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This Week in God, 8.22.15

How can John Oliver create his own televangelist ministry? By taking advantage of a flawed legal system -- which wealthy TV preachers exploit all the time.
John Oliver (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
John Oliver arrives at The 20th Annual Fulfillment Fund Stars Benefit Gala in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Oct. 14, 2014.
First up from the God Machine this week is a look at the ongoing success of American televangelists, and HBO's John Oliver shining a light on the system that allows TV preachers to create incredibly lucrative enterprises.
In a segment on Oliver's "Last Week Tonight," the host reminded his audience that televangelists may not have the notoriety they had a generation ago, but they're still receiving millions from followers. Much of the TV preachers' fundraising operations still rely on a system known as the "prosperity gospel," which as Oliver explained, "argues that wealth is a sign of God's favor, and donations will result in wealth coming back to you."
As a result, donors, some of whom are sick and economically vulnerable, are encouraged to part with scarce resources, giving their money to televangelists in the form of "seeds," which people are told they'll be able to "harvest" for greater wealth in the future.
And as offensive as that may be to many, what stood out as especially important from a political and policymaking perspective is the existing tax system that makes it easy for televangelists to create such vast, wealthy empires. From Vox's report on the "Last Week Tonight" segment:

"And yet, not only is everything you've seen so far legal, but the money people donate in response to it is tax-free," Oliver said. "If you're registered as a religious nonprofit or especially a church, you are given broad exemptions over taxation and regulation." Not only does the IRS not strictly define churches, but the agency makes no attempt to evaluate the content of any church's doctrine to see if it's religious -- as long as the beliefs are genuine and not illegal -- before giving it tax-exempt status. And that benefit can go to everything these churches own, even their owners' huge mansions. The IRS also rarely holds these churches accountable, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report. In fiscal year 2014, they audited one church. In fiscal year 2013, they audited two.

This led Oliver to -- I'm not kidding -- set up his own ministry. "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption" has a website that is every bit as funny as you might expect.
The IRS has a 14-point guideline to help determine if an institution is an actual church under the law -- there is no literal definition, which is part of the underlying concern -- but it's "disturbingly easy," as Oliver put it, for institutions to get approval through the guidelines, since churches don't have to pass all 14 points. A tax lawyer advised Oliver that "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption" could meet a worship standard, for example, by having his audience "silently meditate on the nature of fraudulent churches."
Oliver's faux ministry, by the way, also registered as a non-profit corporation in Texas -- a state Oliver does not live in, and has never lived in, though for legal purposes, that does not matter.
The point, of course, is that any system that is so susceptible to fraud and abuse -- in which there are no consequences -- is in need of reforms. It was a hilarious segment, but there's no reason policymakers should just laugh and move on. Responsible tax laws and proper enforcement can prevent abuses and protect vulnerable Americans from exploitation.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz and right-wing Iowa radio host Jan Mickelson agreed yesterday there's an "atheist Taliban" in the United States that seeks to "tear down any acknowledgment of God in the public square."
* A breakthrough for the Church of Latter Day Saints: "Mormons across the globe praised LDS leaders for adding the faith's top female officers to three high-level councils, calling the historic move a moment to savor."
* And by way of my colleague Will Femia, it turns out the BibleWalk museum in Mansfield, Ohio, has reconstructed Biblical scenes using discarded wax figures "of British royals." Prince Charles, for example, is featured in a scene "as Abel, the son of Adam and Eve who is murdered by his brother Cain. He has been given a 'pudding bowl' haircut and wears brown and yellow shepherd's robes."