John Oliver’s sardonic spoof of televangelists raises important issues that deserve more than comic treatment. Oliver’s satire was aimed both at the televangelists themselves and at the IRS. In Oliver’s narrative, the IRS acquiesces to televangelists’ abuse by granting their churches tax-exempt status and failing to audit these churches. The law defines the term “church” vaguely. The IRS’s allegedly lackadaisical approach, Oliver tells us, permits televangelical preachers to live luxurious lives replete with private planes and tax-free cash, financed by naive and exploited believers.
An initial problem with this critique is that the IRS does not write the Internal Revenue Code. Congress writes the Code, and the American people elect Congress. As Peter Reilly of Forbes observes, in section 7611 of the Internal Revenue Code, Congress constrained the IRS’s ability to audit churches. Oliver criticizes the resulting low audit rate of churches without explaining who is responsible for this low audit rate—namely, Congress.
There are competing interpretations of section 7611. This provision of the Internal Revenue Code might be viewed as a plausible effort to minimize church-state entanglement by constraining the IRS’s ability to audit churches. Alternatively, Code section 7611 might be understood as Congress bending to political pressures from churches. Both narratives might contain part of the truth.
In any event, the low audit rate of churches, which Oliver blames on the IRS, is the responsibility of Congress. For better or worse, Congress has made it more difficult for the IRS to audit churches than to audit other persons and institutions in Code section 7611.
Another bête noire of Oliver’s critique is the private planes used by some televangelists. However, a minister’s personal use of a church-owned plane is taxable income to him, just as a corporate executive’s personal use of a company plane is taxable income to him.
More generally, churches pay more taxes than many people believe (including, apparently, John Oliver). For example, ministers pay self-employment taxes while churches pay FICA taxes on the salaries of their nonclerical employees. In many states, churches are subject to the sales tax, either as buyers or sellers and sometimes in both capacities.
Churches do not pay federal and state income taxes on their basic operations. However, neither do other nonprofit organizations such as colleges, universities, hospitals, and private foundations. It would be interesting for Oliver to compare the lifestyles of the individuals who lead these tax-exempt institutions with the life-styles of the church leaders of whom Oliver is so critical.
Interestingly, one phenomenon which troubles Oliver—small donors sending cash contributions to televangelical churches—is not problematic from a tax perspective. Oliver obviously disapproves of these donors and their responsiveness to televangelists’ appeals. However, small donors’ contributions are typically not tax deductible. Contributions to churches and other charitable institutions are deductible by the taxpayer only if the taxpayer itemizes personal deductions on his Form 1040. This occurs only among more affluent donors whose deductible outlays exceed their standard deduction for income tax purposes.
For 2015, a single taxpayer’s standard deduction is $6,300, while the standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly is $12,600. Thus, the modest donations cited by Oliver, while large relative to the donors’ low incomes, are generally not tax deductible because donors with limited incomes typically do not contribute enough to itemize their deductions. The real beneficiaries of the Internal Revenue Code’s charitable deduction are upper-middle class and wealthy taxpayers. These affluent taxpayers typically do not contribute to churches, but to such secular entities as universities and museums.
Finally, the legal issue of defining a church involves serious trade-offs that Oliver does not explore. Again, Congress, not the IRS, writes the tax law. Congress could, through the Internal Revenue Code, define “church” more restrictively to crack down on the kind of arrangements Oliver satirizes. However, a narrower definition of a “church” could also be used against nonconformist and unconventional religions—which, at times in our country’s history, would have included abolitionist churches, the Catholic Church, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and other now mainstream organizations. For that reason, as a society, we generally seek to minimize church-state entanglement, even though the resulting zone of religious autonomy can be exploited by the kind of ministers Oliver skewers.
Since at least Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, evangelical preachers have been subject to the kind of criticism Oliver advances. The IRS, particularly in its handling of exempt organizations, is in many ways a troubled and poorly-managed agency. If we categorize Oliver’s skit as mere entertainment, it was, well, entertaining. However, Oliver evidently seeks to place himself in another tradition of American life, the tradition of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Will Rogers, and Mort Sahl. These humorists participated in important political discussions through their comedic commentary.
By the demanding standards of this tradition, Oliver’s satire of televangelists falls short.
Image Credit: “John Oliver at UB” by Chad Cooper. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.