Annie Laurie Gaylor: Stuart Watson, who we got to know through our parish exclusion lawsuit that FFRF is taking against the 1954 law, that allows ministers to be paid through a housing allowance which is fully exempt from taxation. So I think you’ve been following our lawsuit, we started in California, we had to move to Wisconsin with Dan and myself as the primary plaintiffs because as the head an atheist/agnostic organization, being paid in part through a housing allowance, we are not allowed to claim it and we have injury.
In November a federal judge ruled in our favor, that the housing exclusion is an unconstitutional preference for religion. The purpose of it according to US representative Peter Mack who was the primary sponsor was to reward ministers for fighting godlessness. How’s that for a secular purpose? It is a big fight and the Obama Administration appealed to the seventh circuit and we are starting to get all of the briefs against us, and I thought I would just do a little show and tell. Including the government’s brief against us, this is what it looks like.
There is only five amicus briefs against us, but they encompass as far I can see, virtually ever single denomination in the United States against FFRF. I want to read some of the names, because some of them will surprise you. Well, the Unitarian Universalists Association. The Unitarian Universalists Minister Association. Friends. American Baptists; they’re the best people on separation of church and state. It’s greed. It’s entitlement. It’s getting used to a privilege that nobody else has, because they’re religious and they are all against us. When you think about it, if you get a tax break nobody wants to give it up. But boy, are they fighting.
They’re aligned with all of their fundamentalist brethren, and I find it very interesting that as a tactic they also got the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to agree with them. You see this is a Protestant versus Catholic fight because if your workplace provides you with a house as the Catholics do, that’s a 1921 law that our appeal does not address. It’s a 1954 addition that affected protestants that’s at stake right now. So, it really is what I hesitate to call a “David vs. Goliath” fight. As far as I know there is only one group that is doing an amicus for us. I know the Center for Free Inquiry is doing one, and there might be a couple of groups that sign on at this level. But American United for Separation of Church and State regretfully declined. And you know they have a minister at their helm and they primarily get funding through the Joint Baptist Commission, this is a very controversial lawsuit. It’s the kind of thing that only a group of purists for separation of church and state, who have nothing at stake, would take.
This is a long way to introduce our speaker. We got to know him because he called up and had his eye on this lawsuit because of a series of investigations that he was making about housing allowance abuses in Charlotte (S.C.). It’s wonderful investigative reporting, the old fashioned kind that’s hardly done anymore.
Stuart Watson and his wife have driven three hours from Charlotte to be here. [He is] refusing an honorarium. He has been an investigative reporter for more than thirty years, half of that time at WCNC-TV, the MBC affiliate in Charlotte. He has won many national awards including the George Foster Peabody Award, the DuPont Columbia Silver Baton, The National Headliner Award and many others. Some of the stuff you’re going to see tonight has received a national award and regional awards. He had a Neumann Fellowship at Harvard, he’s servicing his third term on the Board of Investigative Reporters and Editors. They don’t make them like this any more, so we are really privileged to have Stuart Watson here. And because he couldn’t accept an honorarium, he could accept a small token of our appreciation. So, we have a little plaque called the Freethought in the Media award. Stuart Watson, FFRF 2014.
Stuart: Thank you!
Annie Laurie: You’re welcome.
Stuart: See, what you don’t realize is, that this is more important than money. That reporters are such ego-maniacs. Three hours? That’s nothing. We would crawl on cut glass to get an award. You can get money anywhere, but to get an a award, that’s where we are. My wife says it’s a chance for you to talk about your favorite topic: yourself. No matter what. How can there be room for a god with an ego like that? So, to Harry Shaughnessy and to Annie Laurie Gaylor thank you, and to Dan Barker.
I’m not a speech-ifier, and I’m not going to read a speech off a teleprompter.I’m not going to drone on, I’m certainly not a preacher, but they call me a story teller so I’m just going to tell you this story of how I arrived here. I didn’t start out almost a year ago saying, “Boy, I’d like to be at the Sheraton in Raleigh with a bunch of atheists on Saturday night. That sounds a rollicking good time, there, oh boy!” And it turned out to be!
I was going to tell you a little bit about where I come from. About a minutes worth, because I’m not a believer that journalists are completely objective. I try to be fair and so I can tell you where I came from. I ask, do you want me to tell you what I believe, and they said nobody really cares. Nobody really wants to know what you believe. Which is really funny because the mega church that we reported on over a course of months, everybody wanted to know what I believed.
