John Oliver demonstrates that scamming people is legal in the USA as long as you pretend it's a church.
Televangelists: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

John Oliver demonstrates that scamming people is legal in the USA as long as you pretend it’s a church.

Season 2, Episode 25

Air date: August 16, 2015

Main segment: Predatory churches and televangelism
Other segments: Cuba raising American flag in Havana, Warren G. Harding’s illegitimate child, New Zealand flag redesign

Guest: Rachel Dratch

Welcome to “Last Week Tonight”! Thank you so much for joining us. I’m John Oliver. Just time for a quick recap of the week. And we begin in Cuba, home to the world’s least fun Castro District. On Friday, Cuba made history. Today, the flag of the United States was raised over the US Embassy in Havana. With Secretary of State John Kerry looking on, three US Marines hoisted the flag up a pole at the embassy for the first time in 54 years. Finally. The universal symbol of freedom and liberty is flying in Cuba someplace other than Guantanamo Bay. But it wasn’t just a symbolic flag raising. The reopening of the Embassy gave Secretary of State John Kerry a chance to dust off his freshman year “Qué tal ?” textbook.

I say on behalf of my country, Los Estados Unitos acogen con beneplacito este nuevo comienzo de su relation con el pueblo y el govierno de Cuba.

No bueno. You sound like a Rosetta Stone, and not the software. You sound like an actual rock trying to speak Spanish.

The negotiations to get us to this point are way too complicated to get into right now. Suffice to say, they involved Senator Patrick Leahy, the pope and the nation of Canada. But perhaps the most amazing detail was that, at one point, the negotiations actually hinged on this. A wild story involving the artificial insemination of the wife of one of the Cuban prisoners being held in the United States with Leahys bringing… …the semen from the prisoner in the United States to Havana so she could become pregnant. It’s true. Apparently as part of the effort to close the deal, last year Senator Patrick Leahy helped facilitate the artificial insemination of a Cuban prisoner’s wife by ensuring safe passage for his sperm. And let this be a lesson to anyone who thinks international diplomacy is glamorous, because it is not just cocktail parties and high-level meetings. Once in a while, your job may include making sure an international flight takes off with a carry-on bag containing, presumably, less than three ounces of warm Cuban jizz. That’s an adult’s job. That is diplomacy.

Let’s move on now to American history, the thing that Disney’s “Pocahontas” improved on. This week gave closure to a rumor that has been intriguing US historians for years. And it is confirmed. President Warren G. Harding did have a daughter out of wedlock. The New York Times reports DNA testing now proved the 29th president fathered a child by a mistress, Nan Britton, before he was elected. Yes, it’s official. Warren G. Harding had a love child, pretty impressive for a man who looks like someone put two napping caterpillars on an angry bald eagle’s forehead and then dressed it in Tucker Carlson’s clothes.

But the revelation came as vindication for the family of his mistress, Nan Britton. I could fill you in on the details of this story, but I would much rather let the team at “Good Day Columbus” do it. You know who was a hottie in his day who might have been on one of these ? Turns out… Warren G. Harding had a love child. Marion’s own Warren G. Harding, president of these United States. Quite the scandal in the ’20s. The family has long since denied. The two families have been kind of circling each other, going: “This is for real.” “No, it’s not for real. You’re making it up.” I want to learn about every world event from those two people. So ISIS was all like: “We want to take over Syria.” And Syria was like: “Nuh-uh.” And ISIS was like: “Uh-huh.” Anyway, casualties number in the thousands.

But I for one am glad that Harding’s love child has been confirmed, because there were parts of this story that were simply too good not be true. After Warren Harding died in 1923, Nan Britton wrote a book claiming she’d been his mistress, they’d made love in a White House closet, and he’d fathered her daughter, Elizabeth. With all due respect to his mistress, you did not make love in a White House closet. You banged in Warren’s Fuck Bunker. That is what happened because that is what he called it.

But the much bigger point here is Harding’s presidential legacy must clearly be updated. He probably hoped to be remembered for the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act. But from now on, the only thing we should teach children in school is that Warren G. Harding not only had a love child, he had a hush-hush closet bang with a fangirl named Nan. We must educate our children in history.

