Politicians and the pastors

Who are televangelists responsible to? Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has started an investigation into the televangelists, like Kenneth Copeland, who has, according to CBS News, told Grassley that his operation is only accountable to the IRS. Grassley’s investigation hinges on the suspicion that a half dozen televangelists are engaging in fraud by getting rich off the donations of the faithful.

A Christian organization that monitors the financial dealings of ministries, Ministry Watch, told the network that they’re frustrated at the inability to get Copeland, or any of the other ministries being investigated by Grassley, to submit financials.

“Our position is though, that if there is nothing illegal going on, why not disclose it?” asks Warren Smith of Ministry Watch in an interview with CBS News. “If there is nothing to hide, why are you hiding it?”

Next to Grassley, some of the most dogged work in examining televangelists has been done by Minneapolis writer Charles Quimby, who authors the blog, Across the Great Divide. For months Quimby has been looking at Copeland’s operation, and its links locally, including to megachurch pastor Mac Hammond.

Most of the investigated televangelists — and scores of imitators or active partners — make use of a holding company-like structure they call a “ministry.” The ministry operates a variety of ventures that produce earned and contributed revenue streams. It may also serve as a master brand that endorses the individual operations, but the farther the businesses stray from the organization’s churchly purpose, the more likely they are named and structured to blur the financial connection.

Quimby’s work has made clear just how difficult it will be for Grassley’s investigation to untangle the operations of Copeland and his subsidiaries.

A two-month investigation by CBS News appears to have reached a similar stage:

From across the main road it was easy to see parts of his sprawling religious empire – the low-lying Eagle Mountain International Church and shiny new ministry headquarters. To the right the framework of a $10 million “children’s building” is on the rise; far, far beyond, we are told, is the Copeland’s 18,000 square-foot lake-front parsonage where Copeland and wife Gloria often lay their head at night. To the left is the ministry’s private airport and planes; just beyond, cattle stand grazing. Somewhere beyond sight are the gas and oil wells.

And Copeland appears ready for a fight according to the Washington newspaper Roll Call (subscription required)

In a Jan. 22 closed-circuit broadcast of his 2008 Ministers’ Conference obtained by Roll Call, Copeland pledges a holy war against “Brother Grassley” and the Senate for attempting to get a look at the controversial ministry’s finances. Grassley wrote a Nov. 6 letter to Copeland and five other prominent ministers requesting a variety of financial information.

“You render unto the government what belongs to the government. And you render unto God what belongs to God,” Copeland loudly intones to approving murmurs from the crowd of 1,000 ministers and their guests.