They were all, are you a Christian? What do you believe? Where do you go to church? Where are you coming from? They all wanted to know, so I hope I tell them the same thing that I tell you, which is, that I grew up a fundamentalist. My father believed that the Bible was the holy and inerrant word of god. Every comma. I fell away from that when I went off and met my wife at Vanderbilt University. I grew up in the deep south, Georgia. She may have had something to do with that [leaving religion]. Actually, when in doubt: Blame the woman! Good move.
I fell away on the issue of baptism because I was out-evangelized. I fell away from the church and from fundamentalism when someone told me I was going to hell because I had sprinkled as a Presbyterian instead of dunked. And I said, well any god that’s going to send me to everlasting damnation for want of a few gallons of water is no god that I can believe in. That was the end of me and that. So now I guess I would describe myself as just a searcher. Just a seeker. Somebody who asks a lot of questions. I will tell you that I’m biased in favor of people who think and I’m biased in favor of people who ask challenging questions.
I feel very much at home here. What I’d like to do is tell you a little story, show you a little piece of video or two and show you what Annie Laurie and Dan did. Sort of the background of this issue. How it became real and tangible for us. And then, what I’d mainly like to do better than anything is have a conversation. So if you wanna say, Stuart, I think you did a terrible job or you might want to consider this, or what about that? Or, actually, that camera shot makes your ass look really big! If you wanna say any of that, you can save that and then we can talk afterwards.
The best stories come from tips, and someone sent me a tip and said that a pastor was building a ten-thousand square foot home. It turned out it was a fifteen-thousand square foot home. Ten thousand of which was heated, four car garage, etc. The long and the short of it was, people said, really is that all it is? Just a story about a pastor with a big home. And I said no, I don’t think it is.
Investigative reporting moves in what they call ‘the three eyes.’ You investigate individuals, you investigate institutions, and then you move on to issues or ideas. And so you kind of move up a hierarchy of ideas, you move from the specific to the general. And so investigative reporting is about saying, “Is this a one-off? An isolated incident? Or is it part of pattern? Is it part of something bigger?”
We aired our report about the ten-thousand or fifteen-thousand square foot home that this pastor was building. The name of this church, it’s the largest megachurch in North Carolina, it’s actually a Baptist Church. A Southern Baptist Church, but it doesn’t use that name. It’s called Elevation Church. It’s a multi-site model which means that the preacher preaches live in one place and then they broadcast them around to other places simultaneously and also over the web and on television. It’s technically televangelism, but it’s also much more than that. Huffington Post’s Religion headline was, “Elevation Church Pastor Steven Furtick’s Hidden Multi-Million Dollar Home Raises Questions of Transparency.” That’s what I thought I did.
The title of my talk is “Democracy Versus Religion.” Why do they have to fight it out? Why can’t they coexist? And I say, but they often do. Many Christian denominations function on democratic principals. I’m going to talk to about a couple of them. The ordinary person in the seat has a vote, they have a say in who governs the church. They understand that they are participatory. And we’ll talk about why that is.
But the other headline that emerged, which was something that I never really asked, this was on a Glenn Beck website. When Glenn Beck got around to discussing it [he asked], “Is it okay for pastors to live in extravagant homes?” And this was a question that I’d never asked. It was a question that just came out of it. As a matter of fact, when you hear Dan speak in the video piece you’ll hear him say that it’s not a question that FFRF asked. It was not out to cause class jealousy, or create issues of envy, or class warfare or anything. It wasn’t, “Well his house is too big.” That curiously is a question that is asked within the Christian church. Those outside the Christian church were asking a different question.
The Christian Church said, “You’re asking questions about is this guy following Jesus’s footsteps? Or his he biblical? Or is he theological? Outside people were saying, no. The only stake we have in what this church does is that you get a tax break. You a get big tax break. So this is a guy who became quite wealthy, using a tax exempt institution. And then we narrowed it down to talk specifically about what Dan calls the housing allowance. You might call it the parsonage allowance. The issue you will see in the video is, that Dan and Annie Laurie as heads of a small nonprofit and are not eligible to take this tax exemption. Whereas, if you are a rabbi, if you are a minister, if you are a priest or if you are an imam, you are eligible.
So there is a distinction made. Their argument is that is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Which I would note is the first part of the first amendment. Congress shall make no law establishing of religion. That comes before and distinct from or prohibited the free exercise thereof. Congress shall make establishing a religion the argument is, this is for the courts, and the lawyers: whether distinguishing this tax-exemption for religious leaders is de-facto establishing a religion.
Is it establishing a religion as opposed to because you have two types of nonprofits organizations? I hope the video is clearer than that. And I hope, because it seems to me what I just said it came out about as clear as mud. So the long and the short of it was, we began investigating an individual. There are some other issues about this that we can get into if you are interested in. That is, he said he build the house with proceeds from the sale of books which were promoted from the pulpit. So the more you want to study this, there is a great co-mingling, a great coming together of huge publishers for profit and nonprofit in houses of worship. And here is the way that works.
