Two inspirational men spoke to the world. One said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own,” and the other said, “Well, you need to hear about money, because you ain’t gonna have no love and joy and peace until you get some money!” Just by their words alone, these two men would seem to be polar opposites; however, they’re identical in one regard: They’re both considered religious teachers.
The first quote listed was a quote from Jesus Christ in Luke 12:15, while the second was from televangelist and megachurch pastor Creflo Dollar. Despite a sharp dichotomy between humanitarian beliefs and the capitalistic desire for money, many seemingly benevolent televangelists like Dollar, Pat Robertson, Joel Olsteen and Jerry Falwell Sr. have used the guise of religion or moralism to deceive the government and innocent citizens. American citizens are inadvertently forced into funding the greed and corruption of these pseudo-moralistic charlatans because they disguise for-profit enterprises as tax-exempt churches and schools.
Nonprofit status is a distinction given to organizations that are exempt from paying taxes because they provide some benefit to the public. Within the nonprofit distinction, there are nearly 25 subcategories exempt from paying federal income tax, but the most common label is 501(c)(3), a distinction given to any entity whose purpose includes religious, charitable, literary, scientific or educational activities. Since these organizations don’t pay income taxes, the American public is subsidizing their activities by paying more in taxes, and, most of the time, it’s justified through the lifesaving actions of organizations like the American Cancer Society and local community hospitals; however, the issue arises when nonprofit pretenders abuse this system.
Some of the worst abusers of the nonprofit distinction are all-encompassing “mega-empires,” which collectivize everything from schools, books, television, merchandise and music production to real estate investments all under the umbrella of a massive parent church. By their admission, the IRS’ tax laws and regulations around religious institutions are broad and vague, leaving plenty of room for groups undeserving of the distinction to slip through the cracks. To be considered a religious institution, organizations must operate for religious purposes, not benefit a private shareholder, refrain from lobbying, stay politically uninvolved and operate within the law. Many of the guidelines are subject to interpretation, so it’s fairly easy for profiteering institutions to define themselves as a “church.”
For a great example of abuse of this status, one can look no further than Liberty University, where recent undercover investigations have found damning evidence of violations on almost all these guidelines. In the Politico investigation, it was revealed that many Lynchburg properties owned by the university were being managed by private organizations in which the university’s founding family, the Falwells, had personal financial stakes. There were even instances of university employees being asked to officially promote businesses associated with the Falwells on the school website. The investigation found that Liberty had given generous loans for Falwell family friends even when the benefit of those loans to the school wasn’t known. This school/business synergy was elaborated on by a current Liberty employee who said, “What I have found over the years is if something doesn’t make sense and Jerry really wants it to happen, he, in some form or fashion, has a personal interest.”
Beside the blatant violations of the nonprofit restrictions on business dealings, the Politico investigation also found multiple examples of Liberty’s political involvement. Through leaked school emails, it was discovered that the school had sold merchandise linking the Trump campaign and the university. Additionally, it was uncovered that Trey Falwell joined John Gauger on a trip to Trump Tower where Gauger was paid by Michael Cohen to rig an online poll for Donald Trump. During that trip, a picture of Trey with a bed covered in money was posted online then taken down shortly after. When that rigged poll was released, the official Liberty University Twitter account posted a link to the poll. All of these instances, coupled with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s many appearances campaigning for Donald Trump, have caused several legal experts to question whether the mandated line between nonprofits and politics has been crossed.
People may ask how any of these scandals affect JMU, but, as a public university, JMU is a nonprofit just like the rest of these institutions, so any time there’s a fraudulent nonprofit, it negates the credibility and goodwill of positive nonprofits. As a nonprofit, JMU strives to better the lives of its students and the community instead of enriching a select few. As taxpayers, it’s important to remember that the point of subsidizing nonprofits is because they’re supposed to benefit society; however, institutions that don’t serve this purpose are what Matthew 21:13 calls “Dens of Thieves” who are stealing from our country’s most vulnerable populations.
Charlie Jones is a freshman public policy & administration major. Contact Charlie at firstname.lastname@example.org.