After spending seven months researching megachurches in the U.S., John Oliver was finally ready to take on the religious giants. Well, not really take them on, because they're so big, and they make so much money, since they're exempt from taxes and regulation. So when you can't beat 'em, join 'em! That was Oliver's motto in his latest episode of Last Week Tonight, when he finally did what all his fans have been waiting for him to do: He created his own megachurch.
Oliver kicks off his segment by saying that churches are America's favorite place to practice religion sixth-favorite place to eat chicken. Then, he makes a very important distinction by saying that the episode's focus is not on churches who do wonderful things to help people. Rather, his segment is about the churches who "exploit people's faith for monetary gain." Oliver said that the only truly logical thing to do when you hear that large organizations that loosely base their teachings on religion can make millions every year and not get taxed is start your own church. Duh. When you think of people who exploit religious faith for money, '80s televangelists such as Robert Tilton might come to mind.
Oliver shows a clip of Tilton, who seems to be speaking gibberish and claims that "we've seen midgets grow" in response to his religious gifts. Then he screams, "I don't make this stuff up!" And Oliver responds, "What? Please, please. You can't say, 'I don't make this stuff up,' just five seconds after you've said the words 'Manda kessa basanda!'"
Oliver then pointed out that, contrary to what you might think, televangelism is still thriving in the U.S. Many TV networks support televangelists and profit heavily from them because they preach "the prosperity gospel, which argues that wealth is a sign of God's favor and donations will result in wealth coming back to you." This idea is similar to something called "seed faith," which says that donations are like seeds that you will one day get to harvest. He then shows a clip of televangelist James Payne saying, "The size of your seed will determine the size of your harvest."
The argument is that if you donate your money to evangelists, you will "reap returns multiple times over." Except, Oliver jokes, "as in investment, you'd be better off burying your money in the actual ground, because at least there is a chance that your dog will dig it up and give it back to you one day."
The truly scary thing about seed faith, according to Oliver, is that it tricks people who might be in credit card debt, or who might not have any extra money to spare, into giving their money in the hopes that God will magically reward them. Evangelists are tricking vulnerable people out of money they truly need.
As Oliver putting it, telling people that God will solve their credit card debt if they simply donate $1,000 that they might not get without going into more debt is "the equivalent of saying the key to you losing weight lies at the bottom of this giant Costco bulk bag of Peanut Butter M&M's. Go find it. It's definitely down there."
Oliver noted that these messages might be entertaining if they weren't actually working on people — like Bonnie Parker. Parker didn't seek medical treatment for cancer. Instead, she is choosing to sow money into evangelist Kenneth Copeland's church. Oliver showed a clip from an interview with Parker's daughter, who said that her mother donated money until she died because she honestly believed that the more money she donated, the greater chance she would have of being healed.
Parker's interpretation of Gloria and Kenneth Copeland's teachings wasn't far-fetched. Oliver showed a clip of Gloria saying that one could either go receive "poison" to treat their cancer, or come sit in her church every Saturday and hear the word of God. Quoth Oliver: "It's pretty clear that woman cannot hear the word of God, because if she could, I'm pretty sure he'd be shouting, 'Fuck you, Gloria!' right in her ear."
Not only is everything evangelists and megachurches do completely legal, but it's also entirely exempt from taxation and regulation under federal law. And the tax exemption could apply to almost any organization that even claims to be religious. The IRS doesn't specifically define what a "church" is, and it also "makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious" as long as the beliefs are "sincerely held" and "not illegal."
But as Oliver points out, almost every belief can be both of those things — sincerely held and not illegal. "Bros before hoes — that could be a religion. Red Vines are better than Twizzlers — that could be a religion." And being listed as a church allows the Copelands to access all sorts of benefits — like a parsonage allowance, which lets ministers live in their houses tax-free. Which means they live in a $6.3 million house. Tax-exempt.
He shows a picture of their house, which is technically a "parsonage." Though Oliver said that this only makes sense if by "parsonage," the IRS means "house that looks like it costs the net worth of Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons."
Then, Oliver brings out the bulk of his work to prepare for the episode: seven months' worth of letters from Tilton's church "to see what he tells people." Over the course of their correspondence, Oliver sent Tilton $319. In return, he received colored oil, mountain-shaped paper cutouts, and an outline of Tilton's foot asking Oliver to send more money.
Oliver said that after the seven months he was frustrated, so he watched some of Tilton's show to try to understand what he should do. Watching Tilton, Oliver said, made him realize that he should set up his own church "to test the limits of what religious entities are able to do." So Oliver and his team filed paperwork last week to establish Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, which was "disturbingly easy."
The paperwork said that Oliver needed a "distinct house of worship" — his studio counts, because he and his team gather there every Sunday. Finally, Oliver and his "wife," Wanda Jo Oliver, call for donations, which will actually be donated to Doctors Without Borders, according to TIME.
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