You have a subsidiary of a for-profit publisher which publishes evangelical Christians. And they publish the mega-church pastors. This church is so good and boy are they! At films. Videos. This is a church that spends millions on audio, light shows, I’m not exaggerating, smoke machines. Bands! You know, audio-tuning, everything! It is a multi-media extravaganza, it is an entertainment machine.
The for-profit publisher, follow me, pays the church to do the promotion of the for-profit book. So they give a big chunk of change and say here, you do the promotional films. In addition to that the church does its own promotion of the books. And then the money from the books goes to the pastor. The money flows around the church, so even if you looked at the churches books, which you can’t, which you will never see, the money flows around it. Then there is a huge speaking tour. Australia! In Europe! All over the world. In which people pay hundreds of dollars to come sit in the seats to learn the secrets of this. That money around the church, it does not flow through the church. The church becomes a vehicle for a for-profit enterprise.
The way that this impacts atheists and agnostics is: It is giving [them] non-profit status. So the church itself does not pay property taxes, the church gets sales tax exemptions, but more importantly for the purposes of the federal lawsuit, the bigger the house the bigger the tax break. Maybe now is a good time to show the story, so we can see what it is that I’m talking about. We can show it first. So, Harry, the audio-visual magician! He’s going to conjure…
Harry: No, I’m not!
Stuart: He’s going to click!
VIDEO CLIP Stuart Voiceover:
When we first reported how Elevation Pastor Steven Furtick was building a sixteen-thousand-square foot home, we got a lot of complaints from his supporters. Ashley Todd pretty much summed it up writing, “So what if he builds a huge house. How is that any concern of yours or any one else’s?”
Well the answer is: If you are tax-payer, it is your concern. Because pastors don’t pay income taxes on the salary for housing. It’s called a parsonage allowance. And when preachers are exempt from paying a big chunk of income taxes, guess who does pay?
(Pastor Steven Furtick Voiceover) “This ain’t right, this ain’t right!”
(Stuart Voiceover) Pastor Steven Furtick will not reveal how much Elevation Church pays him, as a tax-free parsonage allowance.
(Pastor Steven Furtick Voiceover) “It’s not that great of a house.”
(Stuart Voiceover) But his mentor, Ed Young Junior in Dallas, gets about a quarter million dollars a year, tax-free, just for housing. Elevation Church pays twenty-four ordained pastors parsonage allowances, but no one will say how much.
(Pastor Steven Furtick Voiceover) “It’s a big house, it’s a beautiful house.”
(Stuart Voiceover) But my question about the parsonage allowance doesn’t start or end with Pastor Steven and his big house.
(Pastor Steven Furtick Voiceover) “I believe the fear of god called me to be here.”
(Stuart Voiceover) Seventeen years ago as a young reporter, WRAL in Raleigh, I wanted to know why the CEO of Goodwill Industries of Eastern North Carolina, a man named Dennis McClain, got $54,000 a year just for expenses.
(Dennis McClain Voiceover) As a Methodist Minister assigned to Goodwill Industries, I get a parsonage allowance.
(Stuart Voiceover) Of $54,000 a year?
(Dennis McClain Voiceover) Whatever it is. But that’s a parsonage allowance, that’s correct.
(Stuart Voiceover) Is that fair?
(Dennis McClain Voiceover) Fair has nothing to do with it.
(Stuart Voiceover) McClain declined to speak to me again. Fair or not, just because he’s ordained, McClain gets a tax break for a parsonage. Even though he doesn’t pastor a church, he works at Goodwill. Now the Raleigh News and Observer reports McClain and his wife, also at Goodwill, earn nearly $800,000 a year. Thanks in a large part to the parsonage allowance, more than $147,000 of that is tax-free.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) We think that’s unfair.
(Stuart Voiceover) Dan Barker is the Co-President for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A national group of atheists and agnostics.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) I was an ordained minister. After nineteen years of believing, really believing and preaching the gospel, I changed my mind.
(Stuart Voiceover) When Dan was a preacher he got a tax break for housing.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) You don’t even have to report it! It was nice. I mean, who wouldn’t want that advantage? If you’re paying your taxes you want every break you can get.
(Stuart Voiceover) But as atheists Barker and his wife and co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, sued the IRS over the parsonage exemption.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) And the rest of us pay more because clergy pay less. They need to pay their fair share.
(Stuart Voiceover) The atheists sued in federal court in Madison, Wisconsin, where the headquarters is.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) And we are seeking an end to the parsonage exemption, which we think is unconstitutional.
(Stuart Voiceover) They claim the parsonage allowance violates the so-called Establishment Clause of the first amendment to the Constitution. Because congress gave a tax-break to clergy, but not to all non-profits.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) And sometimes we’re seeing stupendous housing allowances. Overpaid ministers.
(Stuart Voiceover) The bigger the house, the bigger the tax break. Because the parsonage allowance is limited only by the fair market rental value of the pastors home.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) So if you chose to live in Sistine Chapel or a mansion, you can’t claim more than the fair rental value, but that could be astronomical.
(Stuart Voiceover) Dan and Annie Laurie couldn’t care less what Elevation Church pays Steven Furtick but they do care about the tax-breaks.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) If they want to pay the pastor fifty millions dollars a year, we are not complaining about that, that’s freedom. But if they are excluding housing from taxation, tax-liability, then that’s hurting all of us.
(Stuart Voiceover) And thanks to the secrecy congress affords churches, tax payers have no idea how much the parsonage allowance is even worth.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) It’s shielded from public scrutiny, yet the public are subsidizing churches.
(Stuart Voiceover) You see, most non-profits have to make their tax-forms public.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) You can go online right now and you can see my salary. You can see our organizations income, and expenses down to the penny. We have to accountable.
(Stuart Voiceover) We know what Goodwill pays Dennis and Linda McClaim because the non-profit makes its tax forms public.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) If you are a tax-exempt organization, then you’re business is every bodies business.
(Stuart Voiceover) But think about it. When it comes to accountable, the atheists are now more forthcoming than some Christians.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) We hear that churches, everything they do is good, and they’re being given this tax emption to do good, yet why keep it secret? What do they have to hide?
(Stuart Voiceover) Only last week a federal judge in Wisconsin handed the atheists a first round victory. The judge ruled the tax break for the parsonage allowance is unconstitutional and should be thrown out. The decision will almost certainly be appealed. Stuart Watson, NBC Charlotte.
Stuart: I can assure you the Baptists were not applauding. Especially when you say that the atheists are more forthcoming than they are. Let me talk about the central democratic value and then we’ll look at the second video which talks about how this is not just one church. So we went to the church early on and said we’d like to interview Pastor Steven. Not just about his house, but about his whole, you know, the movement. Because the movement has really been phenomenal and eight years gone from seven families to about fifteen thousand people a week. So it mushroomed. It became really kind of extraordinarily successful. So we said, just like any other non-profit institution, there are questions raised about Carolina’s health care system, about Carolina’s medical centers, about a huge non-profit hospital and how much it pays it’s staff. There are questions raised. We raised questions about our local United Way when it was going to pay two million all at once to it’s outgoing CEO. We have raised questions before about the Inspiration TV network, and about the chief executives in that enterprise, how much they earn. So we’ve raised questions surrounding compensation and fair compensation in other non-profits.
My argument to them was: we are not picking on you, you have become big. And so we are asking the same types of questions we would ask a health care non-profit or a United Way non-profit, any kind of charitable non-profit enterprise. We are asking you the same thing. We’re asking you for discloser and we’re asking you where the money goes. The old line from Watergate, follow the money. And so some of my colleagues in journalism said this a story about faith. And I said, I beg to differ. This is a story about money. A story about real estate. A story about tax law. But if you go to people and say, hey, let me educate you on the tax exemption of the parsonage allowance. Ah, there aren’t enough open bars in the world to keep people fixated on that!
If you say, this is about Pastor Steven and his, you know, ten-thousand, fifteen-thousand square foot home, then all the sudden people are paying attention because they say, I’ve wondered about that guy. I’ve seen him on the television, I wonder what’s his deal. Well, we tried to pursue what his deal was. Along the way they said they would not give us a financial statement. They later released it after all of our reports. Because of the money that flows around it, the financial statement doesn’t give the complete picture but at least they released an audited financial statement. They made both volunteers and certainly church employees sign a confidentially agreement, which extended to finances and said that they could go to court and sue them if they released any information about church finances. He would not submit to an interview despite the fact that I went to the church a couple of times, asked them, you know. Met with him face to face and asked for an interview, offered to do unedited interviews and put them on television, offered to put them on the web, offered to let him shoot the interviews, himself. Offered to let him ask me any questions on camera that he wanted to. I submitted registered letters, requesting interviews. I asked in every way I knew how to ask. Every way short of carrier pigeon. We were asking him, will you talk to us? The answer was always no. So, there is no Q&A.
