Speed Reads

The Gospel of John Oliver

John Oliver starts a church to preach against televangelists and their shady 'prosperity gospel'

On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver took on the preachers and the sinners — or, more precisely, the TV preachers who prey on their congregants to finance their lavish lifestyles, and the IRS that is legally bound to let them. "There are roughly 350,000 congregations in the United States, and many of them do great work: Feeding the hungry, clothing the poor," Oliver explained, lest you think he is anti-religion. "But this is not a story about them — this is about the churches who exploit people's faith for monetary gain."

Televangelists were a big deal in the 1980s, until many of them were publicly disgraced, but "though you may not realize it, televangelism is thriving in this country," Oliver said. You may have heard of Creflo Dollar's congregation-funding drive for a new $65 million private jet, but that's apparently a common request for televangelists. And it's only the tip of the iceberg.

This would all be funny, Oliver said, if there weren't real victims — and not just financial ones. Cue a terrible story about a woman who sent Gloria Copeland and her husband thousands of dollars instead of getting cancer treatment, because Copeland said that was a better bet. And to follow the money, Oliver sent hundreds of dollars to televangelist Robert Tilton over seven months of correspondence — and he shared the highlights with viewers.

Everything these "prosperity gospel"–touting preachers do is not only legal, but tax-free, Oliver noted sourly, but he wasn't just shooting spitballs. He talked to a tax lawyer and founded "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption," a real church per IRS guidelines, "and it was disturbingly easy," he said. It's not clear if he really wants you to send him and "Wanda-Jo Oliver" (Rachel Dratch) money to prove his point, or perhaps to get him busted by the IRS, but it's probably safest to sit on your wallet and wait for the follow-up episode. There is some mild swearing, but you'll learn something if you watch the video above.