Like the ministries Oliver is satirizing, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption follows the theological contours of the prosperity gospel, the subject of a lengthy segment on the comedian’s show. That segment began with Oliver noting that while many churches do good, charitable work in the world, he was going to focus for the next several minutes on “churches who exploit people’s faith for monetary gain.”
Oliver’s new church encourages its worshipers — defined as the studio audience for his show, which tapes on Sundays — to “silently meditate on the nature of fraudulent churches” and promises miracles in exchange for donations sent to an address the host gave out on screen and on his new church Web site.
“If you don’t send us money, God will be extremely angry with you,” Oliver tells callers to a toll-free number he set up as part of his new “career” as a televangelist. The pre-recorded message at 1-800-THIS-IS-LEGAL also tells callers who aren’t interested in donating money to Oliver to “get off the phone and find somebody who is.”
The prosperity gospel crept back into the news several months ago when pastor Creflo Dollar announced — then backed away from, and then recommitted himself to — a plan to raise $65 million dollars from his followers to buy a private luxury jet. Dollar has told the 30,000 members of his World Changers Church International in Georgia that God will give them earthly rewards in exchange for their faithfulness. The Georgia-based pastor has encouraged Christians to prove just how faithful they are by donating to his ministry.
“If you sow a seed on a good ground, you can expect a harvest,” Dollar said in a 2006 New York Times story about his prosperity ministry. On Sunday, Oliver picked up on that seed-and-harvest metaphor to explain prosperity gospel beliefs to his viewers.
“Wealth is a sign of God’s favor, and donations will result in wealth coming back to you,” Oliver said in the HBO segment. “That idea takes the form of ‘seed faith’ — that donations are seeds that you will one day get to harvest.”
Just 7 percent of evangelical Protestant pastors around the world agree with the assertion that God rewards sufficiently faithful Christians with wealth and good health, according to a 2011 Pew survey. In the United States, the theology has found a home in a certain area of televangelism, led by pastors such as the Copelands, Mike Murdoch, Robert Tilton and Dollar.
Oliver also read from months of fundraising materials sent by Tilton’s ministry after Oliver made a small donation, showing just how much money Tilton can collect from a single person with a few slyly worded letters. But it’s not the tactics themselves that drove Oliver to go ahead and found a ministry of his own. It’s the fact that the ministries, as churches, are tax-exempt.
“Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland and other pastors of their ilk have been taking advantage of the open-ended IRS definition of the word ‘church’ and procuring a litany of tax breaks,” Oliver says on Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption’s Web site.
While Oliver might be collecting real donations, which he says are tax-exempt, to demonstrate his point about prosperity ministers, it seems that the donations might ultimately go to a better place. Here is the fine print attached to the donation page of the church’s site:
“Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption may choose to wind down and dissolve in the near future. Upon dissolution, any assets belonging to the Church at that time will be distributed to Doctors Without Borders, a non-profit charitable organization that is tax-exempt under § 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (EIN: 13-3433452) and which provides emergency medical aid in places where it is needed most.”
Televangelists were put in the political spotlight after Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) launched an investigation into several ministers’ finances. The investigation concluded in 2011 with no penalty for televangelists.