A week ago, on his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver highlighted the absurdity of televangelists who preach the “prosperity gospel” of “seed donations,” i.e. the idea that the more donations you make to a particular ministry, the greater your chances of obtaining wealth and good health. In an effort to goad the IRS into investigating some of these fraudsters, Oliver set up his own church, registered it with the IRS and asked for donations… and, as he noted last night, they came.
“Thousands of you responded, leading to thousands of dollars of donations,” said Oliver, as his alter-ego “Pastor John Oliver, mega-reverend and CEO.”
“To be honest, slightly more of you responded than we were expecting,” he admitted, surrounded by the boxes of mailed donations his church Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption received. He ended the piece with another donation plea: “Keep your money coming to this address, and remember the more money you send in the more blessings that will be returned to you. And that is still something I’m amazingly, legally allowed to say.”
Religious organizations are tax exempt, and the IRS’ definition of what actually constitutes one is extremely malleable. In fact, they go as far as refusing to evaluate churches so long as their beliefs are “truly and sincerely held.” The IRS’ blindspot in religion was made starkly clear in last week’s episode, as Oliver revealed how the agency has audited just three churches since 2009.
Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption continues to take donations on its website and hotline. The website’s fine print states that the church may “dissolve in the near future. Upon dissolution, any assets belonging to the Church at that time will be distributed to Doctors Without Borders.” For now the ball remains firmly in the IRS’ court.
The update on donations aired on yesterday’s episode at the 26:00 mark; it’s not currently available on Youtube, but you can watch the original segment that started it here: