"There are roughly 350,000 congregations in the United States, and many of them do great work: feeding the hungry, clothing the poor," John Oliver says, opening his latest Last Week Tonight report. "But this is not a story about them. This is about the churches who exploit people's faith for monetary gain."
As Oliver explains, "televangelism is still thriving in this country," with preachers like Robert Tilton using the "prosperity gospel" to squeeze out mind-boggling amounts of money from their impressionable audiences. One televangelist, Creflo Dollar, used a fundraiser to buy a $65 million jet, and many others – Kenneth Copeland, James Payne, Todd Coontz, Henry Fernandez – utilize this concept of "seed faith," asking their devotees to make monetary investments for miracles. Oliver explores the story of Bonnie Parker, who pledged thousands of dollars to Copeland's church in hopes of beating cancer.
For churches, this money is tax-free because of broad IRS exemptions and vague definitions of what constitutes a "church." Oliver reads from actual IRS documents, which explain that the "IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs...are truly and sincerely held...and the practices...are not illegal."
Last Week Tonight decided to explore how these churches operate, so in January, Oliver sent Tilton $20 and asked to join his mailing list. One month later, the host received a letter containing a dollar and instructions to "Send it back to me with your best Prove God tithes or offering." Oliver continued to send money ($319 total), receiving random oils, pieces of fabric in the shape of mountains and an outline of Tilton's foot.
Realizing how easy it is to create a church – and to stretch the definition of "church" for evil – Oliver creates his own greed-hub, dubbed Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. The "Mega Reverend and CEO" is joined by his wife, Wonder Jo Oliver (Rachel Dratch), and asks his audience congregation to send him money. "Praise be to the IRS," Wonder Jo exclaims, "the most permissive of government agencies!"