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.


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,; 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)

John Hagee’s Album

Bruce Wilson at Talk to Action has posted some interesting photographs of apocalyptic Christian Zionist mega-church pastor John Hagee hanging out with some rather well-known people.

Hagee has featured on this blog before (see search function), and his recent endorsement of John McCain has caused some controversy. The video below presents a typical Hagee sermon, although someone else has ornamented it with pictures and music.