Monday, January 28, 2008

Investigating God's Finances

This has been under the radar, but it might get ugly:
“You can go get a subpoena, and I won’t give it to you!” [Rev. Kenneth] Copeland storms. “It’s not yours, it’s God’s and you’re not going to get it and that’s something I’ll go to prison over. So, just get over it!” he tells Grassley, jamming his finger into the air. “And if there’s a death penalty that applies, well just go for it!”

Republican Senator Charles Grassley has decided to investigate the finances of 12 mega-churches, under the suspicion that the leaders of these congregations - televised to millions around the world - are using gifts and donations to these ministries to support lavish lifestyles. Ever touchy about the whole church-state thing, I find this kind of fishing expedition a bit odd, especially from a Republican lawmaker during an election year.

First, I call it a "fishing expedition" because there is no underlying single incident prompting this investigation. It is - or at least seems - to be the result of questions regarding how these congregational leaders live. It is apparently unseemly for a preacher of the gospel to make a lot of money, or live in a nice house, or have private jets at his disposal, or whatever. While I sympathize, to an extent, I am also wary of two things in regards to this "investigation". First, these kinds of investigations always find "something", even if it hardly measures up to the hype beforehand. The simple fact is, there is always a bit of shady business and difficult-to-untangle accounting when the kind of money dealt with by these ministries is involved. Even if outside auditors and accountants are used, lines get crossed all the time, because the laws are written in such a way that violations of even technical aspects are inevitable. Compared to the amounts involved, they are usually minuscule, even if they sound large to the lay reader's ear.

Second, there is the propriety of it all. Grassley is quite obviously using this issue to curry favor with . . . someone. No politician is completely clean of that charge, obviously. He might well be outraged at the fact that some of these gentlemen live in luxury. Behind that outrage, however, lies a core belief that, as a clergy spouse, I have encountered frequently, and wonder about. That is, there is this belief that ordained clergy should live somewhere just above the poverty level, but still be able, at a moment's notice, cavort hither and yon, answering all calls and summons wherever they may lead, give twice the 10% called upon by Scripture, receive cast-off furniture with open arms, and always live within their meager means. Recently, we received the wonderful gift of dinner from a church member - ham and scalloped potatoes, broccoli salad and dessert - because she wondered if we were OK financially, what with the economy getting bad. We have a refrigerator and bunker freezer and pantry full of food, and we actually manage to do quite well on a combined income that is higher than the median, thank you very much. Two kids, two car payments, a couple loans (getting rid of credit card debt), and Moriah's braces, and we still manage to feed ourselves, put gas in our cars, and dress well enough to appear in public. Yet, some people wonder how we do it.

It would be nice to have twice the income we do now. In fact, we would be less on the edge - like most Americans are - if we did. On the other hand, our expenses would most likely rise to meet the increased income, so we would probably end up in the same position, only with the debt column having bigger numbers in it (that has been the pattern since we were first married, and jumped in income from near zero to almost $20,000 a year, such a grand sum!!).

I suppose the investigation will go forward, and one or two of these folks will appear at the table before the Senate Finance Committee, attorney in tow, cameras whirring and klieg lights glaring. We might actually have an enforced contempt order should Copeland make good on his refusal to supply the documentation (why can't they be enforced against Bush Administration official? Maybe that one is too easy to answer). In the end, we will have a situation similar to that which prevailed after the contretemps between Jim Bakker's PTL Club and Jimmy Swaggart's ministry - one or two will be publicly humiliated, most likely end up either paying a big fine or in the pokey for a night or two. The underlying question - how do we keep the balance between church and state, respecting the valid work of these ministries while ensuring there is little abuse of the privilege of tax-exemption - will remain.

Virtual Tin Cup

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