Senator Set To Intensify Investigation Of Ministries

TAMPA – U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is increasing pressure on five large ministries that have refused to respond to his financial inquiry even as political watchers say the investigation could hurt Republicans in the upcoming election.

Grassley, a Republican and the ranking member of the Senate’s finance committee, is sending a second round of letters asking the preachers whether they use church money to bankroll their lavish lifestyles and private businesses. His inquiry is questioning whether they have violated their tax-exempt status.

The new letters, which could go out any day, renew the possibility of issuing subpoenas for information and testimony from those who don’t comply, including Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries in Tampa.

“I don’t intend to give up and go away,” Grassley said Thursday. “I work on oversight projects until I get answers and results.”

At the same time, he and others who support the inquiry face growing pressure to drop the matter, observers said. Politicians who have relied on the votes of evangelical Christians don’t want to see Grassley infuriate a crucial voting bloc.

Doug Wead, former President Bush’s liaison to the evangelical community, said the investigation has caused a division among Baptist and Pentecostal voters, a group of evangelicals largely credited with the election of both presidents Bush.

“Grassley has thrown a grenade in the middle of the coalition that any Republican will need,” Wead said this week. “If you are a Republican, it looks disastrous.”

Reopening Theological Divide

CBS report.

Along with Without Walls and Paula White Ministries, Grassley targeted Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International; Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church; Kenneth Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries; Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church; and Joyce Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries. Only Meyer has cooperated.

All six have declined to be interviewed about the inquiry.

Religious organizations hold a special status in tax law and aren’t required to report financial information to the federal government, as are other nonprofit organizations.

All the ministries issued statements around the time of Grassley’s deadline, Dec. 6, saying they comply with Internal Revenue Services tax code.

The ministers who have rebuffed Grassley view the probe as deeply personal, Wead said.

They note that Grassley is a Baptist and the ministries he singled out are all part of the Pentecostal or charismatic movement, which some evangelicals view with disapproval. Less than a generation ago, many evangelicals believed Pentecostals who spoke in tongues were possessed by demons.

Some Pentecostals and charismatics, including those targeted in Grassley’s inquiry, preach what is called the “prosperity gospel” – that financial riches are proof of God’s favor.

The Love Of Money
“If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, {4} he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions {5} and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. {6} But godliness with contentment is great gain. {7} For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. {8} But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. {9} People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. {10} For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV

Supporters call it a biblically sound message that dates to the first 500 years of Christianity. Critics call it a distortion that allows evangelists to get rich off their congregations.

Grassley has said the inquiry is about tax policy, not beliefs, and that he favors self-policing rather than new legislation or subpoenas.

One of the few evangelical Christians pushing for cooperation is J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, a leading Christian publication.

“This isn’t about the government telling churches what to do or how much they can spend on things,” he said. “It is simply about making sure ministries are staying within the bounds of the law when it comes to tax law.”

In February’s column, Grady continued his campaign for more financial accountability. He said the religious community should embrace scrutiny.

“Perhaps the Lord is offended that our beloved gospel of prosperity has created a cult of selfishness,” he said. “If so, our best response is to open our account ledgers and welcome correction.”

Some politicians watching the drama unfold wonder whether the inquiry will fracture the evangelical vote.

A history of deep differences over doctrine – including faith healing, speaking in tongues and the glorification of wealth – have made evangelicals an unwieldy group of voters, Wead said. Politicians such as the Bushes spent decades weaving them into an influential voting bloc, linking them on divisive issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a freshman congressman considered vulnerable in the upcoming election, is more concerned about what Grassley finds than the inquiry’s effect on the election, said John Tomaszewski, a spokesman for the Republican from Palm Harbor.

“But we are certainly watching it,” he said.

Responding From The Pulpit

The leaders of Without Walls and other ministries singled out by Grassley have waged their campaigns against the investigation from the pulpits.

In December, Randy White, pastor of Without Walls, took a defiant stand, telling his congregation that the senator’s questions were an assault on their faith.

Kenneth Copeland has declared a holy war.

He has said he will never release the information and that he gave Grassley “a lesson in no.”

Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, obtained a tape of a closed-circuit broadcast of Copeland’s Jan. 22 Ministers’ Conference.

“You can go get a subpoena, and I won’t give it to you,” Copeland reportedly says. “It’s not yours, it’s God’s and you’re not going to get it and that’s something I’ll go to prison over. So, just get over it. … And if there’s a death penalty that applies, well, just go for it.”

Copeland contends the senator – whom he calls Brother Grassley – is trying to sully the reputations of the targeted ministries and bully them through the media.

Grassley said he doesn’t feel pressure to back down.

“This is a nonprofit tax policy review like any other,” he said. “I’ve made it clear that I’m not interested in church doctrine.”

Kenneth Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an accrediting agency, said he has been asked to withdraw his support for Grassley’s inquiry.

He declined to reveal who asked, but said far more people he talks with support the inquiry.

Similar Inquiry In ’88 Fizzled

Longtime members of Congress have been through this before.

Twenty years ago, a House panel called the country’s leading television ministers to testify about their finances. Pentecostal televangelist Jim Bakker had resigned after the nation learned his staff used $279,000 in church money to pay off a woman who alleged he raped her at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach. At the time, Bakker was a leading preacher of prosperity gospel.

Former U.S. Rep. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said churchgoers needed to know where their donations went.

“Is it being used for the Lord’s work or is it being used to buy a million-dollar house?” he said, according to media reports.

The inquiry lost steam almost immediately. Congress didn’t pass new laws to crack down on church finances. The IRS got no new authority or money to investigate tax-exempt ministries.

For those reasons, Sarah Posner thinks Grassley’s inquiry won’t get traction this year.

“This is way too hot of an issue to delve into in an election year,” said Posner, author of the book, “God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud and the GOP Crusade for Values Voters.”

“From a political standpoint, people realize how rapidly the charismatic movement is growing and how you don’t want to alienate this group, even if you’re not entirely on board with them,” she said.

There hasn’t been a groundswell of support for Grassley’s inquiry among mainline evangelical Christians because they would prefer change come from within, she said. They also would prefer to show a united front with their independent Pentecostal brethren so they can have more clout on political issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

“They may differ in the areas of religious expression and financial accountability, but they share common ground on so many other platforms,” she said.

Posner expects the senator to remain vigilant.

“The public thought this all went away after all those scandals with the televangelists in the 1980s,” she said. “If anything, there’s more excess than ever with some of these ministry leaders. There’s been a real lack of awareness about how widespread this is, and this investigation is bringing it to light.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday February 8, 2008.
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