Church Accountability

Does God exist?In November, 2007, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked six high-profile televangelist organizations to provide more information about how they work. Grassley said: “My goal is to help improve accountability and good governance so tax-exempt groups maintain public confidence in their operations.”

The investigated organizations (I’ll use the names of the public faces) were:

  • Joyce Meyer. She responded fully to Grassley’s questions, joined the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), and discloses her annual revenue to MinistryWatch (about $110 million per year).
  • Benny Hinn also gave complete answers to Grassley’s questions. However, MinistryWatch gave him a transparency grade of F. His ministry’s income is about the same as Meyer’s.
  • Kenneth Copeland: incomplete information. He claimed (go here and search “Torpedoed!”) that his 40-year-old ministry has taken in a total of about $1.5 billion. MinistryWatch grade: F.
  • Creflo Dollar: incomplete information. MinistryWatch grade: F.
  • Eddie Long: incomplete information and not listed in MinistryWatch.
  • Paula White: incomplete information and not listed in MinistryWatch.

Let’s dwell on this a moment. A U.S. senator asks for information, as the Senate Finance Committee is empowered to do, and he is (more or less) given the finger. And there is no fallout? These ministries can tap dance away from this request for information with no meaningful loss of face? The faithful still shower them with $100 million per year? What kind of disconnect from reality is this?

This is a contract between U.S. taxpayers and these nonprofit organizations, mediated by the IRS. We provide the nonprofit status and, in return, they prove that they deserve that status. If religious organizations policed themselves and they made their finances public (by voluntarily submitting their information to the IRS like all other nonprofits), this wouldn’t be a problem. But they don’t. With $100 billion in tax-exempt contributions to the religion industry every year, shielded from inspection, it’s obvious that this exemption is a bad idea.

A memo prepared by Sen. Grassley’s staff highlights some of the foundational principles that are relevant to this discussion.

The Constitution does not require the government to exempt churches from federal income taxation or from filing tax and information returns.

And:

Requiring churches to file an annual information return does not offend either the Free Exercise Clause or the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment].

Some ministries have complained that an obligatory filing would entangle the government in church business, but the opposite may be more accurate. Today, the IRS must define what a church is, since the legal code doesn’t. For example, after a long legal battle, Scientology was granted tax-exempt status as a church. Putting churches in the same bin as other nonprofits would eliminate this unwelcome role for the IRS.

The Grassley memo admits that there should be no constitutional problem with a level playing field, but it argues that some problems will remain:

  • Eliminating the exemption “would unnecessarily burden the overwhelming majority of churches.” Why? The 1.5 million nonprofits with less than $100,000 in annual income can follow the rules. Surely a church that can keep its books can fill out a four-page 990-EZ form. The only tough part is taking that deep breath and disclosing to the world how you spend your income.
  • This would burden the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Office, which is stretched as it is. When a ministry is simply a piggy bank for a few people at the top, no laws are being broken. Things change if we can force the churches to commit publicly. Let’s let a little sunshine in and let public scrutiny (and possible condemnation) do its work. Could a sleazy ministry lie? Of course, but when it does, it’s now breaking the law. At that point, there’s a crime that the IRS can go after and assets that can help fund the process.
  • This would be contrary to the intent of Congress. True, but the desires of Congress can change. If ordinary Christians, embarrassed by the secrecy of churches, demanded a level playing field for all nonprofits, Congress just might turn around. Without public demand, there will be no energy for this initiative.

The ECFA is a good step. Though it’s expensive to join, it provides what amounts to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval to ministries that abide by its code. But even they don’t demand that salaries be revealed, and members need only provide financial information on written request. It’s a baby step, when a level playing field is the obvious solution.

The IRS has a form 990 and 1.5 million nonprofit organizations already using it. It works. It should be our window into the operation of all nonprofits, including churches.

What are the next steps? An atheist organization like the Freedom From Religion Foundation could file lawsuits, but a push for this from within the Christian community would be far more effective. Christians, you have the power. Aren’t you embarrassed by being lumped in with the worst of the televangelists? Wouldn’t you like to see some public scrutiny on Scientology and other organizations hiding behind this loophole?

You won’t like me when I’m angry,
because I always back up my rage
with facts and documented sources.
— the Credible Hulk

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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20 thoughts on “Church Accountability

  1. I am under the impression the the books of all non profits are to be made available durning business hours to the public.

    • (I’ve deleted your last name in your post. Hope this is what you wanted.)

      I’ve heard that the FCC has a rule like that for radio and TV stations, but the 990 is the way you see inside nonprofits. I’m pretty sure that if you went to a church or ministry with this assumption, they’d laugh at you. But correct me if you have other information.

