Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, tends to say what he thinks.
Recently he suggested that the AIG executives who took those hefty bonuses after their company was bailed out with taxpayer money should either “resign immediately” or “commit suicide” like their Japanese counterparts. And as controversial as that was, his earlier request that six mega-church pastors provide full financial details regarding their financial support, ownership arrangements and compensation has the potential to be even more explosive, as you'd expect when you talk about God and money together.
The “Grassley Six,” as they have become known, are: Kenneth Copeland, Paula and Randy White, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long. I’m not sure why T.D. Jakes and Fred Price did not make the list, but it is clear that Grassley’s inquiry avoids clear racial bias as it includes four white preachers. His publicly declared aim is to look at the operations of these tax-exempt ministries to assess their adherence to IRS guidelines.
While Grassley’s voting history as a conservative politician is easy for me to criticize (he certainly fails even by moderate standards on issues of reproductive choice and the environment, just to name a few), he is barking up the right tree on this issue. This cast of prosperity preachers lives quite lavishly: Their ministries each rake in between $30 million to $90 million per year in tithes and offerings, they fly on church-owned private jets, they live in homes worth millions of dollars, drive late-model Bentleys and Mercedes-Benzes, and work out of extravagant buildings that they have built—one with a $23,000 toilet!
Thus, it serves the interests of the people for the government to hold these extravagant and itinerant preachers accountable, especially since they have tax-exempt status.
Problem is, Creflo and Taffi Dollar have refused to cooperate with Sen. Grassley’s investigation, and Eddie Long has provided incomplete information. Joyce Meyer has cooperated fully and Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and the now-divorced Whites have responded adequately. Thus, it seems that the two African-American preachers have been the most defensive and least responsive to the Senate.
When I was growing up, the moral code among African Americans dictated that white people were always looking for ways to confirm their belief in black inferiority. In effect, what this meant was that black people should always be ready to be blamed, at the drop of a hat, for cheating, stealing or laziness. To arm yourself against these charges, elders said that you had to always work harder, prepare more and behave in ways that anticipated—and undermined—the pending and perpetual critique.
In other words, since the public will always expect a black minister to lack discipline, substance and honesty, the job of the black minister was to exude discipline, focus on substance over style and be profoundly accountable.
But somehow Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long feel that they do not have to adhere to that old-school black moral code. Dollar wrote a detailed letter to Sen. Grassley some five months after the investigation began and explained that he believed only the IRS could examine church documents. Furthermore, he said: “It appears to be Sen. Grassley’s contention that any church with which he may disagree doctrinally can be subjected to a public investigation by the Senate, without regard to the special treatment of religious organizations under the Constitution or the rules and procedural safeguards otherwise applicable to church audits conducted by the IRS.”
In effect, Dollar has played the “church card.” It remains to be seen if Grassley will subpoena the documents.
Eddie Long has called the investigation “intrusive” and an “unjust attack on religious freedom.” While he has provided some information to the Senate, he has not directly replied to the over 30 probing and detailed questions from Sen. Grassley. At this point, it is unclear if he will.
Might this investigation put a wrinkle in Rev. Dollar’s suits and dry up Bishop Long’s jheri-curl? That remains to be seen. With the silence among most black ministers aiding and abetting their prosperity ministry, they can rest assured that the African-American community is not yet up in arms about their spending habits, their ardent criticism of gays, lesbians and same-sex marriage, or their refusal to comply with government requests for information.
It is this silence that mars the face of black Protestantism and will continue to allow these prosperity pulpiteers to not only fly above the law but above service to the people.
Andre C. Willis is an assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale Divinity School.