On his award-worthy HBO program Last Week Tonight, John Oliver revels in exposing hypocrisy, from the compromised snake oil salesman Dr. Oz to “thin-skinned” megalomaniac Donald Trump. Sunday night’s edition saw the intrepid British satirist target America’s shady fraternity of televangelists bleeding their brainwashed acolytes dry.
“This is about the churches that exploit people’s faith for monetary gain,” Oliver announced.
Yes, in 2015, televangelism is still thriving in America. Back in March, The Daily Beast reported on Creflo Dollar, a pastor who’d thoroughly convinced his loyal congregation that God wanted him to own a $65 million private jet, and wanted them to foot the bill.
Joining Dollar in his pursuit of the high life is Mike Murdock, a televangelist who shamelessly bragged in front of his congregation about purchasing not one, but two private jets with straight cash. And Kenneth Copeland, a televangelist who—along with his equally opportunistic wife, Gloria—calls his private jet a “preaching machine” that he uses only for church activities, yet was revealed to use it to fly to luxury ski resorts and gaming trips to India to hunt exotic animals.
All of these televangelists and more preach “The Prosperity Gospel” that, Oliver says, “argues that wealth is a sign of God’s favor, and donations will result in wealth coming back to you. That idea takes the form of ‘seed faith’—that donations are seeds that you will one day get to harvest.”
Last Week then played a series of damning clips of televangelists requesting “seed” money on their programs, including Murdock convincing those deep in credit card debt to donate $1,000 to his church in order to sow a “seed” to God that will eventually wipe out said debt.
Even more harrowing is the case of Bonnie Parker, who, instead of seeking treatment for cancer, was convinced to “sow” money into Copeland’s church due to the ministry’s teaching. After Parker died in 2004 from cancer, her daughter, Kristy Beach, claimed to have found her mother’s diaries that detailed the words she heard on TV from Kenneth and Gloria Copeland.
“If she went to a doctor, it was a sin,” Beach told the AP. “You didn’t believe enough if you did. She just wrote: ‘God heal me. God heal me. God heal me.’”Oliver then played a video of Gloria Copeland, who hawks a series of “healing faith” products, suggesting to her congregation that it’s better to pray then to seek medical treatment for cancer.
“We know what’s wrong with you—you’ve got cancer,” preached Copeland. “The bad news is we don’t know what to do about it except give you some poison that will make you sicker. Now, which do you want to do: do you want to do that, or do you want to sit here on Saturday morning, hear the word of God, and let faith come into your heart and be healed? Hallelujah.”
What’s more, these “Prosperity Gospel” and “seed faith” practices are not only legal, but, since these money-suck factories are technically churches, the vast sums of money people donate to them is tax-free. Even the IRS admits that its regulations concerning churches and religious entities are “purposely broad” and “a little vague.” In the IRS Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations, “the term church is found, but not specifically defined” and the “IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs… are truly and sincerely held… and the practices… are not illegal.” The IRS also rarely audits churches to prove their validity, examining just two churches in 2013 and one in 2014.
And, since they run a “church,” the Copelands can live in a $6.3 million mega-mansion tax-free, since it’s designated a “parsonage.”
To further prove his point, Oliver and Last Week Tonight claimed to have corresponded with televangelist Robert Tilton’s Word of Faith Worldwide Church for seven months, first mailing him $20 in January along with a kindly-worded request to be added to his mailing list.“Within two weeks, he sent me a letter back thanking me for my donation, and claiming, ‘I believe that God has supernaturally brought us together.’” A couple of weeks after that, Oliver received an envelope with a $1 bill in it and a message that read, “Send it back to me with your best Prove God tithes or offering.”“That’s right,” Oliver said, “I had to send the $1 back with an additional recommended offering of $37, which I did. So at this point, we’re just two letters in and it’s like having a pen pal who’s in deep with some loan sharks.”Oliver claims that in March, he was sent three packets of colored oil that he was instructed to pour on letters and send back to Tilton by specific dates, accompanied with more money. He did it. Then in April, Oliver was sent a manila envelope with a check enclosed—only the check was for $5 from Oliver made out to Pastor Tilton’s church. Seven letters later, he received pieces of fabric and was told to mail them back to Tilton with more money, which he did. Oliver later received a letter with a single $1 bill inside, requesting that he place the bill in his Bible overnight, then send it back the next day with $49. In return, he’d receive a $1 bill that had been blessed. “That did not stop him,” Oliver said. “The letters kept coming. I received another oil packet, more prayer cloths, and even—and this is true—an outline of his foot which I was asked to trace my foot on and mail back to him with more money. So, as of tonight, I’ve sent him $319 and received 26 letters—that’s almost one a week. And again, this is all hilarious until you imagine these letters being sent to someone who cannot afford what he’s asking for.”
To add insult to injury, Oliver claimed to have filed paperwork last week establishing a new church called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption—a process he describes as “disturbingly easy.” Preach, Pastor Oliver.