At first I took that personally and said well maybe he doesn’t like me, he thinks I’m mean, he thinks I’m unfair, he thinks unscrupulous or unprincipled. And then I discovered that it was pretty much the same way with everyone. This was a calculated strategy, not to sit him down in front of anybody who could ask a critical or challenging question. This room, I suspect, is filled with people who ask critical and challenging questions. If you want to ask me critical and challenging question, I’m delighted. Let’s watch one more piece of tape then bring it on. Whatever you gotta ask.
Also, it extended to things that I thought were even benign or beneficial to them, this cloak of secrecy. For instance, I asked them for their bylaws. How is the church governed? Well, if you were a Presbyterian church or a Baptist church, that should be no problem, that should be a no-brainer. Here’s the bylaws. Here’s how the alders and the deacons are elected. Here’s how the church is governed. For some reason that didn’t happen. That’s because in this case, the alders and the deacons, the board of directors if you will- and by the way this is the same challenge whether you’re Duke Energy or the Baptist Church. The internal governments of an organization tells you a lot about accountability, which is a democratic principle, and a lot about whether the people who are paying the rates or the bills or the shareholders get a say in how the company is run.
I went to the Duke Energy shareholder meeting this week, by the way. At least they’re right up front, unlike our American democracy in that the more money you have invested the more votes you have. One dollar one vote. Not one person one vote. They are out and OUT. If you got a million dollars worth of shares then you get a million dollars worth of votes; even if you’re only one individual.
Well, in the case of this church, in the way it was governed, the board of directors sets Paster Furtick’s salary. Which is one of the key question marks in all of this. What is his salary? Another key question mark is, could anyone fire him? Is there anyone who has the power, or is this a theocracy in which he is god’s chosen, god’s anointed? He is the church and the church is him. That’s a big question.
In terms of the overall health of the organization. People are not writing out checks to Pastors Steven, they are writing out tax deductible checks to the church. And so do they get, in exchange for if they give a hundred dollars or a hundred million, do they get accountability? Do they get a say? Do they get any say in how he runs it and the answer is no. No, they do not. Because the way the board is selected is not democratic. They won’t say how the first board was selected, but the board of overseers, which amounts to the board of directors, is made up of other mega-church pastors. Which he had a heavy say, so these are his peers and his mentors. He pays them to come preach at his church, they pay him to come preach at their church, and so it’s all very nice and cosy. They’re the ones who set his salary. I think that is one of the reasons why you don’t see the bylaws. They won’t say how the first is chosen, and then, something that could actually been beneficial to them, they bragged that they’re all about giving. I could go on a long tear here…
Increasingly I wonder what is actually giving and what is buying public relations? Buying statue in the community. So you come to the community and you want to get a name for yourself, so you start throwing money around. Well, how is that any different from advertising? It’s not an altruistic act, when you stand at the fifty yard line at the Panther stadium with a huge check. You, for a certain amount of money, can guarantee yourself good PR. Some TV. By saying how great you are. So we wanted to scrutinize a lot of this ten million dollars, eleven million dollars, that they said that they’d given over the course of eight or nine years in the community. And they said well, here are our top contributions. Here’s are glossy annual report with our full-color pictures. If you want to know about the complete picture, you need to go and ask the recipients. That’s very strange, because, how do we know who the recipients are? Who do I know to go ask? How do I know where you gave your money? It strikes me that if you are the United Way and I ask you, where’s my money gone? They will do backflips to tell you every little organization that they give five thousand dollars, ten thousand dollars to.
And yet they were saying, well, here are the big ones. The rest of em? Guess! Guess where is our money is going. And so, I wonder a, if this is really about buying public relations. And b, I wonder.. Because some of the ministries he was giving to, Joyce Meyer for instance, he’s giving to the other televangelist megachurch, megadollar megabucks. So we were criticized, saying you’re picking on him, you just don’t like him, you’ve made this personal, how come you hate us, you hate our faith, your anti-this and anti-that. So, I wanted to say, listen. This is not limited to one church, one faith, one pastor. One narrow place. We wanted to follow up and say, there are multiple people who are living in these big houses who are eligible for these breaks. But you don’t get to see because, unlike Dan and Annie Laurie where you can learn about the IRS form, the 990, it’s right on the web, it’s full transparency. Because they are not the same as a ministry and outside non-profit agencies. You can look at a great deal of the financial information. In the case of a church, a synagog, those religious institutions do not have to declare this.
Yes! And there’s another lawsuit on that. Saying that religious institutions should be held to the same standards and have to disclose the same material as other non-profits. Other what they call 501(c)(3), under the law. So, more video magic!
