Culture

John Oliver Presumes to Separate the Chaff from the Wheat

If John Oliver has a reputation for destroying his opponents, perhaps it’s because he picks such easy targets.

Last Sunday, on his popular HBO show Last Week Tonight, Oliver devoted 20 minutes to the “prosperity gospel,” a greasy theology that has long been plied at the fringes of American Christianity.

Conveniently forgetting that it’s the Parable of the Talents, the evangelists of the “prosperity gospel” preach that God manifests his blessings in the form of material wealth, returning ten- or fifty- or a hundredfold one’s initial offering — which usually can be made out to the evangelist himself. Predictably, televangelists such as Mike Murdock, Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, and the prophetically named Creflo Dollar have profited enormously from the faith of their flocks; Dollar recently asked his congregation to finance his new $60 million private jet, after his previous jet ran off a runway in the U.K.

That well-meaning people get snookered is a predictable consequence. Oliver recounts the case of Bonnie Parker, a cancer patient who donated thousands of dollars to Kenneth Copeland’s ministry in the belief, based on Copeland’s teachings, that doing so would cure her illness. That faith has the power to heal is a belief that extends far beyond “prosperity gospel” circles, but certain televangelists have a tendency to exploit it. Ms. Parker, who died in 2004, donated to Copeland and forewent medical treatment.

Warning: Explicit language.

This is nothing new. As has been the case for decades now, some shepherds are mainly in the business of fleecing.

But Oliver is not content to let the Almighty right this wrong. He eagerly invokes a different deity: the federal government. “Not only is everything you’ve seen so far legal,” he says midway through the segment, “but the money people donate in response to it is tax-free. Because if you are registered as a religious nonprofit — or especially a church — you are given broad exemptions over [sic] taxation and regulation.” He cites as faults the IRS’s failure to define a “church” and its admission that its guidelines concerning the regulation of religious organizations are “purposely broad,” and he considers it nothing short of an outrage that, according to his reporting, the IRS has audited only three churches since 2009.

John Oliver is not content to let the Lord right this wrong. He eagerly invokes a different deity: the federal government.

Being at present our country’s most illustrious guest scold, perhaps Oliver is still becoming familiar with certain principles of the American project — for example, the First Amendment. It was a fairly radical thing, after all, for the Founders to require that government be restrained from trampling on religious beliefs, not the other way around. But I assume that Oliver knows that — and objects to its inevitable consequences: persons such as Robert Tilton. Yet the irony surely escapes John Oliver that he has made himself the televangelist not of “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption,” the “church” he has set up to mock current IRS law, but of a faith far more radical than any being preached in infomercials. Oliver and his disciples would have the federal government separate the wheat from the chaff among American theologies.

#related#There are many reasons to be terrified of such an effort, not least that virtually no situation is materially improved by the intervention of the Internal Revenue Service, whose curious inclination to lavish special attention on politically conservative nonprofits over the past several years should indicate that the IRS is hardly an objective political body, let alone one qualified to pronounce on matters theological. But it is, most importantly, an inversion of the American solution to the tension between religious and political loyalties. The former, except in rare circumstances, trumps the latter. “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him,” wrote James Madison in his 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.” “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” Not so Oliver’s progressivism, the doctrines of which require whatever homage one may render to the Creator to be submitted to the approval of, and subordinated to the claims of, the omnipotent State. That such an arrangement will be used to silence more than a few jet-setting ministers should be obvious.

The perversion of Christian theology worked by the worst of the “prosperity gospel” proselytizers is troubling — but matters of conscience were always to be given the greatest latitude. It’s not the government’s job to dictate the type of healing in which Bonnie Parker invests. As a solution to the problem of money-grubbing ministers, perhaps the first solution should be to discourage people from listening to someone named “Creflo Dollar.”

Then perhaps a similar effort can save us from the televangelists of progressivism.

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