vision America; Star Parker, President, Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education; Colin Hanna, President, Pennsylvania Pastors Network; Dr. Danny Forshee, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Lavaca, Arkansas; Sadie Fields, State Chairman, Georgia Christian Alliance; Pastor Jack Knapp, Sandston, Virginia; Larry Cirignano, Founder, CatholicVote; James Martin, President, 60 Plus; George Landrith, President, Frontiers of Freedom; Mathew Staver, Dean and Professor of Law, Liberty University School of Law; Rev. Rob Schenck, National Clergy Council

The investigation, as is well known, is being overseen by Sen. Charles Grassley, and he is focussing on Without Walls International Church, Benny Hinn Ministries, Joyce Meyer Ministries, Kenneth Copeland Ministries, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and World Changers Church International. Media reports have, in recent months and years, highlighed a number of financial controversies involving these and other ministries: questions have been raised about Kenneth Copeland’s private use of a ministry jet, and concerning Benny Hinn’s penchant for luxurious hotels. Morris Cerullo, Mac Hammond, and (from Canada) Paul Melnichuk have also faced negative publicity over the use of money. Grassley clearly has a personal distaste for the “Prosperity Gospel” and for the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by certain ministry leaders (who often receive donations from vulnerable people hoping for some kind of miracle from God), but to claim that the investigation is driven simply by media bias against “evangelical teachings and socially conservative policy positions” is disingenuous.

However, the letter does raise a legitimate issue, and concerns about Grassley’s approach appeared in Christianity Today in January:

…take this comment, published on Grassley’s website: “As a Christian myself, and a person who believes in tithing, I feel I have a right to know where my money goes.”

But the law allows churches not to disclose their finances, even to their own members. Indeed, it was Grassley himself who introduced the Church Audit Procedures Act in 1983, which significantly limited irs investigations into church finances.

…Several of the ministries targeted by Grassley (and others not targeted) appear to provide excessive compensation to their celebrity leaders. So we encourage them to disclose their finances. We welcome irs investigations into allegations of mismanaged funds, and we don’t oppose a Senate query into whether further legislation is necessary. At the same time, it’s hard to see how further legislation would be helpful. It would only amount to more government intrusion into church governance.

…But churches—even ones that spout heresies like the health-and-wealth gospel—are protected by the First Amendment in ways that the Nature Conservancy and Smithsonian are not. Grassley was on dangerous ground when he told reporters, “Jesus comes into the city on a simple mule, and you got people today expanding his gospel in corporate jets. Somebody ought to raise questions about [whether] it’s right or wrong.” There’s an important theological question here, but a Senate investigation is not the place to ask it.

Meanwhile, Grassley’s investigation has been noted in other countries; Ghana has many prosperity preachers, and a recent opinion piece in the Accra Public Agenda observed that

…In the USA, a Republican senator, Charles Grassley of Iowa has recently begun a crusade against these so-called prosperity preachers. Grassley is asking the ministries for financial records on salaries, spending practices, private jets and other perks…However, what is important is the pervasive nature of the extent of exploitation that is going on in many churches.

…It appears the modern church has been characterized by a new wave of corruption that is unheard of in religious circles. Rather than instill hope, they are making poverty widespread. Rather than strengthen families, they are tearing them apart; it looks as if people will tear down as many good livable housing to build these huge churches, multiplying the homeless problem in record numbers.

(Hit tip: Melissa Rogers)

5 Responses

  1. Many of the facts brought up in these letters and articles support Copeland’s position of requesting that the IRS handle this situation. It’s good to see Christian leaders getting behind the organizations involved in this dispute. Here is another interesting article… http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/60222

  2. Interesting to see Wildmon’s name for the first time in a while. I thought maybe he’d given up his position to stay home and watch the 24-hour uncensored feed of ‘Big Brother’ on the internet…

    Seriously, though, there are so many thorny issues here: fiscal questions involving tax-exempt statuses (stati?) of these supposedly ‘not-for-profit’ ministries, constitutional questions about whether the finances and actions of the ministry and the minister are separable, legal questions about the fundraising tactics used by the ministries and targeted at “the least of these” over public airwaves, and ethical questions about ministries that refuse to utilize the accountability resources available with membership in the ECFA or similar organizations.

    I don’t know if Grassley’s Senatorial probe is the most efficient or appropriate way to receive solid answers to these questions, but the ministries’ tactic of saying “shut up and let the IRS investigate” smacks of the same kind of chicanery Robert Tilton used to keep his pile of ill-gotten cash, wriggle out of his legal woes, and rebuild his blasphemous television empire.

    No, this is not about Christians standing up against government persecution. It is about unfettered greed prospering under the guise of constitutional protections originally designed for organizations that utilize their funds for charitable and religious purposes, not individuals who start churches as lucrative investments.

  3. Copeland is concerned with the bigger picture here. So are the other Christian leaders who have come together in support of Copeland’s defense and request. The implications for the future could be scary if Grassley is given access to such information just because he has deemed it necessary. Think about it.

  4. There is still no evidence of wrong doing by any of these organizations. Copeland should continue to stand his ground here. The details requested by Grassley are ridiculous. What could have had planned to do with them once he had access to them? What issues will be brought up next?

  5. […] crew took the opportunity to check out a compound belonging to Kenneth Copeland, who is probably the movement’s best-known contemporary exponent (although he’s also very much a part of the broader […]

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