Televangelist Watchdog May Be Forced to Close Its Doors

The intrepid Trinity Foundation, whose on-staff private investigators have uncovered the finances, phony faith-healings, and sexual scandals of televangelists for four decades, may soon be forced close its doors if it can’t raise enough funds.

Trinity, a Christian group, has committed itself to fighting fraud in televangelism because of its “stain on the cause of Christ.” Its investigations and indefatigable research have led to some of the most notorious exposés of televangelism fraud, including major investigations of Robert Tilton, Benny HinnKenneth Copeland, and the behemoth Trinity Broadcasting Network, among others.

The Dallas-based group, which marks its 40th anniversary this month, has sent out a fundraising plea to supporters and prospective donors, seeking to increase its base of members, who pay a minimum of $25 per year. It had been counting on the contribution of a single donor, which fell through. And because it has “purposely kept a low profile” while it assisted the Senate Finance Committee with an investigation of possible tax code violations by televangelists, Trinity has seen less media coverage, and hence fewer donations from the public, according to the letter.

Trinity’s investigations for the Senate Finance Committee led the Committee to launch an investigation, in 2007, based on revelations that televangelists had used tax-exempt funds for luxury cars, private jets, mansions, and even plastic surgery. But after pressure from religious right groups, who raised church-state separation concerns, in 2011 the Committee passed oversight to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability:

The ECFA, said [Trinity president Ole] Anthony, has no “teeth” to compel the televangelists into greater accountability and transparency.

Meanwhile, he added, “the most desperate and the weakest in our society are being raped by these guys,” referring to the prosperity televangelists’ preying on viewers and congregants by convincing them that if they turn over their money, God will bless them with a supernatural return.

The Trinity Foundation originally urged the Committee to examine two issues, said Anthony: conversion and inurement. Conversion is the use of tax-exempt donor funds by a for-profit organization led by the principals of a non-profit and inurement is excessive compensation of those principals.

Sen. Charles Grassley, at the time the ranking member of the Finance Committee, urged “self-reform” within the community. Yet, as Trinity has argued repeatedly, the problem results from gaps in the tax code, and lax enforcement of rules within it: because televangelism ministries, granted tax-exempt status as “churches,” do not have to file tax returns, their financial activities remain hidden. What’s more, although IRS rules prohibit excessive compensation of non-profit executives, and theoretically authorize the agency to fine non-profits whose executives receive such compensation, these rules are rarely enforced. That’s due in part to lack of staffing, but also to a lack of political will to contend with the objections of religious groups who claim such oversight represents government meddling in church affairs. 

Televangelists have not hesitated to rely on political capital—and claims that they are doing God’s work—to avoid scrutiny by government regulators. In 2008, Kenneth Copeland, one of Grassley’s targets, used his friendship with then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee:

I first met Anthony, Trinity’s president, in 2005, when I was writing an article about televangelist Rod Parsley. In 2007, while researching my book, God’s Profits, I was interviewing Anthony over dinner in a Dallas restaurant, and asked him about a statement made to me by Parsley’s one-time lawyer: “When you look at the Bible and you see how God set up a structure for underwriting those people who work in the church…you’d expect the pastor to be the highest paid person around.” 

“That’s just horseshit,” Anthony replied.

Such a simple and obvious rebuttal, but one that doesn’t seem to generate any real congressional or regulatory oversight.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email