I just recently watched the much-viewed video of John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, eviscerating prosperity preachers for their greed and absurd tactics. I knew the video existed before but decided not to watch it because I thought that hearing more garbage from these preachers would just annoy me. When I got around to watching it, they did indeed annoy me, but I also found the video to be hilarious; Oliver certainly was clever in showing how silly and exploitative these men and women are. Here is the video:
Of course, his criticisms of these prosperity churches are not new, as true Christian churches have long rejected these preachers as legitimate teachers. While Christian criticism of these churches are less funny, they have been more substantive than what Oliver offered because they get into how and why the underlining theology is wrong. Thus, other than his amusing mail correspondence with one prosperity organization, I didn’t exactly learn anything from Oliver here, though I appreciate the laughs.
What I will discuss in this post, however, is not simply the error and unfortunate consequences of the prosperity gospel. What I want to address here is Oliver’s constant surprise throughout the video that preaching the prosperity gospel is legal and his insinuation that the IRS and the federal government should get involved in stopping it. His progressive followers quickly responded by pressuring the IRS to examine these churches and revoke their tax-exempt status. This sounds noble, right? There is a group of preachers that we all agree are crooked, or at least severely misleading, and the IRS and the government have an opportunity to serve up some justice by stripping their churches of tax-exemption as well as by possibly making preaching the prosperity gospel itself illegal.
Unfortunately, this is all naive, and it shows how liberals continue to misunderstand religious freedom and try to use the government as a way to force people to behave and think as they do, as ironic as that is.
To illustrate why this is a problem, let us consider the IRS. The IRS does a necessary job for the federal government, but it isn’t always good at it and it isn’t exactly immune from political influence either, as its recent targeting of conservative groups makes clear. It may seem righteous at first to encourage the IRS to target these prosperity churches, but who, exactly, makes the decision between what is good theology and bad? The IRS? The government? This is exactly the sort of thing the First Amendment is supposed to discourage. There are many governments, and many liberal Americans for that matter, who think that not only is the prosperity gospel a load of baloney, but other religious movements are too… even the traditional ones such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some think that all religions are garbage. The world and history are replete with examples of governments who try to squash one religion or another. Are we to really want the IRS to dictate what beliefs are acceptable and which are not? Do we actually believe that they have the expertise and competence to do so?
This extends to the federal government too. John Oliver finds it surprising that it is legal he can make up his church and ask for donations based on crummy reasoning. His surprise is ironic. It is precisely the principle that allows for this legality that helps make this country free. The fact that others practice this freedom in ways that he does not like (and I don’t either) doesn’t mean that his preferences should be the law of the land. It seems lost on him that the 14 IRS guidelines regarding religious organizations are not laws and that they are intentionally vague in order to discourage government interference of First Amendment rights. Are progressives like him really so shortsighted as to think that the government is the right body to decide theological matters? Look no further than China for an example of when a government tries to do that. There are many cults in China that have perverted Christian beliefs and sometimes become problematic for the Chinese government, and the government’s response is to lump all “Christian” underground churches together, even those that are orthodox and peaceful, in the same group.
Here’s a thought for so-called “liberals:” If you don’t like it, stop trying to use the government to compel behavior in every little thing. Try using argument and education, those things you allegedly care about. Also, how about actually being aware of these things before John Oliver, a comedian, does a 20 minute segment on it. There are Christians who have been battling the prosperity gospel for decades and trying hard to free people from such exploitation, without trying to get the big bad government to simply do things, as if the government is even equipped to handle this matter with careful distinction.
Before someone thinks this is a simple slippery-slope fallacy, look no further than discussions about revoking tax-exempt status from churches who even just preach that homosexual relationships are sinful. It seems lost on progressives that this use of government is contrary to American ideals of freedom, and it displays their philosophy of expedience towards their own preferred goals rather than a commitment to freedom and open dialogue. If you don’t like a non-profit organization, then A) don’t give money or exposure to them, B) Criticize them in an educated manner and C) Encourage others to do as you do. This constant use of the government to strong-arm people to cater to them shows a strong inability among liberals to handle disagreement and the consequences of such a free country.