(Stuart Voiceover) Preachers, really all clergy ,don’t have to pay income taxes on whatever they’re paid for housing, no matter how much that is. They don’t even have to tell you about it. We talked to a CPA who broke it down for us. He said it all started, once upon a time, when the preacher or the pastor or the parish priest, lived in modest houses called parsonages.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) When I was growing up, Monseigneur O’Brien and Father Patratchi and Father McTag, they lived in a rectory and they you know, had a little tunnel almost to walk over to the church.
(Stuart Voiceover) But nowadays, some Charlotte preachers live in million dollar homes. And here’s where you come in, they get tax breaks to do it.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) Clergy housing allowances can be in the hundreds of the thousands.
(Todd Coontz Voiceover) When you let go of the uncommon seed of one thousand dollars, the winds of heaven is going to open up on your life.
(Stuart Voiceover) Todd Coontz preaches the Gospel of Prosperity on TV. That god wants you to be rich, if you’ll just send Todd some money.
(Todd Coontz Voiceover) God game me a home that I paid cash for.
(Stuart Voiceover) Todd’s church Rockwealth International owns a million dollar condo where he lives, here at the Rosewood on the corner of Providence and Sherinamity. Here’s the thing. He doesn’t even have to tell you if he gets a tax free housing allowance. He didn’t return our phone call and letter last week, so we really don’t know.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) You don’t have transparency with churches. That’s probably to me one of the biggest problems with churches compared to other not-for-profits.
(Stuart Voiceover) Peter J. Reilly is a CPA from Massachusetts whose written on Forbes.com about the parsonage benefit of the clergy. Why special tax treatment needs to go.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) Churches are kind of a black hole.
(Stuart Voiceover) Phillip and Sheryl Jackson of the Grace Christian Center live in this two million home in Valentine. That’s between them and the congregation. They didn’t return phone calls, email or a letter last week. So we don’t know whether they get a tax break and if so how much. Under the law the only limit to the size of the tax break is the fair market rental value of the home. How much it would rent for. So the bigger the house, the bigger the tax break.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) There is no limit!
(Stuart Voiceover) Bishop CM Bailey at the United House of Prayer for All People stays in this house when he is in Charlotte. It’s not even his full-time residence. United House of Prayer owns the three million dollar estate, the sixteen thousand square foot home on West Sugarcreek near Derida. Because the church owns the home it pays no property taxes, but the bishop also owns his own private home in the Washington DC area. He didn’t return our call to his attorney or our letter, so we don’t know if he gets a housing allowance for his private home. But he’s still eligible for one, just not for more than one home.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) The rule is, one house. It can be a really big house. But only one.
(David Cerullo Voiceover) Do you feel like your trapped?
(Stuart Voiceover) David Cerullo of the Inspirational TV Network lives in this one point seven million dollar home near Fifty One and Ray Road. Because Mr. Cerullo works for a ministry and not a church, we can look up his non-taxable benefits. You ready? $372,311 dollars per year. Most of that for housing. But for most of us in the Carolina’s that’s not a housing allowance, that’s a whole house.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) The clergy are very influential on both sides of the isle.
(Stuart Voiceover) So while congress sides with the preachers lobby, Peter O’Reilly has a suggestion. To reform the loophole. Cap the tax break. Limit it, the same way that the US Military does.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) That would be a reasonable way to weed out much of the abuse. If you said, have as many houses as you want but you’re only going to get three thousand, four thousand a month tax-break.
(Stuart Voiceover) But that would take an act of Congress. And Congress has not been inclined to act. Their are lots of lobbyist in Washington, but few more powerful than the church. Stewart Watson, NBC Charlotte.
Stuart: I know that there are a handful of people around the country who pay attention to this. The way that I got to Dan and Annie Laurie: there is a retired IRS official out in Colorado, Robert Baidy, who came upon our reports and he has followed the sort of policy wonk, he’s gotten in the weeds. He knows, and he’s the one who said, there is one guy whose written about this issue over and over and over, his name is Peter O’Reilly and you need to talk to him. Because he’s like a guy who is focused on this one little narrow issue that most people have no idea that this is going on. They may know that their church, you know, gets tax breaks for property tax exemptions or even sales tax exemptions, but this business about the housing allowance and building the multi million dollar mansions.
The interesting thing, it almost gets lost, there was a pastor in the Chattanooga area, he used to be a trumpeter who would play with blood, sweat and tears. He formed a church, the Church of Jazz Trumpeter, he may have even called it that, and he was the one who said, “I want a housing exemption for my lake house and my in-town house.”
And that’s when they said, yeah, you got to pick! So, we understand you need a parsonage to live in but we’re not giving you a tax break for your in-town house AND your vacation home. So you pick. You pick which one you’re going to live in. And he challenged that. While, one of the interesting ironies is that he had been to prison for tax-evasion. But he challenged them in court. And he won at the lower level but he lost on appeal. That was where the ruling came. So it’s through the abuses that sometimes the curbs come. I know that Annie Laurie and Dan and FFRF; that their position is different from Peter’s.
Just to articulate, Peter’s position: if you want to make a common sense test, say, in the military if you have an admiral and by virtue of his job he has to live on the Cape, or he has to live in San Francisco. Then they cap the amount that he can deduct for the off-base housing. So in the military there is a limit, they don’t care how many stars or up-lets you have on your shoulder. They have a limit to the amount the military can write off on their taxes, as part of their housing allowance. And he’s just saying that the same kind of commons sense should apply to the clergy that applies to them.
Annie Laurie and Dan are filing this lawsuit, and all of you are funding it, on the basis of principle in that the clergy as a class are treated differently than other non-profits. That is, they are given a tax break for housing allowance, by virtue of being religious. That they get a tax-break even though in function, as you saw with Dennis McClain, who some of you in the Raleigh area probably know of. He’s been around here for a long time. He gets the tax break even though his work is for Goodwill, by virtue of being ordained. So even though Goodwill is not primarily a religious institution, by virtue of being an ordained minister they can pay him a portion of his salary as a housing allowance.
I might also say, the interesting thing about Elevation Church is that they are a relatively small group of extremely successful churches, and the business plans are very similar and so they borrow from each other. The tactic of not talking to the media, the sale of for-profit books, the use of the church to promote the for-profit ministry, the multi-site model. There’s a lot of really, really interesting things if you want to get into it about the way in which they speak to people, recruit people, the positioning, the marketing. Whether you wanna call it rhetoric or targeting, very careful marketing placement, demographics, wording, the way in which things are constructed.
Going back to the Baptism thing we did an entire story which really people just, there was a meltdown within the Christian community about how they constructed mass baptisms. That they had a plan for what they called “spontaneous baptisms.” And so they actually published a document which they were very proud of called, “Spontaneous Baptisms: A How-To Guide.” Which seemed a little less than spontaneous to some people.
The notion uses some sort of social reinforcement techniques, you might call it, in which, okay, when the pastor gave the call there were clear instruction for a small group of people who were placed throughout the audience. As soon as he gave the call, you stand up. While, politicians have told me that one guy even called it the diamond pattern. It’s kind of like how the wave starts at a ball game.
You can start a movement with as little as four or five people in the right places. If she jumps up and then we see him jump up, oh, well people are jumping up so it’s okay for me to jump up. There is this kind of social technique of oh, well, I was thinking about jumping up but I wasn’t going to jump up but now that she jumped up, I’ll jump up. There you go! And friends, we have a movement. So they would count how many people they baptized.
This was really the kind of the problem within the church, this is the problem internal to them. You have two competing narratives and one narrative is god is working a great miracle here that this is a miracle, that your witness to a miracle, that this isn’t happening anywhere else, that god is moving here and he’s not moving in your old boring church so you need to come over here! The articulated narrative, look what god has done, god is moving here, this is the cool church, this is the place you need to be.
The other narrative, the behind the scenes narrative, which is pretty overt anyway: look what we did. Look what I did, your pastor didn’t do that, I did that, look at that! So, this quickly becomes the church of Pastor Steven. This charismatic, everybody comes to him, I could talk to you all night long about how that’s reinforced. He is the visionary, you should respect him, you are not to challenge him. You can’t ask questions of him. If you sick and go to the hospital he’s not going to be the one who visits you. He’s the star, the guy up on stage who is not going to be a big Q&A. You will not see his sermon tomorrow with a big Q&A. Which is a good time for us to have a Q&A.
Bart Ehrman, FFRF’s newest recipient of its Emperor Has No Clothes Award, is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He accepted the award May 2 at the Raleigh mini-convention. He writes “The Bart Ehrman Blog” and is author of many books, including Did Jesus Exist?, Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, and his newest, How Jesus Became God. All three can be ordered at ffrf.org/shop/.
After Bart’s acceptance speech, artist and FFRF Lifetime Member Scott Burdick taped an in-depth interview, transcribed here:
BE: I’m Bart Ehrman. I identify as both a humanist and an agnostic.
SB: And are you openly agnostic?
BE: What do you mean, openly?
SB: Do people know it? Does your family know it?
BE: Am I in the closet? Aha! Yes, I’m quite openly agnostic. Everybody knows it.
SB: So writing books about it means you’re open?
BE: Well, if anybody reads my books they know I’m an agnostic, yeah.
SB: I find it interesting, having read most of your books, how you talk about that you weren’t always an agnostic.
BE: No, I started out as an evangelical Christian. I got interested in biblical studies because I was actually a fundamentalist as a late teenager. That got me interested in the bible. But as I developed my scholarship through graduate school, I realized that my beliefs about the bible were completely wrong, that the bible’s not some kind of inherent revelation from God. And so for years I’d become a liberal Christian. I still went to church, I still believed in God, but I didn’t believe the bible was the inspired word of God. But after many years of being a liberal Christian, I finally became an agnostic for reasons unrelated to my scholarship, reasons having to do with why there is suffering in the world, if there is a God who is in control? I, for years, had thought about it, had read what the biblical authors said, what theologians, philosophers said. I got to the point where I just didn’t believe it anymore. So I just acknowledged at one point then that I’m probably an agnostic, and that’s what I’ve been for maybe 15 or 16 years.
SB: Sounds like it was a very gradual process.
BE: It was. I’ve heard people say that I went from being a fundamentalist to being an agnostic because of problems in the bible. That’s completely wrong. It was a very long process. I was a very open-minded liberal Christian for many, many years. It was really the problem of suffering that ended up creating the big issue for me that led me to acknowledge that I am an agnostic. It’s very interesting being an agnostic scholar of religion. I’ll begin by explaining what I myself mean, by this term that I’m using, that we all use all the time, the term “agnostic,” because over the last 18 months or so I’ve come to think it means something different from what I used to think. What I used to think was that agnostics and atheists were two degrees of the same thing. When I first declared myself agnostic, I was amazed at how militant both agnostics and atheists can be about their terms. Every agnostic I met thought that atheists were simply arrogant agnostics. And every atheist thought that every agnostic was simply a wimpy atheist. Two degrees of the same thing. When someone will say “I don’t know,” the other will say they do know. I’ve come to think that they are not two degrees of the same thing but are two different things. Agnosticism has to do with epistemology — what you know. Atheism has to do with belief — what you believe. I actually consider myself to be both an agnostic and an atheist. I am agnostic because if somebody says to me, is there a greater power in the universe? My response is, “How the hell would I know!? I don’t know!” So, I’m an agnostic. If somebody were to ask me, do you believe in the god of the bible? Do you believe in a god that interacts with the world, who intervenes in the world, who answers prayer? Do you believe in the supernatural divine being? No! I don’t believe it! So, I don’t believe, so I’m an atheist. But — I don’t know. So I’m an agnostic. And since I’m a scholar I prefer to emphasize knowledge rather than belief. And so, I tend to identify as an agnostic.
SB: Were there any issues with coming out to your family? Were they very religious?
BE: When I was an evangelical Christian, most of my family converted to evangelical Christianity in my wake and so, hah! When I left the Christian fold, they did not leave with me, and so they’re still there wondering where I went. SB: So, you’re an evangelical agnostic, I guess.
BE: When I was an evangelical Christian I believed in converting everyone to my point of view because I thought if you didn’t agree with me you were going to roast in hell. I was very evangelistic. I’m not evangelistic as an agnostic because it certainly doesn’t matter for somebody’s afterlife — because I don’t believe there is an afterlife. I’m not that interested in people converting to what I think. What I’m interested in is getting people to be more thoughtful about whatever they believe or don’t believe. So I’m not interested in converting, actually. SB: You talk in your books about how many people become ministers and learn these same facts from the bible but seem reluctant to share that with their congregations. Why do you think that is?
BE: Well, pastors learn the kind of material I teach in seminaries and divinity schools, if they go to a mainline denominational school. If they go to a fundamentalist seminary, of course, they don’t learn this, unless they learn it in order to attack it. An evangelical school wouldn’t teach this kind of material, but Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian seminaries teach this kind of material. And yes, when the people who go through that training become pastors, they tend not to tell their congregations. I think it’s because they’re afraid to make waves. They don’t think that people will be welcoming of it, they don’t think people are ready for it. There are some issues of job security. They want to keep their job, so they don’t want to ruffle too many feathers. But I think it’s too bad because churches have education programs, and it’s a pity that people aren’t getting educated. There are adult education programs in most churches. But they don’t actually get educated, they sit around and talk about other issues. They don’t talk about the things that most people are interested in, which is what does one think about the bible, what does one think about theology?
SB: Do you think though that they may feel that this may put too many doubts in people’s minds?
BE: Possibly. I think pastors tend not to be in the business of generating doubt. [As] professors at universities, that is our business. Our goal is to get people to think. But pastors don’t generally see that as their goal, and so they tend to shy away from these various issues that would cause problems for people. The result is they’ve got parishioners who really don’t know anything about what scholars are saying about materials that they are most interested in, which I think is a real pity.