Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has gone after more than a few iconic nonprofits during his tenure atop the Finance Committee, including the Red Cross, Smithsonian and Harvard University.
But now the Finance ranking member and former chairman may have met his match: televangelist Kenneth Copeland of the sprawling Kenneth Copeland Ministries based in Newark, Texas.
In a Jan. 22 closed-circuit broadcast of his 2008 Ministers’ Conference obtained by Roll Call, Copeland pledges a holy war against “Brother Grassley” and the Senate for attempting to get a look at the controversial ministry’s finances. Grassley wrote a Nov. 6 letter to Copeland and five other prominent ministers requesting a variety of financial information.
“You render unto the government what belongs to the government. And you render unto God what belongs to God,” Copeland loudly intones to approving murmurs from the crowd of 1,000 ministers and their guests.
“This information is not secret, it’s confidential and it belongs to the Internal Revenue part of the U.S. government,” Copeland continues, wearing a pinstriped suit and silver tie and ambling about the room Oprah-style with dark hair as immobile as any TV-ready Senator. “It does not belong to the United States Senate!”
Before a painting that looks like gathering storm clouds, Copeland warns that if he volunteers the information to Grassley, the Senate will “publish it” and “do whatever they want to do with it” and pauses dramatically.
“I don’t think so,” he then pronounces to laughter and applause from his audience.
After a searing attack on Grassley’s tactics — which Copeland says were designed to sully his image and pressure him via the media — Copeland says he will never provide information on his donors, even if he is ordered to do so by subpoena.
“You can go get a subpoena, and I won’t give it to you!” Copeland storms. “It’s not yours, it’s God’s and you’re not going to get it and that’s something I’ll go to prison over. So, just get over it!” he tells Grassley, jamming his finger into the air. “And if there’s a death penalty that applies, well just go for it!”
In the sermon, Copeland promises a full-scale battle against Grassley, which some say could have negative political ramifications for Republicans during a crucial presidential election year. The six ministers, who preside over a flock of tens of thousands Pentecostal voters, preach a “Prosperity Gospel” that says God wants to reward his followers, including ministers, with earthly riches.
Doug Wead, head of evangelical outreach for ex-President George H.W. Bush, said the move threatens to fracture the tenuous coalition of Pentecostal and Baptist voters that supported President George W. Bush in his campaigns. He said the ministers see the probe as personal because Grassley is a Baptist and the churches are all Pentecostal. Grassley argues the inquiry is about tax-exempt policy and not religious doctrine. He says he did not know the churches’ denominations before the letters were sent.
“He’s dividing the base that George W. Bush had,” Wead contended. “He’s opened this deep fissure. If you look at it as a Republican, it looks disastrous.”
It could also, Wead said, cause problems for Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, who has appeared on some of Copeland’s services. After Grassley’s letter arrived, Copeland said in the Jan. 22 service that he offered Huckabee a chance to break his association with him.
Huckabee “hollered at me on the phone. He said, ‘Are you kidding me? Why should I stand with them and not with you? They’ve only got an 11 percent approval rating.’”
“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s my man,’” Copeland said of Huckabee.
By law, churches do not have to file a 990 form with the IRS as many other nonprofit groups are required to do. Thus, their financial information is usually private. During the course of the probe, Grassley has pledged to be “reasonable” in keeping personal financial information confidential.
While some religious watchdog groups support the Grassley probe, other Christian activists urge caution, contending that Grassley is treading on thin ice because of church-state separation.
Kenneth Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, supports the probe because it is similar to inquiries of other nonprofits and because he believes the Finance Committee will keep appropriate information private.
A former Ford Motor Co. executive, Behr said that as evangelical churches grow, they need to adopt practical financial practices used in the corporate world to keep their money in order.
“There’s been a number of my friends that have encouraged me to think again about whether I would support this kind of inquiry,” Behr conceded. But he added, “Ministers who have nothing to hide have nothing to hide.”
The battle began on Nov. 6 when Grassley sent a detailed letter requesting financial records from six televangelists addressing compensation, board members, and payment for the use of jets, opulent homes, furniture and fancy cars such as Rolls-Royces. Compliance with the letters is voluntary, and Grassley is preparing a second round of letters to be distributed in the next few weeks.
“If they don’t cooperate, it would be very unusual. I’ve looked at a number of nonprofit groups over the years and they’ve all cooperated,” Grassley said in a Dec. 6 statement, pointing to a single “extreme” example when the committee did not get help from jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In order to subpoena the groups, which is described as a last resort, Grassley would need the backing of Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). The two generally work collaboratively.
“Customarily, people come to recognize the wisdom of responding to requests by senior members of the Finance Committee, and particularly by Sen. Grassley, before a subpoena becomes necessary,” said a Baucus spokeswoman.
As of last week, Grassley aides say only one church — Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo. — agreed to cooperate and submitted some materials by the Senator’s Dec. 6 deadline. Another, Creflo Dollar’s World Changers Church International of College Park, Ga., said it would not provide information without a subpoena. Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc. in Grapevine, Texas, and Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Fla., have been in touch with the Senator, and they say they are preparing a response by Jan. 31. Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., has not sent data.
Aides said Kenneth and Gloria Copeland provided a response that “falls short” of Grassley’s request. The Nov. 6 letter to the Copelands asked them to provide a detailed accounting of their compensation, housing allowances, credit card statements and a list of bank accounts, the tax-exempt purpose of layovers in Hawaii and Fiji on the church’s Citation X jet and information on a 40th anniversary “gift” of $2 million from other ministers.
In a statement posted on its Web site, the church said it “greatly respects” Grassley’s interest in nonprofit churches. “Our church is serious about financial accountability and has instituted policies and procedures to ensure our financial integrity.”
“At the same time, we have also instituted policies and procedures to ensure the privacy of our donors, employees, directors and ministers.”
But in the Jan. 22 Ministers’ Conference, Copeland vowed to vigorously fight Grassley.
Copeland says he learned about the probe through the media and was not even certain that the “plain-paper-looking trash” that arrived by fax from Grassley’s office was authentic.
“We answered them. We gave them a several-page lesson on no,” Copeland says dramatically, drawing laughter and applause. “Our attorneys cited the confidential privacy statutes, and not just for our ministry. If I yield this stuff, they’re coming after you!”
“We gave [Grassley’s office] the address of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C.!” he flourishes, to “amens” from the audience.
He suggested that the stop in Hawaii was to rest and refuel and that the layover in Fiji was for a ministers’ conference. He allows there might be some “element of truth” in each of Grassley’s allegations, but that how they framed it was a “lie.”
“You wanna get in a faith fight with me?” Copeland says toward the end, holding a Bible. “Why, just come on. But, I’m gonna warn you, I fight dirty. I got somebody else does my fighting for me. I just sit back and watch.”
To laughter, Copeland adds: “I just throw the first punch and then get out and let my angels go to work.”