Americans love their religion.
They worship money and business.
And they can’t get enough TV.
Christian televangelists are in the sweet spot.
At the confluence of those three streams of American life, they rake in millions in donations.
The Rev. Creflo Dollar‘s World Changers Church International in College Park alone took in $69 million in 2006, according to a brief report his church showed The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Dollar said he is releasing some information about his and his church’s finances in light of the probe of a powerful senator into Dollar’s and other ministries’ finances.
“I generally don’t make this public,” Dollar said.
His income is separate from the church’s, provided by businesses he owns and from investments and real estate, he said.
A church staff member said Dollar no longer gets a salary.
“I have signed million-dollar deals for books,” Dollar said.
The church did give him a Rolls-Royce, he added, which is used largely for special occasions and for picking up special guests.
It is the expensive cars, private jets, million-dollar homes, jewelry and bevy of businesses associated with six evangelists’ media empires that got the attention of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
Grassley asked last week for financial records from Dollar and his wife, Taffi, Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Randy and Paula White of Florida, the Rev. Benny Hinn and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Texas and David and Joyce Meyer of Missouri.
Long did not respond to the newspaper’s requests for interviews.
Grassley says he believes televangelists receive billions in donations each year. But he doesn’t really know, because churches don’t have to make their finances public like most nonprofits and charities.
Thanks to the First Amendment, the government treads carefully when it comes to walking in religion’s orchard. The federal government does not tax ministries.
But Grassley said his probe has nothing to do with religion.
“I’m not interested in doctrine, just the tax laws,” he said.
He has looked at the high-roller lifestyles of TV ministers and wonders whether church leaders are using the breaks given to them to enrich themselves.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
The ministries in question have bought “Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, corporate jets and now $23,000 for a marble-topped commode,” Grassley said.
One report to him said Joyce Meyer spent that much on the bathroom device. He said last week, “The public’s tolerance really gets tested by these examples of excess. People wonder how society is being served when money doesn’t seem to matter.”
Dollar said he understands the senator’s worries but is concerned at the same time about the government sticking its nose into religion’s business. Dollar said he is having legal experts look over the senator’s request.
Dollar is particularly concerned the government may be trying to divine what people can or cannot believe. And Dollar believes in prosperity.
The six religious broadcast empires under the gun all preach and teach forms of a gospel that justifies the accumulation of money and material goods as one sign of God’s blessing. It includes benefits like health, a good family life and benevolence toward others.
It is an American-born faith that mixes Christianity with capitalism, individualism and materialism, said Shayne Lee, a Tulane University sociologist who studies megachurches and religion.
It became popular in the 1980s, with Reaganism, a rising stock market, growing middle class and consumerism.
“It’s a perfect culture for it. Americans want wealth. And the prosperity gospel allows people who are seeking wealth to have a spiritual justification for it,” Lee said.
Mainline theologians discount the prosperity gospel as errant.
But Dollar argues his material wealth is a clear sign of God’s blessing.
Check out the Bible, he said. The patriarchs were rich. He has said before that Jesus was rich. After all, Jesus had a treasurer (one of his disciples, according to the New Testament), and wore clothes worth enough that the soldiers who crucified him gambled to see who got them.
“Without a doubt, my life is not average,” Dollar said. “But I’d like to say, just because it is excessive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.”
“The issue is, what route did you use to get that excess?” he said.
His route was money that he earned, Dollar said.
“When I want a nice car, I use my own money to get the nice car and not the money of the church,” Dollar said.
“My lifestyle does not come out of the church’s bank account.”
NEW BIRTH MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH
Leadership: Bishop Eddie Long named in 1987 to head a 300-member congregation.
Members: Claims 25,000
Home: A 240-acre campus at 6400 Woodrow Road, Lithonia, includes a $50 million, 10,000-seat sanctuary, a Christian school of more than 200 students, bookstore, computer lab and the fully equipped Samson Fitness Center with racquetball and basketball courts and saunas.
Satellite churches: Charlotte and Savannah
Air transport: A 22-seat Grumman jet is registered to Long Charter Air with the same address as the church.
Ministries: International TV broadcasts, preaching and Sunday school, publishing, Latino ministries, personal counseling, GED classes, employment preparation, homeless ministry, food voucher ministry, family violence prevention, Girl Scouts, health care seminars and referrals, housing, career development, athletic leagues and summer sports camps, training and motivational seminars for other churches and public conferences.
WORLD CHANGERS CHURCH INTERNATIONAL
Leadership: Creflo Dollar started the church in 1986 in a school cafeteria with eight people.
Members: Claims 30,000
Home: An $18 million, 8,500-seat World Dome and a smaller sanctuary, a bookstore, school and administrative offices in a refurbished shopping center with outbuildings at 2500 Burdett Road, College Park.
Satellite church: New York City
Air transport: The church owns a 10-seat Gates Learjet.
Ministries: International TV broadcasts, preaching and Sunday school, Arrow Records, publishing, home-schooling program, adult literacy classes, entrepreneurship classes, Boy Scouts, boys’ and girls’ mentoring program, a career development center that includes financial and tax preparation classes and workshops, GED preparation classes and tutoring, SAT preparation classes, fitness classes, housing resource help, legal resource help, social ministries, including food and clothing and shelter provision, athletic leagues (including summer sports camps), training for other ministers and public conferences.