In just one week, John Oliver has received thousands of dollars in donations for Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, the ministry the HBO host said he founded to draw attention to the tax-free practices of prosperity gospel churches.
“And we asked you to send us money at this address,” Oliver said, displaying a P.O. box number on the screen during Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight.”
“To be honest,” he added, “slightly more of you responded than we were expecting.”
Oliver, moving into the pseudo-reverend character he uses to speak about his new ministry, then displayed a large pile of letters (and at least one FedEx package), surrounded by several U.S. Postal Service bins filled with additional donations.
There were thousands of letters in all, he said, equaling thousands of dollars in donations.
Just last week, Oliver aired a lengthy segment criticizing the fundraising pursuits of prosperity gospel televangelists, a few months after pastor Creflo Dollar recommitted himself to raising $65 million dollars from his followers to buy a private luxury jet.
Oliver used the common seed-harvest metaphor to explain the theology: Followers give “seed faith” to their pastors, in the form of monetary donations, which, the pastors promise, will then come back to the worshipers in a harvest — provided they prove themselves to be faithful enough. That proof, it is often implied, is connected to how much that person seeds.
Which brings us to some of the donations Oliver received, but did not ask for. “I think we made it clear that seed faith is metaphorical and we did not want your actual seeds,” Oliver said Sunday.
“Which is why it was so disappointing that someone sent this gigantic bag of seeds to us, through the mail,” he said, holding up a bag that easily contained 10 pounds of grass seed.
“It was the biggest bag of seeds I’d ever seen, until the next day,” Oliver said, struggling to heft an even bigger bag onto his lap. Oliver also showed two packets of beef jerky that somebody mailed to Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption and mentioned that, much to his dismay, some followers didn’t get the message that he only wanted donations in U.S. dollars.
Oliver also received — presumably tax-free — a $5 bill attached to a note reading: “Take my seed, you rat-faced bastard.”
Another person mailed the church a $65 billion check. “You may have sent [it] in as a joke,” Oliver said. “But guess what? We’re f—— cashing it.”
Oliver’s point is not just that he finds the fundraising tactics employed by many prosperity preachers to be troubling. It’s that the ministries he singled out operate as tax-free entities, under the U.S. tax code.
“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 wrote on the Web site set up for Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.
Oliver says his church is registered with the IRS. If so, and if past practice is any indication, it is extremely unlikely that his piles of seeds, bills and beef jerky will face an audit anytime soon.
The IRS totally suspended audits on churches from 2009 to 2013, CBS News noted, citing figures from the Government Accountability Office. And between 2013 and 2014, the IRS audited just three churches.
Although the IRS has 14 criteria that define what can, for tax purposes, be called a church, some of the restrictions are interpreted very broadly by the agency.
The Trinity Foundation, a church accountability nonprofit, has long criticized the practices of prosperity ministers. Trinity Foundation president Ollie Anthony told CBS that he believes a large part of the problem comes from the IRS’s refusal to evaluate church doctrine, beyond whether it is “truly and sincerely held” and doesn’t break any laws.
Anthony added: “A few years ago, the IRS named Scientology a church. Since that happened, anybody can call themselves a church.”
Even if the IRS did, in the near future, begin cracking down harder on ministries like the one Oliver now says he leads, the HBO host has left at least one big hint that his church isn’t here to stay.
The fine print of Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption’s donation page says the ministry “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.”