THE BLOG
07/14/2011 11:56 am ET Updated Sep 13, 2011

Make Churches Accountable

Yesterday, in a letter to the Internal Revenue Service, Americans United for Separation of Church and State called for an investigation into Tom Brown Ministries in El Paso, Texas. Apparently Pastor Tom Brown, in violation of his organization's public charity tax status, endorsed the recall of Mayor John Cook and El Paso City Council Members Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd because they support extending health care benefits to domestic partners. Perhaps Pastor Brown is putting a new twist on the gospel of love: Love thy neighbors but don't let them have access to basic health care. Yet Pastor Tom is no ascetic, he's among those preaching the good old Prosperity Gospel. Isn't it about time Americans woke-up to this scam?

From Ted Haggard to Eddie Long, American church empires are no strangers to corruption. But while sex scandals are splashed across the headlines, code infringements and financial scandals more frequently fly under the radar. According to Villanova University researchers in 2006, 85 percent of U.S. dioceses detected embezzlement over the previous five years. IRS code infringements are also becoming frequent, and even fashionable. In September, over 100 pastors across the country participated in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." The event was dedicated to the support of political candidates through church sermons, a violation for any organization holding a 501(c)3 classification. The IRS, however, was slow to respond.

In an effort to address the growing issue, Senator Charles Grassley, a conservative Senator from Iowa, embarked on a courageous three year investigation into the seriously flawed financial practices of six megachurches. Unfortunately Senator Grassley fell short of enacting anything that would address continued abuses in the churches that he uncovered.

Maybe it was pressure from his fundamentalist colleagues, or a reconsideration of how his investigations put religion in such a poor light, but Senator Grassley took an unfortunate leap backwards when he turned over his report earlier this year to a commission formed by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. The ECFA Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations is composed solely of evangelical Christians, many of whom are ministers or involved in religious universities. They've been tasked to look into the special privileges churches receive from the IRS tax code such as exemption from filing returns with the IRS, advance notice of IRS audits of their organization, and parsonage allowance, which enables ministers to write off the cost of their housing from taxes.

The ECFA has existed for decades with seemingly little impact on curbing the abuses of churches and ministers, so why would they be a good choice in this instance? They may not be a good choice for those who are committed to reform, but they are the perfect choice for those interested in burying the issue.

Among the 14 men on the 15 person commission is Mark Rutland, also President of Oral Roberts University. Rutland was asked to take over after Richard Roberts (son of Oral) and his family was accused of vast abuses of university resources, from accusations of shepherding Richard's daughter to the Bahamas using the university's jet to reports that Lindsay, Richard's wife, spent tens of thousands of school dollars on clothing and other personal items. And it was Oral Roberts, after all, who developed and popularized the concept of "Seed faith" money, the reprehensible practice of encouraging believers to donate money to the church to appease God and earn His favor financially as well as spiritually. Roberts continually described this as an "investment" in both the church and the believer's own prosperity. More scrupulous persons might call this "fraud."

Other commission members are conveniently familiar with radical evangelist empires. Mark Holbrook is president of the Evangelical Christian Credit Union with $3.2 billion in assets handling the banking for ministries around the world. Stephen Douglass is president of the Campus Crusade for Christ, whose purpose is to spread the Gospel and advocates the building of new churches in the United States and worldwide. "We want to help build spiritual movements among leaders so their influence can be used by God to draw people everywhere to himself," reads one passage on their website. Commission member Bishop Kenneth Ulmer is nominally a Baptist, but his form of Christianity ("the Full Gospel Baptist Church") embraces speaking in tongues, experiencing prophetic visions, and expressing piety via "charismatic utterances." This group of faithful allies is hardly the appropriate assembly to curb the moral and criminal abuses of their friends.

Chair of the commission Michael Batts set the tone for a lack of serious review when he said "We hope solutions will be accomplished by improved self-regulation by churches and faith-based nonprofits themselves, and not by burdensome outside regulation." It's time we impose some outside regulation in order to shine a light on the unethical practices of these churches.