And finally this week, New Zealand, Australia’s Australia. You may recall that last year New Zealand announced it was redesigning its flag for a very simple reason. Australia’s flag is in the background. You can see the Union Jack in the left corner, against a blue background with white stars. New Zealand’s flag is in the foreground. The only distinguishing feature, the stars are red, not white, with fewer points. New Zealand’s flag is different from the Australian flag the same way that “Ice Ice Baby” is different from “Under Pressure”. They’re basically the same, but one is clearly worse. Now, this is not a unique problem. Lots of countries have similar flags. Romania and Chad, or Monaco and Indonesia. But New Zealand has opened a flag design contest to the public and received 10 000 entries, which this week they narrowed to a short list of just 40. And people do not seem particularly inspired. Bit of a joke, to be honest. It’s turned into a wee bit of a joke. Most people don’t care about it anymore. Maybe 5% of the people are taking it seriously. The rest of us are more concerned about much more serious issues. Which one would you pick ? – Probably that one. – Why is that ? I guess ’cause it’s really similar to the one we’ve got already. That is negative. You are going about this with the enthusiasm of a distant uncle buying a present for a two-year-old nephew. Look, I just need something that has three colors and takes up physical space. I don’t know what it likes! And I think I know why this has not captured the public imagination. The 40 flags on the short list are pretty boring, which is ridiculous because the government put all the rejected flag designs online and some of them are incredible. For instance, how did this one not make the cut ? The title, it’s actual title, is New Zealand’s True Nature. It looks like a very confused child’s depiction of where they think babies come from. That would be an incredible flag. Many of the other great designs feature the kiwi bird, which ordinarily I would not advise because it looks less like a bird and more like a dumb, fat mouse who got his face stuck on a straw. It is hard not to get behind this actual flag design of a kiwi blasting lasers from its eyes. You would remember that flag! If you ever saw that flag, it would be impossible not to immediately pledge allegiance to it. But I have to say the greatest flag design of all, and I cannot believe this did not make the short list, was this one titled Eggsplosion. And the artist’s explanation for his design is: “Because New Zealanders like eggs and explosions are cool.” Please, New Zealand, I’m begging you, when it comes time to vote for your new flag, write “Eggsplosion” down, ’cause that’s the greatest thing! And now, this. Six more actual flag designs submitted to the New Zealand Government with descriptions of what they look like. Bird in police floodlight failing field sobriety test. Flag that’s just one boot short of a swastika. Unauthorized Hasidic Mr. Potato Head. Kiwi going through heroin withdrawal. A cat having the world’s most boring cat dream. And kiwi dressed as The Fonz for some reason.

* * *

Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns churches, America’s favorite place for redemption and sixth favorite place for chicken. Churches are a cornerstone of American life. There are roughly 350 000 congregations in the United States, and many of them do great work, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor. But this is not a story about them. This is about the churches who exploit people’s faith for monetary gain. And when I say that, you probably think of 1980s televangelists like this guy.

I’m just getting into a prophetic vein. Someone with a digestive tract problem, quickly call. We’ve seen midgets grow. We’ve seen limbs that stopped growing because the growth cells have stopped. I don’t make this stuff up!

Please. You can’t say “I don’t make this stuff up” just five seconds after you said the words… That man is Robert Tilton and though he, like many televangelists, was caught up in an exposé decades ago, he never really went away.

Healing going to those knees. Arthritis, go in the name of Jesus! Tumors, go in the name of Jesus! That one calling with lupus. Lupus, you foul devil. You bow to the name of Jesus. Lupus, you bow to the name of Jesus. You go in Jesus’s name!

Lupus, you complicated and not especially easy to describe malady, you go, lupus! You vex us with your foul lupus-ness. You go!

Though you may not be aware of it, televangelism is still thriving in this country and Robert Tilton is just a very small part of it. There are several large media networks devoted to televangelism, including Trinity, Inspiration Ministries and Daystar. And the preachers that appear on them can have incredible lifestyles. Just earlier this year, a man named Creflo Dollar got people’s attention with a bold request.

Pastor Creflo Dollar of the World Changers Church International facing harsh criticism after starting a fundraising campaign to buy this 65 million dollar luxury private jet.

If I want to believe God for a 65 million dollar plane, you cannot stop me. You cannot stop me from dreaming!