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  3. As I said to you in response to your last post, I’m in agreement. You provided Senator Grassley’s target list of problem ministries, and they are poster children for the reason you have a legitimate beef.

    Most of us are indeed doing our part to police our own non-profit involvement, including our personal churches. I’d ask you to do the same and spend more time policing the non-profits like Planned Parenthood, where underage girls being molested by older men can find a parental-involvement-free abortion and the molester is not reported, along with other abuses. Why don’t you work on policing the Non-Christian non-profits, and we can all agree that it is not JUST the allegedly Christian non-profits liked he ones you highlighted that are problematic.

    Then we can be in complete agreement.

    • Again, it’s great to see that we have a rare point of agreement.

      I’d ask you to do the same and spend more time policing the non-profits like Planned Parenthood

      This blog series has been just about financial transparency. Planned Parenthood already is financially transparent (go to http://www.guidestar.org/ and search yourself to see the 990s of the various PP organizations).

      … where underage girls being molested by older men

      Whaaa … ? I understand that rape is against the law. Now exactly what does this have to do with Planned Parenthood? Is PP supporting or condoning this?

      … the molester is not reported, along with other abuses.

      Are you saying that PP is breaking the law? If your point is that PP should follow the law, I’m in agreement.

      I’m at a loss to understand this little project you’re assigning me. And how financial transparency segues to abortion.

      Why don’t you work on policing the Non-Christian non-profits, and we can all agree that it is not JUST the allegedly Christian non-profits liked he ones you highlighted that are problematic.

      When it comes to financial transparency, it is just the Christian nonprofits that are the problem.

      And you promised to tell me about the nonreligious nonprofits that aren’t in the database of 990s (“I’m certain there are scads of non-profits not listed in the Guidestar site”).

      • The issue is transparency of all non-profits, if you want to do some clear thinking about non-profits as a whole and not simply cherry pick some problem ones on the Christian side. I provided a link to indicate the problems on your side, (“This article (The new realities of non-profit accountability) indicates there is a significant accountability problem on your side of the table. “)

        You’re free to charge me with not providing evidence of the “scads of organizations,” but please do so only after actually checking the information I do provide. Thanks.

        As for the Planned Parenthood problems, see Planned Parenthood’s predator problem. I assumed you were well enough connected to current events to know about these well publicized issues.

        • The issue is transparency of all non-profits

          Yes, and, as I’ve said, we already have transparency with the non-religious ones.

          If I’ve misunderstood something, as apparently you think I have, you need to correct me instead of simply repeating your argument.

          I provided a link to indicate the problems on your side

          Perhaps there’s some reason by which my replies aren’t getting through because, again, I’ve already responded to this.

          I read the article the last time you gave the link. As I understand it, it talks about problems with nonprofits, not “problems with nonprofits that Bob likes” or “problems with all nonprofits except the religious ones.”

          What’s this “your side of the table”? Aren’t we both eager to see nonprofits work better?

          You’re free to charge me with not providing evidence of the “scads of organizations,” but please do so only after actually checking the information I do provide. Thanks.

          Are you saying that the Alliance article listed organizations that don’t provide 990s? If so, I missed that. If that’s the case, please point out what I missed.

          As for the Planned Parenthood problems …

          Again, why are we talking about PP? The topic here is financial transparency.

          It seems that this is an attempted sleight of hand on your part to divert the conversation away from an uncomfortable truth that you don’t want to confront. And yet we apparently agree. So why the diversion?

  4. Bob,

    There are good and bad pieces of news for you. The bad piece of news is that God is angry at you because you have sinned. You are heading toward hell.

    The good piece of news is that God still loves you, and he even sent his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to be tortured and kill for your sins to be forgiven. Then you stand a chance to enter God’s Kingdom. But you need to accept Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.

    • Doesn’t sound like much of a net positive to me. I can’t just believe by force of will; I need evidence. As a result, “just accept Christ” is impossible (unless I actually get that evidence).

    • Exactly how does the torturing and killing of God’s innocent son allow Him to forgive someone’s sin?

      Infinite punishment for finite sin doesn’t make any sense either.

      Finally, as Bob mentioned, even if any of this made any logical sense, there’s still no evidence that any part of this story is true.

      • Jesus paid a penalty he did not owe. That payment in God’s grace can be extended to cover the sins of those of us who do owe a payment for sins.

        As for evidence, there is lots of evidence. The real issue is whether you are willing to accept the evidence that has been shown to you. Fulfilled prophecy, changed lives of the disciples, a significant amount of evidence that the scriptures were never changed in any meaningful way, and a host of other things—all evidence. But the true issue is that you and Bob are not willing to accept it. We’ve been over all that before, and you simply don’t accept it.

        That may well be your prerogative. But don’t say there’s no evidence. That is simply wrong, and you and Bob are simply argumentative and unwilling to defend your own assertions. Being unwilling to participate in defending your atheism is a sham and a ruse, and makes both of you lose any credibility you might have been due.

        And that is all I will have to say on this subject.

        • Rick:

          Jesus paid a penalty he did not owe.

          This moving around of punishment and justice like chess pieces doesn’t make any sense.

          Suppose I borrow $20 from you. A week later, you ask for it back. I say, “Great news! I was worried because I didn’t have the money, but I asked God to forgive me, and he did!”

          But you’re still out the $20.

          That Jesus could pay our punishment doesn’t make any sense (at least, that’s not the way justice works on our planet). Further, that an enlightened being like God can’t just forgive (like any of us would) is baffling.

          His hands are tied by heavenly red tape or something? He’s got to have his pound of flesh?

          Fulfilled prophecy, changed lives of the disciples, a significant amount of evidence that the scriptures were never changed in any meaningful way, and a host of other things—all evidence. But the true issue is that you and Bob are not willing to accept it. We’ve been over all that before, and you simply don’t accept it.

          Correct. And why don’t I accept it? Because it’s paltry evidence. (We could expand on any of these points if you’d like.) It’s inconceivable to me that you would accept the equivalent evidence for any other religion. I can see no explanation but that you have set the bar much lower, just for Christianity.

          But don’t say there’s no evidence.

          Is there “evidence” for Bigfoot? Well … sort of. I’m happy to say that we do, but non-cryptozoological explanations (hoaxes, confusion by witnesses, etc.) leap to the fore.

          Similarly, I’m happy to say that we have evidence for the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts, but it’s really, really shallow.

          That is simply wrong, and you and Bob are simply argumentative and unwilling to defend your own assertions.

          Argumentative? Maybe. But I delight in defending my assertions, as you have seen in these posts and comments.

          Being unwilling to participate in defending your atheism is a sham and a ruse, and makes both of you lose any credibility you might have been due.

          I doubt my points will ever have any credibility in your mind, so I’m not holding my breath there. But the “unwilling to defend” claim mystifies me.

        • Jesus paid a penalty he did not owe.

          So if you steal from me, the best way to make things right, and the only way I can forgive you, is for me to punch myself in the face?

          But don’t say there’s no evidence.

          Every other religion has “evidence” too, so why don’t you believe in any of these other religions?

        • To RT,

          Substitutionary atonement only makes sense if sin is a kind of debt (not like a debt, but precisely a debt), which I think is very doubtful in some cases.

          But the real problem is that Jesus seems to be redundant. If I feel guilty, why can’t I just turn to the Father himself for forgiveness (in a prayer, say)? Why can’t the Father directly forgive me if I ask him to? Why should there absolutely be a corporal punishment, even on the “wrong” person? Why no forgiveness without someone’s suffering?

          Some evangelicals say that this is so because God is just, but I still don’t see why forgiveness could not override “justice”. Of course in human societies, we cannot choose to forgive a convict without further ado, but it only shows the difference between the management of justice in an imperfect society and perfect justice, which can give way to forgiveness if need be.

        • OT:

          Some evangelicals say that this is so because God is just, but I still don’t see why forgiveness could not override “justice”.

          Which is what they would say if they were trying to patch up a religion cobbled together from Iron Age mythology.

          To continue down the path you point, imagine if God simply gave enlightenment to the bad person. God does that to all the bad people who believed in Jesus and get into heaven, right? The bad person with enlightenment will look back on his crimes and kick himself for eternity. No need for a physical punishment when this person has truly repented (with his heavenly wisdom, he’s repented more than we mere mortals could ever hope to).

        • To Bob S,

          Unless you are a staunch calvinist (probably here Bob Calvin would agree), you still can say that you are free to accept or to reject the enlightenment that God would like to give you. God won’t save you against your will.

          However, there is something else in your post. Yes, the story of substitutionary (what an awful word!) atonement seems to be “intelligently designed” to make Jesus relevant to people’s dealings with God, and therefore to justify the existence of a new revealed religion.

      • And yet another issue: why should God be mad at me? Aren’t I operating as he designed me?

        This is Hitchens’ “you are created sick and commanded to be well” problem.

        • Speaking of not answering the challenge. You just made my point with your latest diversion.

        • Rick:

          You’ve lost me. I must be so wrapped up in my schemes to obfuscate the flimsiness of my “arguments” that I didn’t even notice. Please explain.

          You do know that I was piggybacking off Retro’s comment, right?

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