People who've followed the hijinks of the Assemblies of God in regards to televangelist scandals--and the history of televangelism, for that matter--know that the denomination has a long association with televangelism--and as the Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard scandals have shown, often a quite unsavoury one at that.
So today's news that the Assemblies are hip-deep in the latest televangelist scandal is no shocker--the thing is, they may have tangled themselves rather deep, as the latest association is with an explicit defense of Kenneth Copeland--one of six televangelists targeted in a Congressional investigation.
Even worse, the Assemblies are now trying to use the very scandal as a wrecking-ball to knock down the separation of church and state and scuttle all attempts to require accountability.
The Assemblies officially supports graft and corruption
Today's post comes courtesy of one of my co-researchers, who noticed the following gem in the Christian Post (a newspaper largely aiming at the dominionist set, and I do note this in part because of a bibolatrous statement of faith and its board of directors") in what turns out to be a prime example of why "recon" on what is going on in the dominionist press is a Good Thing:
A group of Pentecostal ministers and churches have thrown their backing behind televangelist Kenneth Copeland and his refusal to cooperate with a Senate probe into his ministry's spending.
Assemblies of God International Fellowship released a statement in their latest newsletter saying the current investigation, led by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), into the financial records of six prominent ministries "seems to be crossing a legal boundary."
"Politicians enact laws to separate Church and State which many think to be unconstitutional and then try to intrude into Church affairs while denying the Church discussion of State (political) affairs. This sounds like a one way street in favor of the State," the group said.
This whinging shouldn't be all that surprising for multiple reasons--partly because of the Assemblies' long history of involvement with televangelism (in fact, they can be legitimately stated to have invented modern televangelism with Aimee Semple McPherson's "radio church"--which later grew into the first "Assemblies daughter", International Foursquare, after the first of several scandals she was involved in). There are other reasons, though, which tend to be a bit more disturbing.
A brief history of the probe
One reason the Assemblies may be especially feeling the heat is because--for the first time--this is an actual Congressional investigation of televangelism, and as a result has a potential to put a real hurt on the major conduit used to spread both theological neopentecostal dominionism and political dominionism. (Remember, the modern political dominionist movement was in part spearheaded by two televangelists--Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson; Tim LaHaye, who can ultimately be considered the "founding father" of political dominionism, was also a very frequent guest on the PTL Club. It is unlikely the neopente versions of "Christian Nationalism" would have been as popularised were it not for the main troika of televangelists overtly promoting it.)
The probe began when Sen. Chuck Grassley (ironically, a Republican; even more ironically, an evangelical himself) began a Congressional investigation of six televangelists who were members of the board of directors of Oral Roberts University--itself mired in a major embezzlement scandal where upwards of $1 billion (yes, that is billion, with a b) were stolen yearly by the board.
The matter also threatens to knock down the major tool neopente dominionist churches use to hide finances. Typically, with regular nonprofits one must account for all yearly incoming and outgoing funds via a form 990 filed with the IRS; however, churches and "missionary groups" get an extremely broad exemption (referred to by researchers as the "Form 990 Loophole") where they need only file a Form 1023 to state they are a church--and they need never file anything again.
Needless to say, there has been increasing use of the concept of "ministry as tax shelter and blackhole for financing" among even some political dominionist groups (the group "Wallbuilders", which specialises in what amounts to American historical revisionism (and is the subject of Chris Rodda's Liars for Jesus), uses the "form 990 loophole" and claims to be a ministry), and has been abused massively by neopentecostal dominionist churches (and increasingly, by the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention as well) to hide exactly how much money is going into illegal electioneering (among other things).
Thanks to the "form 990 loophole", Sen. Grassley had to essentially issue Congressional requests for info. (This is not uncommon; typically court orders or subpoenas are necessary to get this info, and most of what we know about the finances of most coercive religious groups has been the direct result of walkaways suing the groups for damages and legal discovery resulting from this.)
In Round 1, only two of the six televangelists targeted--Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer--bothered to respond at all; Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, "Bishop" Eddie Long, and Paula White did not. (Nearly all of these either are Assemblies preachers or Assemblies-trained, or have close links with the Assemblies.)
The letters were, in essence, asking the same questions that Ray Stevens asked--"Would Jesus Wear A Rolex On His Television Show?" Grassley had received reports of donations being diverted for such things as private jets (or, in the case of Kenneth Copeland, an entire general aviation airport where there have been some reports of flights coming in at decidedly odd times), Bentley automobiles, and so on--and Grassley wanted to know where the heck the money was in fact going.
By March 11, Creflo Dollar was still telling Sen. Grassley to pound sand whilst Long and White finally answered the Congressional inquiry. In fact, both have stated to Grassley that formal Congressional subpoenas will be needed in the televangelist equivalent of "You'll never get me alive, copper!"--and Copeland finally delivered a mess of papers on 6 December 2007.
Of the six, only Meyer and Hinn have delivered full responses and the others are likely to require followup subpoenas:
As of Friday, Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn are the only two ministries that have submitted full responses for the Senate probe. Randy and Paula White have submitted partial responses, Eddie Long and Copeland have submitted "very limited responses," according to the spokeswoman, and Creflo Dollar has submitted no requested information.
There has been some talk on the investigation that, if warranted, the investigation of those six televangelists could expand into a general review of groups involved in televangelism and tax-exempt groups using the "form 990 loophole". And it is precisely this which the Assemblies fears, for good reason.