“You cannot stop me from dreaming” is not how you ask for 65 million dollars. It’s what you scream at your father when he says you’ll never be a Broadway dancer. “I can do it, Dad!” “I’ve got the music in me!”

But here’s the thing. Creflo Dollar wanting a private jet is not remotely unusual. There is a pattern of preachers wanting high-end airplanes. And when they get them, they’re not always particularly humble about it.

I had enough money to buy a beautiful Cessna Citation Jet, cash. I sense there’s so much jealousy in this room tonight that I can feel over this. A few weeks later, I bought another one worth three times what that one was. Cash. Act happy over my blessing, folks.

“I bought a jet, cash. I bought a bigger jet, cash.” “Fuck the haters. Act happy for me.” That’s not a sermon. It’s the first draft of a Rick Ross single.

Now, preachers claim these planes are vital tools. Look at Kenneth Copeland, who along with his wife Gloria are among the most successful TV evangelists. A few years back, he asked his followers to help buy a 20 million dollar jet, promising it would only be used for church business, but a local news crew did some digging and what they found will probably not surprise you.

It was a News 8 investigation last February which first raised questions about Copeland’s apparently personal use of his new church jet.

This is a preaching machine.

Most notably for a ski trip to Colorado and visits to an exotic game ranch in South Texas. Here’s Copeland and his son John proudly posing with a pair of axis deer, indigenous to India and Sri Lanka.

Holy shit! This guy’s like a psychotic, reverse Noah. Two by two, male and female came to Kenneth Copeland and he doth shot them right between the fucking eyes.

Now, Copeland’s ministry will tell you that he reimburses the church, but that still means he has private jet reimbursement money. Despite that personal wealth, people still send Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, and that asshole with two planes lots and lots of money, and that’s partly because they preach something called the Prosperity Gospel, which argues that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and donations will result in wealth coming back to you. That idea sometimes takes the form of seed faith, the notion that donations are seeds that you will one day get to harvest. Let me show you.

The size of your seed will determine the size of your harvest. I don’t understand why, but something happens at a level where people step into faith and give 1,000 dollars that don’t happen at other levels. You’re going to have a breakthrough through this 273 dollar seed. All you’ve got is 1 000 dollars. Listen, that’s not enough money anyway to buy the house. You’re trying to get out of the apartment. That’s not enough money anyway. You put that seed in the ground and watch God work it out.

The argument is sow your money in the ground and you will reap returns multiple times over. Except as an investment, you’d be better off burying your money in the actual ground because there is a chance your dog may dig it up and give it back to you. Good boy.

But it can get even more predatory, ’cause if say you don’t have 1,000 dollars, or perhaps have significant credit card debts, seed faith can still work for you.

I have a feeling that somebody that wants a credit card debt wiped out, that if you’ll use your faith as you sow, as you sow the 1,000 dollars on a credit card, as you use your faith, God’s gonna wipe out your credit card indebtedness.

That is the equivalent of saying the key to you losing weight lies at the bottom of this giant bag of peanut butter M&M’s. Go find it. It’s definitely down there.

All of this would be amusing if the targets of these messages were not often vulnerable people like Bonnie Parker. She did not seek medical treatment for cancer, instead choosing to sow money into Kenneth Copeland’s church. And I’ll let her daughter pick it up from there.

I started finding notebooks not long after she passed away. She believed, and I know she believed, cause this is in the notebooks, that if she sowed enough seed, which was money… The greater amount of seed that you sow, according to them, the better chance you have of getting healed.

At this point, I think it’s clear that seed faith is the most disgusting seed based concept since whatever the fuck chia seed pudding is. Bonnie Parker gave thousands of dollars to the Copelands’ church because she believed it was her best chance of beating cancer. And you might think: “Well, that’s crazy!” It’s not an unreasonable interpretation of the Copelands’ preachings. Gloria Copeland sells numerous products on “healing through faith” and has been skeptical in the past about going to the doctor.

We know what’s wrong with you. You’ve got cancer. The bad news is, we don’t know what to do about it, except give you some poison that’ll make you sicker. Now, which do you want to do ? Do you want to do that or do you want to sit here on Saturday morning, hear the word of God and let faith come into your heart and be healed ? Hallelujah.

