John Oliver and Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption – Televangelist Fraud and the Scam of Religious Exemption

That comedians have become the most reliable source of serious investigate journalism is a state of affairs that is, well, weird, to say the least. But with the 24 hour new networks abdicating their responsibility to inform the public, it really isn’t surprising. So it is that we have folks like John Oliver and his staff delivering some of the best long form journalism on television. Last night, they tackled Televangelists, and the result was glorious (if infuriating).

Televangelists are the undisputed kings of high-dollar hucksterism. These men and women – vile, mendacious scum, all of them – rake in millions of dollars by taking advantage of hopelessly gullible people. They live in ostentatious mansions and own private jets, while the otherwise innocent dupes who fund their decadent lifestyles flounder in poverty and disease. Televangelists are almost unspeakably reprehensible human beings, and thanks to the permissive stance adopted by the federal government regarding anything even vaguely resembling religious belief, their crimes have gone – and probably will forever go – unpunished.

Cynically speaking, it can be difficult to find sympathy for the victims of these degenerate predators. They are, after all, stupid enough to fork out chunks of change that they can ill-afford for prospective rewards that they have no hope of ever receiving. But the problem with that line of thinking is that is mistake the nature of critical thought. It suggests that everyone is – or at least ought to be – a perfectly rational and discriminating decision maker. Yet the reality is that objective evaluation is neither easily achievable nor easily applied. To begin with, an incredulous disposition and a capacity for critical thought are skills that must be cultivated. No one is really born with these things. Certainly individuals might have greater or lesser capacities for them, but they still must be learned. The people who wind up fleeced by Televangelists are people who have never had an opportunity, accompanied by the proper intellectual guidance, the learn how to think. As a result, they are possessed of tendencies that might be callously referred to as stupidity. Indeed, one can even speculate as the kind of people who might populate the ranks of Televangelist congregations: the materially impecunious; individuals who have little more than a high school education, if that; people raised by neglectful or similarly ignorant parents; people who do not read frequently and were rarely, if ever, read to as children; people who spend most of their free time watching TV; people who occupy the lowest levels of society, left hopeless and adrift by poverty and illness. These are the victims of Televangelists.

So if there is to be a target of our ire aside from the Televangelists themselves, it ought to be the Federal government and the IRS. Televangelists should be taxed heavily, barred from exploiting loopholes open to even the most heavily regulated of corporations. They should be investigated frequently, harassed by the FCC and FBI and ever other agency that can find a stake in their game. That Televangelists are able to live in luxury, unchecked by any regulatory authority is indicative of grave flaws in the relationship between government and religion. Specifically, it casts light on the fact that religion – defined broadly – is granted too much leeway. A separation of church and state is necessary for the maintenance of liberty. If that means granted some special status to legitimate churches, narrowly defined, that is fine. But it is clear to anyone with even a shred of decency or simulacrum of critical thought that Televangelists are frauds and snake oil salesmen. Ideally, they should be thrown in jail. Barring that unlikely bit of justice, they should at least be subject to taxation.

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