Possible evidence of illegal funding of GOP by Assemblies?
To say the least, the Assemblies of God is not very happy about the latest development:
But some, including Assemblies of God International Fellowship, are backing Copeland and his questioning.
The fellowship believes that the IRS, created by the State, should be conducting an investigation, not the Senate.
"It seems that Rev. Copeland is right in ignoring the Senate’s investigation of Church affairs but pledging to fully cooperate with any investigation by the IRS," the group stated.
Of course, the Assemblies is fully aware that without tax records it's difficult for the IRS to investigate (this is, of note, one reason it does tend to be quite difficult in practice to pull the 501(c)3 status of a church--the IRS essentially must issue subpoenas, or have a governmental body issue subpoenas, for church financial info in assessing penalties). The Assemblies itself, as well as its big megachurches, use the "form 990 loophole" extensively--and do a very good job of hiding where their assets are as a result.
And there is reason that the Assemblies has (pardon the pun) a bit of the "fear of God" in regards to a formal Congressional investigation of tax-exempt group accountability. It's already been mentioned previously in this diary that Assemblies and "Assemblies daughter" churches tend to have severe problems with accountability--in fact, due to the "cell church" structure used in many Assemblies churches, meaningful accountability of leaders can be impossible; the Assemblies, and its daughters, effectively operate as de facto ordination mills and even pastors have found themselves expelled from the denomination for bringing up concerns re embezzlement and spiritual abuse.
As it turns out, the Assemblies of God has been a rather consistent source of reports of illegal electioneering to Americans United (in fact, it and the SBC are the worst offenders re reports of illegal electioneering)--and the Assemblies is a particularly longterm offender. No less a source than the book Religion and Politics in the United States (written by Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown) has noted the seminal role the Assemblies played in founding modern "Christian Nationalism" and in particular the takeover of the GOP by dominionists:
Christian Voice, the oldest of these Christian Right groups(1), grew out of an unsuccessful attempt by California evangelicals(2) to pass a state law limiting the public employment of homosexuals or homosexual advocates. Concentrated in the western and southwestern states and composed primarily of members of the Assemblies of God, Christian Voice concentrated its efforts on electioneering--compiling information on candidates, offering lists of favored and opposed candidates, and raising funds to support independent campaigns of favored candidates. It also had an active lobbying presence in Washington, DC.
(Emphasis mine. pp. 214-215, 5th ed. published 2007, Rowman & Littlefield.
(1)Out of "Christian nationalist" groups active in the 70s. In my own personal research, only Eagle Forum and FGBMFI (another Assemblies of God frontgroup) have longer histories of overt "Christian nationalist" electioneering, and by its own claims predates most other groups involved in political dominionism, giving a date of founding of 1978.
(2)It is not uncommon in these publications to conflate evangelicals with neopentecostal dominionists, in part because neopente dominionists have done some considerable "cultural appropriation" of the term.)
The Assemblies as a whole may not simply restrict funding of specific candidates to frontgroups. Research I have conducted points to a potential pattern of what would appear to be direct funding of some candidates by the Assemblies through pastors and seminary employees.
Due to the extensive amount of linkages and coverage, this will require a dedicated post (which will be posted tomorrow)--but needless to say, there's definitely some reason for the denomination to be worried re congressional investigations.
Dominionist attempts to "dead-agent" Grassley
Even though in past Grassley has had a history of supporting some of the same legislation dominionists support, the call for investigations of tax-exempt groups that snared the televangelists in the ORU scandal have caused dominionists to claim "Help, help, we're being oppressed!"
In fact, Copeland and crew have started a website and a new frontgroup for the sole purpose of "dead-agenting" Grassley and the campaign for accountability--claiming he's out to attack neopentecostals and promoters of "name it and claim it". Not only that, but apparently (per the lovely sorts of historical revisionism common in neopente dominionist circles) apparently Grassley is pretty much considered an agent of The Enemy and Trying To Steal Their Country (which was never theirs to begin with--despite "historical revisionism" by dominionists, the Founding Fathers were typically deists)
In truth, Grassley is conducting a very broad investigation--in part because he is in fact chairman of the Finance Committee in the Senate and a member of several other Congressional committees in charge of making tax law. Grassley is also investigating a lot of other groups besides neopente dominionist televangelists; not only is he explicitly requesting the IRS to enforce the laws on the books against charitable exemption abuse, but is investigating reports of funding mishandling by The Nature Conservancy, a plethora of nonprofit hospitals (most of which are owned by the Roman Catholic and Baptist healthcare systems, and many others of which are completely secular and operated as training hospitals by universities), the Smithsonian Institution, nonprofits involved in educational loan programs, the Red Cross, and others. In general, it can be said that Grassley's main goal is to increase public transparency re nonprofits--including transparency with nonprofits involved in charitable giving programs for federal employees and efforts to protect charitable groups themselves from potential exploitation. We're by no means saying Chuck Grassley is an angel--but he does seem to be pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to investigations.
We would make a humble suggestion to Grassley as to an easy way to fix the problem for future generations--namely, remove the "form 990 loophole" and make all 501(c)3 groups fill out a form 990 if they receive more than $25,000 annually in donations (which is what all non-church 501(c)3 groups have to do anyways).