It’s pretty clear that woman cannot hear the word of God, because if she could, I’m pretty sure he’d be shouting “fuck you, Gloria” right in her ear.

And yet, not only is everything you’ve seen so far legal, but the money people donate in response to it is tax-free. If you’re registered as a religious non-profit, or especially a church, you are given broad exemptions over taxation and regulation. The IRS in fact produced a scintillating video instructing its agents how to treat churches. It contains a phrase that you wouldn’t normally associate with the agency.

Hello, and welcome to Churches and Religious Organizations Dos and Don’ts. For reasons as old as the United States, the tax laws and regulations that govern churches and religious organizations are purposely broad and sometimes a little vague.

A little vague? They are under-selling that because the films of Christopher Nolan are a little vague. A text from your mom reading “please call, not an emergency, but please call, very important” is a little vague! The IRS regulations are close to meaningless. According to their tax codes, the term “church” is not specifically defined and they make no attempt to evaluate whether the content of a doctrine is religious, provided the beliefs are truly held and are not illegal. But truly held beliefs that are not illegal is almost every belief. Bros before hos, that could be a religion. Red Vines are better than Twizzlers, that could be a religion. If you believe the best movie ever made is Lady in the Water, then your name is M. Night Shyamalan. But congratulations, Mr. Shyamalan, that belief could be a religion.

And being designated a church confers all sorts of benefits like the parsonage allowance, which allows the Copelands to live in a 6.3 million dollar house tax-exempt. This is their house. That is a parsonage, which only makes sense if by parsonage they mean “house that looks like it cost the net worth of Big Bang Theory Jim Parsons”.

We asked the IRS how many churches they’ve audited in recent years, and they did one in 2014 and just two in 2013. The odds of a church getting audited are basically the same as Gloria Copeland curing your fucking cancer.

And when you can operate… Here’s the thing. When you can operate with so little oversight, it is amazing what you are able to do. Look at Robert Tilton. If you ever send him a donation, you cannot imagine what happens. And luckily, you don’t have to imagine, because, and we should probably come clean here, we have been involved in a correspondence with Robert Tilton’s church for the last seven months to try and find out what he tells people. So settle in, because this gets incredible.

Back in January, I sent him 20 dollars and asked to be added to his mailing list. Within two weeks, he sent me a letter thanking me for my donation and claiming “I believe God has supernaturally brought us together”. “Supernatural” is a bit of a stretch. I saw him on TV and I sent him money. He wasn’t my dead lover who came back to help me with some pottery. Soon afterwards, he sent me a second letter and inside there was a 1 dollar bill, which was exciting until I saw the inscription instructing me to send it back to him with your best Prove God tithes or offering. That’s right, I had to send the one dollar back with an additional recommended offering of 37 dollars, which I did. So at this point, we’re just two letters in and already it’s like having a pen pal who’s in deep with some loan sharks.

This correspondence continued back and forth like this until March, when he sent me three small packets of colored oil, that I was instructed to pour on letters and send back to him by a specific date along with more money. So I did that. And in April, I got a letter in a manila envelope with the message “chech enclosed”. I thought: “Fantastic!” “I’ve seeded and I’ve seeded and I’ve seeded.” “Here comes my harvest.” Then I opened it. It was a check for 5 dollars from me made out to Pastor Tilton’s church. This went on for seven more letters, and then he sent me a piece of fabric in the shape of some mountains. I assumed I’d somehow reached the mountain level. And surprise, surprise, he asked me to send those mountains back to him with some more money. So I did and then he sent me another letter with another single dollar bill inside. He told me to put that dollar bill in my Bible for one night and then send it back the next day with 49 more dollars so that he can have it blessed with oil and send me a 1 dollar bill back that has been blessed. He added: “I must warn you not to rob God with your tithes and offerings.” “Do not let this one dollar bill stay in your house.” I kept that 1 dollar bill because FUCK HIM! That’s why. So that one I kept.

But that did not stop him. The letters kept on coming. I received another oil packet, more prayer cloths, and even, and this is true, an outline of his foot, which I was asked to trace my foot on and mail back to him with more money! So as of tonight I’ve sent him 319 dollars and received 26 letters. That’s almost one a week. And again, this is all hilarious until you imagine these letters being sent to someone who cannot afford what he’s asking for. So at this point, I was getting pretty angry and looking for a sign of what to do. So I watched a little more Robert Tilton and the most amazing thing happened.

