I recently watched the newly released documentary entitled Going Clear, which exposes many of the Church of Scientology’s deeply held secrets, including prison camp type treatment, harassment of ex-members, physical beatings by church leaders and the church’s ultimate victory against the IRS to declare themselves as a non-profit religious organization. I must admit that I thought I knew a lot about Scientology and its enigmatic founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who was once a prolific science fiction writer, but the documentary revealed a lot of arcane practices and rituals that were previously unreported.
I’ve studied many religions and I’m always fascinated by what makes people become devout religious believers. The documentary featured former high level church members who had previously defended Scientology in the media as a sound and credible institution of higher consciousness. Several of the former members described bizarre intimidation tactics instituted by the church leader, David Miscavige, such as constant one-on-one evaluation sessions conducted by high ranking members called Auditors, which were designed to document the church members vulnerabilities and were ultimately used to intimidate ex-members from speaking to the media.
While watching the film, I began to recall similar stories about the Mormon religion and the Church of Latter Day Saints and some of the tactics they used to intimidate former members. In a documentary entitled, This World, The Mormon Candidate, former church members recounted being harassed by private investigators who were former FBI agents. They also discussed being “disconnected” from their friends and families who were still associated with the church, which was also a common practice utilized by the Church of Scientology.
The irony of a church encouraging family members to “disconnect” from their friends and family members, just seems unfathomable and a complete contrast to the tenets of a religious organization. It’s this level of zealousness that’s so intriguing; seemingly stable people who completely surrender their spiritual objectivity to an organization or to a spiritual leader, who often use that blind faith to financially enrich themselves and elevate their status among their congregants and their community.
Recently, Megachurch Minister Creflo Dollar was chastised in the press for asking his followers to donate $65 million dollars towards the purchase of a new private jet. Dollar proclaimed that he needed the new jet so that he could continue to spread the gospel around the world, despite reports that he already owns 4 other private jet planes, several mansions and expensive cars.
According to several news organizations, Dollar’s church generates an average of $69 million in annual donations, all of which is presumably tax free. While I’ve never attended Dollar’s church, I’ve heard that devout members are required to share their annual financial information with the church and to set up automatic monthly tithing from their checking accounts based on their annual income.
Tithing which is defined as giving a one-tenth part of something or a contribution to a religious organization or compulsory tax to a government, is the lifeblood of any religious organization. However, in the past 20 years megachurch ministers have found other lucrative tax free revenue streams. Ministers such as Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Paula White, T.D. Jakes and others routinely travel the world in their private jets with large entourages, proselytizing their “prosperity gospel” and collecting large speaker fees, along with selling millions of books, tapes and producing theatrical films.
It’s the latter revenue stream that came to the attention of the U.S. Senate in 2007 and prompted an inquiry into the finances of megachurch leaders such as Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, Bishop Eddie Long, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer and Paula White Ministries in Florida.
The Senate panel requested financial documents from each leader in an effort to determine if their lavish lifestyles violated the churches’ tax-exempt status. According to related news articles, many of the ministers responded to the inquiry but were unwilling to provide complete financial disclosure, especially Creflo Dollar.
The rise of megachurches and their leader’s ancillary tax free revenue streams have come under constant scrutiny. Should a minister who generates millions of dollars in book sales, speaker fees and box office revenue pay taxes on that income? Of course they should! Unless they can demonstrate that that the bulk of the tax free revenue is materially benefiting their donors and the communities that they serve, otherwise it should be considered taxable revenue.
Ministers like Dollar, defended their lavish lifestyles and income by proclaiming that they have routinely purchased cars and houses for church members. While this seems admirable and altruistic, I doubt that this is a common occurrence. In 2012, an employee of Dollar’s church was unfortunately murdered while working in a church office by an intruder. In reaction, Dollar encouraged church members to donate to a fund to pay off the widow’s mortgage and outstanding debt. With millions already donated to his church, Dollar who’s probably a multimillionaire, brazenly asked his congregation to take on the burden of paying off a church member’s debts.
To be clear, I’m not a hater of ministers who create massive amounts of wealth. I think preachers should be rewarded for building a large and loyal following, and should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The issue that I have is, how much wealth is enough? How many planes, cars and houses does a minister really need? Apparently, to Dollar and others, they should be able to flaunt their tax free wealth without question.
According to an article published by Urban Intellectuals, African-Americans have donated almost 420 billion dollars to black churches in the past 30 years. If the bulk of those tithes and donations were invested back into the black communities in the form of charter schools, job training, tuition assistance and drug counseling, it’s likely that the unemployment rate and crime levels would be dramatically reduced in the neighborhoods that they serve. But it’s clear that these megachurches are not reinvesting the majority of their donations back to the community, instead they’re being used to generate more money for the church leaders, without sharing the wealth with their most loyal congregants.
A true spiritual leader with millions in donations, should be dedicated to building institutions and programs that actually help their followers, instead of hoarding those tithes and enriching themselves. Spiritual leaders like Gandhi and Mother Teresa could have easily taken advantage of their followers and enriched themselves beyond measure, but they elevated the true purpose of their calling over the pursuit of riches.
It would be refreshing to see these uber-wealthy ministers adopt the same mind set, but it’s unlikely since the source of their wealth is predicated on people who hope to achieve financial prosperity through the gospel.