IRS Under Microscope After John Oliver Televangelism Segment

8/23_johnoliver
Television host John Oliver arrives for the TIME 100 Gala in New York April 21. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

John Oliver's scintillating HBO program Last Week Tonight has criticized everything from FIFA to government surveillance to the food industry. His latest segment, which tackles televangelists who reap millions of dollars from faithful followers, has some praying that the IRS will exercise, well, less faith when it comes to televangelist funds.

The IRS conducted a mere three audits of churches in 2013-2014, and had suspended them entirely between 2009 and 2013, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Televangelists preach something called the prosperity gospel, promises to bring the faithful out of debt and heal their diseases if only they give, give, give. Oliver notes in his segment that the gospel "argues that wealth is a sign of God's favor and donations will result in wealth coming back to you. That idea sometimes takes the form of seed faith—the notion that donations are seeds that you will one day get to harvest."

So, televangelists are saying that if viewers donate to their campaigns—which have included the likes of a crowdfunding effort to fund a private jet—they'll reap rewards from God down the line. An estimated 5 million viewers have donated millions of dollars to televangelist preachers.

Which is where the IRS comes in. The Trinity Foundation, an organization that probes religious fraud, holds that the wild success of televangelism has in part been fueled by the IRS failing to audit churches, which are exempt from taxes due to the constitutional right to exercise religion freely.

Speaking to CBS News, Trinity Foundation's founder, Ole Anthony, said that since the IRS named Scientology a church several years ago, "anybody can call themselves a church." Naturally, Oliver has now registered his own church with the IRS, called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.

It'll be interesting to see whether he gets audited.

IRS Under Microscope After John Oliver Televangelism Segment | Culture