By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who is investigating six televangelists for alleged lavish spending, is facing growing criticism from prominent conservatives and evangelicals, some of whom question whether Grassley is biased against the Pentecostal televangelists because of his Baptist faith. Many are also concerned that his probe intrudes on the churches' constitutional right to practice their religion.
Kenneth Copeland, a Texas-based televangelist who is a subject of Grassley's investigation, recently launched a Web site, http://believersstandunited.com, to fight the probe. Copeland said the investigation is "aimed at publicly questioning the religious beliefs of the targeted churches, their ministers, and their members while ignoring televangelists of other denominations."
Copeland's stance is supported by almost two dozen leaders of conservative secular and religious organizations, who criticized the inquiry in a letter sent this month to the Senate Finance Committee. The letter suggested that the ministries were targeted for sharing "the same branch of evangelicalism."
The letter's signers, including Paul Weyrich, Moral Majority co-founder; Ken Blackwell, chairman of the Coalition for a Conservative Majority; and Anthony Verdugo of the Christian Family Coalition, said the probe also infringes on churches' First Amendment rights.
Matthew Staver, dean of the Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Va., who signed the letter, warns that the probe "sets a terrible precedent that . . . should be a concern to all houses of worships across the board -- Christian and non-Christian."
"It may be that Senator Grassley has some kind of personal opinion with regards to the doctrines of these churches," Staver added.
Grassley, who is the top Republican on the Finance Committee, dismisses such criticism, saying that he bears no ill will toward Pentecostals.
"Doctrine is not a part of this committee's review," he said.
The investigation has pitted Grassley against six of the most popular televangelists in the country. All are Pentecostals who preach the "prosperity gospel," which teaches that God will grant financial and spiritual wealth to the faithful. Their ministries include hundreds of thousands of worshipers who watch their TV shows, buy their products and donate to their churches.
For years, the ministries have been the subject of complaints by watchdog organizations and media reports alleging that the charismatic leaders fund extravagant lifestyles with their followers' donations.
Some evangelicals caution that the probe's impact could extend beyond the televangelists and alienate some of the Republican party's religious supporters.
"You've got a Baptist senator attacking six Pentecostals," said Doug Wead, a conservative blogger who served as President George H.W. Bush's liaison to the evangelical community and was an informal adviser to the current President Bush. Wead has appeared on Copeland's national television show, "Believer's Voice of Victory," to defend him. "The timing is not good for the Republican Party."
That view is disputed by experts on evangelical voters, who say the probe will have little, if any, impact on the November presidential election.
Mark Noll, an expert on evangelicals at the University of Notre Dame, said issues such as the economy and the Iraq war will have more effect than the Grassley inquiry.
Grassley, whose committee has authority over tax-exempt organizations, sent letters in November to the six ministries, asking detailed questions about their financial operations and seeking credit card records, as well as information about executive compensation and amenities given to the ministries' leaders. The committee's Democratic chairman, Max Baucus of Montana, joined Grassley in asking for answers.
After initial resistance, four of the televangelists -- Joyce Meyer of Missouri, Benny Hinn of Texas, Bishop Eddie Long of Georgia and Paula White of Florida -- are cooperating, Grassley said last week.
The remaining two, Copeland and Creflo Dollar, who operates out of Georgia, have provided only documents to the committee, Grassley said.
Marcus Owen, attorney for Creflo Dollar, said Dollar will cooperate if Grassley agrees to keep the documents provided confidential.
Copeland has said that Grassley is aiming at him because of his Pentecostal doctrine and has suggested that the devil is behind Grassley's effort.
"Satan has an agenda," Copeland said in a recent broadcast. "He is looking for a way to drive a wedge and get strife between one another."
Copeland and signers of the letter to the Senate Finance Committee say they want the Internal Revenue Service to have jurisdiction over the investigation.
The IRS "is the government entity that is set up to inspect church organizations," Copeland spokesman Lawrence Swicegood said. "If that is the channel, then that is the channel we want to go through."
Grassley said that his committee is a more appropriate venue.
"The IRS is not equipped to do what I'm doing," he said. "We're trying to find out: What are the nonprofit laws as they apply to churches [and] are they adequate? Number two, is there any abuse of tax exemption? Number three, is there lack of proper trusteeship of the money donated?"
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union said that congressional investigators need to tread carefully when investigating religious groups.
"Congress should not single out groups to investigate based upon their message," Will Matthews said. "It doesn't appear that Sen. Grassley is doing that in this case, but generally speaking, that should be watched."
Religious charity watchdog Rusty Leonard said he supports Grassley's probe. Leonard, an evangelical Christian who runs MinistryWatch.com, said the six ministries have largely resisted his efforts to see their financial documents.
"What Senator Grassley is doing is very helpful for donors," he said. "My point of view is that that is what do you have to hide? It shouldn't matter. You should be an open book all the time. If anyone -- government, donor or others -- wants to know what's going on, you should not be concerned about it."