John Oliver exposed an intriguing link between televangelism and Scientology

Last week, John Oliver mocked the lax rules that make it incredibly easy to form your own tax-exempt church. He even made his own church Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption  — to prove his point.

Oliver says that televangelists have been taking advantage of these laws to establish what are basically predatory businesses: they go on television and make extraordinary promises in exchange for monetary donations. One person featured in Oliver’s video died of cancer after a televangelist reportedly said she should pay for the televangelist’s program instead of medical treatment.

In the US, the IRS grants churches a wide range of tax exemptions, and their rules defining what constitutes a church are vague and can be interpreted broadly. Between 2009 and 2013, the IRS audited just three churches, according to CBS, which cited the Government Accountability Office. 

And who can be credited for the tax rules the IRS has for churches? The Church of Scientology, according to Anthony Ole, the president of Trinity Foundation, an organisation that monitors religious fraud. In the early ’90s, the IRS granted the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. Since then, “anybody can call themselves a Church,” Ole told CBS.

L. Ron Hubbard incorporated the Church of Scientology in 1953, and it was recognised as a tax-exempt religious organisation in 1957. But after a 1967 audit, the Church lost its status.

The Church reportedly responded with a campaign against the IRS. According to The New York Times, the Church and its members filed over 2,200 lawsuits against the IRS, hired private detectives to “uncover potential vulnerabilities” in the personal lives of IRS officials, and financed an IRS whistleblowing organisation.

Finally, in 1997, the Church paid the IRS $US12.5 million as part of a deal that once again gave it tax-exempt status, The New York Times reported at the time

“The way they determined that Scientology was a religion was to make a deal,” Lawrence Wright, the author of “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” told Salon. “Essentially, Scientology bludgeoned them into this tax exemption, which now denominates them as a religion.”

For its part, the Church of Scientology told Business Insider that “the IRS recognised Scientology as a tax-exempt religious and charitable organisation because it provided substantive proof on the merits, following a two-year examination, that it was entitled to that recognition.”

In “Going Clear,” Wright describes the Church of Scientology’s teaching method in ways that sound a whole lot like televangelism. Both the Church of Scientology and televangelists use a pay-as-you-go models, where the religious organisation offers small morsels of their teachings for money. Those morsels become increasingly expensive with each lesson, according to Wright.

The Church of Scientology, however, disputes the claim that it charges its members more and more money over time. A Church spokesperson told Business Insider that Wright’s book is “sloppily researched.”

“First, the Church of Scientology should not be compared to the fundraising practices of televangelists. The Church of Scientology does no fundraising in the televangelist manner, so the comparison [is] inaccurate,” the Church said in a statement to Business Insider. “Second, due to the unique nature of its ministry, the Church of Scientology has found that a fixed donation system for participating in religious services is the fairest and most practical method of support.”

While the Church denies any comparisons to televangelism, the descriptions of its fundraising methods in Wright’s critically acclaimed book would make it seem otherwise. 

On “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver demonstrated the common practice among televangelists of “seeding,” where televangelists ask for more money as they correspond with their audience. Oliver began a letter exchange with the televangelist Robert Tilton’s organisation, which in turn asked for more money with each letter sent.

At first, Tilton asked for $US37, and asked for more and more money as Oliver communicated with the organisation. Eventually, Oliver sent him a total of $US319 before dropping out.


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