I know it’s a cliché at this point to say John Oliver and his staff at Last Week Tonight are amazing, but screw it: What they did last night was incredible.
In a twenty-minute segment, Oliver exposed the ridiculous IRS rules that allow tax-exempt churches to form all too easily, the televangelists who use that opportunity to take advantage of gullible followers, and the fact that you can count on less than one hand how often the IRS has audited churches over the past couple of years.
If nothing else, watch the bit involving the (very real) seven-month correspondence with Christian huckster Robert Tilton around the 10:30 mark. That gives you an idea of how long this segment has been incubating:
Be sure to check out the website for Oliver’s actual just-formed church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption:
You can make donations to his church, too. (If the church ever ceases to exist, all proceeds will be transferred to Doctors Without Borders.)
Don’t forget to call the church’s number, too:
For a special message from megareverend John Oliver, dial 1-800-THIS-IS-LEGAL!
— Last Week Tonight (@LastWeekTonight) August 17, 2015
I did. It was worth the cost. Especially around the 1:55 mark.
In all seriousness, this is why I love the show. Televangelists scamming followers isn’t necessarily “news.” At this point, Pastor Creflo Dollar crowdfunding a new jet is more of a joke than anything else. But, as the segment notes, a lot of people (often old, often poor) don’t see this as a problem. They give their money fully believing God will repay them in time. And no one is reporting on it because the scam has been going on for so long. Last Week Tonight offered a fresh approach to the subject, brought new energy to a topic that deserves the scrutiny, and called out faith-based bullshit in a way we wish all newscasts would.
If there’s any criticism to offer, it’s that Tilton and his ilk are low-hanging fruit. Even most Christians will tell you they would never give money to those people. And yet those same Christians will gladly give money to megachurch pastors whose salaries are never disclosed, who live in multi-million dollar mansions, and who don’t even hide the fact that they want direct access to your bank account.
Sketchy televangelists aren’t the only Christians who are using Jesus to make themselves rich, courtesy of the people who don’t know how to ask critical questions about their church’s lack of transparency.
It’s unclear if anything will change as a result of this segment, but the more people who understand how the game works, the less likely they’ll fall for it themselves.