There’s a person watching me and you’ve been very frustrated with your purpose in life.

That might be me, Bob! ‘Cause I’m extremely frustrated right now as it seems my purpose in the last seven months has been to send you money through the fucking mail! So I will ask, what’s that message that you have for me?

That’s so strong. Just then, I had a word of knowledge for someone that’s really been seeking God for a particular purpose or a decision in your life.

And that is when I realized the message Robert Tilton was sending me was that I should set up my own church to test the legal and financial limits of what religious entities are able to do. And so that is what we have done. We filed paperwork last week establishing a church called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, and it was disturbingly easy. To make sure we did this correctly, we had this actual tax lawyer walk us through the process. Now, while the IRS does not have a definition of a church, they do have a 14-point test as a guideline for churches. But not only do you not have to meet all 14 points, we’d already met some of them by accident. For instance, you need an “established place of worship”, but we meet every Sunday in this studio in New York. And apparently, that genuinely counts. Our lawyer also advised us our church needed to be a distinct legal entity, so we registered our church as a non-profit corporation in Texas, a state I do not live in, have never lived in, but which is somehow completely fine for us to incorporate a church in.

Now, the IRS’s guidelines suggest you need a creed and form of worship, but our lawyer suggested we could fulfill the worship requirement by merely leading everyone “in some specific ritual,” “such as having congregants silently meditate” “on the nature of fraudulent churches”. So let us do exactly that and bow our heads in silent contemplation. And lo, another box was ticked. Amen.

And finally, according to our attorney, “the best case for church membership will be made” “by those individuals who are present in the live studio audience,” “who will profess belief in the church’s creed”. So what do you say, live studio audience ? Do you profess your belief ? I said, do you profess your belief tonight, brothers and sisters? Then there is only one thing left for us to do! Let’s go to church.

Brothers and sisters, welcome to Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. I am your mega-reverend… Thank you, brothers and sisters. I’m your mega-reverend and CEO, John Oliver. I am so blessed tonight to be joined by my radiant wife, Wanda Jo Oliver. Please welcome her. Wanda Jo, praise be. Praise be, Wanda Jo. And praise be to all of you watching us tonight or joining us online at But most of all, praise be to the IRS, that most permissive of government agencies. Wanda Jo, I have heard the word of prophecy.

Hallelujah! What did it say, my John?

I’ll tell ya, my Wanda. It says the viewers at home must plant a seed!

A seed! An almighty seed! Preferably in the form of cash, although we do take checks.

It can be 5 dollars, 10 dollars, 77 dollars. We need you to sow your biggest seed!

That’s money! Don’t send us seed. That’s right. Please do not send us actual seeds. Because we ain’t interested in your seeds! Please send us your actual money to the address at the bottom of your screen. If you do this, and this is real, great things will happen to you. That’s apparently something I’m allowed to say.

Praise legal! Praise our tax attorney! Praise loopholes and all their blessed loopiness.

Let me talk to the brothers and sisters at home. – Do you have debt ?

Debt be gone! – Do you have lupus ?

A demon plague! Touch your hand to the screen right now and we shall cure it. Touch your hand to the screen right now.

Curse you, demon lupus! – Bedevil us no more!

Curse you, lupus! You probably didn’t even know that you had lupus, but you did, but you don’t anymore! It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle tonight! Do not delay! Call this actual number right now. 1-800-THIS-IS-LEGAL. Because amazingly, all of this is. This is all legal. Call this toll-free number and plant your seed!

Plant it deep in him. Plant your seed in his mouth! Plant it all over his face! Keep it together, Wanda. Praise seed! Call this number, sow your seed and ye shall prosper! Wanda, do you feel the spirit ? – Do you feel the spirit ? – Yes! I feel the spirit! Do you feel the spirit at home ? Call this number right now! Call this number! Call it! “Call the number On your screen!” Call! Actually do it! Because if Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland and all these pastors can get away with it and we get stopped, truly we have witnessed a fucking miracle tonight!


That’s our show. Thanks to Wanda Jo! Thanks for joining us! Good night! Call us! Give us money! We want money. We want money. Call the number. Actually call now. We want money.


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