On the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver skewered the televangelism and megachurch industry, which makes millions of completely tax-free dollars each year. These organizations are registered as churches or religious nonprofits with the IRS, which doesn't make any attempt to regulate them or keep track of what their actual messages are. Oliver showed how the worst televangelists often prey on vulnerable people by tricking them into believing that the more money they donate, the more they will receive from God in return. There are a number of pretty bad televangelists still operating today.
Oliver pointed out that many churches often do lots of great volunteer work that does help people. But the segment wasn't about those churches. It was about "the churches that exploit people's faith for monetary gain." He talked about televangelists who use the "prosperity gospel" or "seed faith," which claims that "wealth is a sign of God's favor, and donations will result in wealth coming back to you." Then, Oliver showed clips of popular televangelists trying to convince people to give up their last thousand dollars in the name of God, or that they should come to their church rather than receive chemotherapy ("poison") to treat their cancer. All of what televangelists say is legal, and the money that they get in donations from desperate people is also legal fundraising. Here are three of the worst televangelists still operating today.
Kenneth And Gloria Copeland
The Copelands live in tax-free in a $6.3-million lakeside villa because their business is a registered church. Kenneth Copeland Ministries owns two private jets. The Copelands encourage church members to place their faith — in the form of money — into the church, and to trust God to take care of their health and well-being. In his segment, Oliver talked to the daughter of Bonnie Parker, a woman who refused cancer treatment and donated to the Copeland's church until she died — always believing that if she continued to donate, her health would improve.
In 2013, there was a measles outbreak among members of the Copeland's North Texas megachurch. Amy Arden, a former member, described the culture there as one that says people should rely on God, not modern medicine, when it comes to health:
To get a vaccine would have been viewed by me and my friends and my peers as an act of fear – that you doubted God would keep you safe, you doubted God would keep you healthy. We simply didn't do it.
After the outbreak, church officials held clinics so that church members could get vaccinated, and denied any claims that they were against medical care or vaccinations.
Creflo A. Dollar, Jr.
Dollar was another televangelist mentioned in Oliver's segment. He is the founder of the 30,000-member World Changers Church International in Georgia. In March, Dollar attempted to host a fundraising project called Project G650, asking members of the congregation to donate at least $300 each toward the purchase of a new luxury jet that was "necessary" to spread the word of God.
After receiving backlash, Dollar dropped the campaign ... but bought the jet with the church's funds, anyway. This jet, the Gulfstream G650, is the "Holy Grail" of luxury private jets. It usually goes for about $65 million, but Dollar's church said it needs the jet "because it is the best, and it is a reflection of the level of excellence at which this organization chooses to operate."
NPR noted that the IRS doesn't often audit churches, and they aren't required to report their expenses.
Graham, whose father Billy Graham was also a well-known televangelist, is one of the leading televangelists in the U.S., making about $388 million in 2014. Graham has called to end Muslim immigration into the U.S., he recently issued a scathing statement about Target's decision to remove gender-specific signs in children's sections, and has openly supported flying the Confederate flag as "a sign of our heritage."