Who's the Huckster?

I seldom watch televangelists. It annoys me that they seem to be hawking religion like pitchmen selling some new kitchen gadget. ("But wait!! Order your Save-A-Soul kit today for only $19.95, and we’ll double your order! That’s right! We’ll send you, at no additional charge, a second Save-A-Soul kit, so you needn’t pass through those Pearly Gates alone!") So I was surprised to learn, from the weekend newspaper, that we have, right here in the St. Louis area, a TV evangelist of fame — and fortune.

Her name is Joyce Meyer, and she was shown holding what the paper called "her trademark purple Bible" as she exhorted her devotees at a conference in 2003. The headline read, "Meyer received millions, records show." And the caption under the picture got to the point: "The Jefferson County assessor’s office maintains that Meyer and her family are personally profiting from her ministry." Imagine that! Profiting from one’s work! Actually, it isn’t the fact that she’s profiting that the government objects to; it’s the fact that the government isn’t sharing in the fruits of her labors to the extent that it considers itself entitled. (It’s "entitled," of course, because it says it is.)

The article itself was a veritable litany of financial data, none of which was likely to endear us to Meyer herself, or her family. You know: the old class-envy ploy. We’re told that the ministry’s Board of Trustees, of which she is head, pays her 900,000 yearly. The same Board pays her husband 450,000, as vice-president of that board. They are given the use of a corporate jet, luxury cars, and a 2 million home — all bills paid by the ministry. And there’s an additional 50,000 yearly housing allowance. The ministry also paid almost 1.5 million for three homes for three Meyer children. Mrs. Meyer also gets a portion of about $3 million in royalties from publications, and tapes. It’s enough to make your blood boil! She’s living as well as a Congressperson!

At least that seems to be the attitude of the assessor, who believes her property should not be tax exempt. Local government would lose over 750,000 yearly if the church property were untaxed. It is this principle in which the government has an interest; there’s no higher principle involved.

The picture painted by the newspaper is a sort of David vs. Goliath tableau, but maybe it’s got it backwards. We’re told nothing of the salary earned by the assessor, the perks of his office, or the overall income of the corporation for which he labors. As far as the State of Missouri is concerned, it’s annual "excess of revenue," according to its own Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, is about two billion. That’s well over a thousand times more than the Meyer family business. We don’t know about the profits of Jefferson County, where the ministry’s tax-exempt status is under fire, but one thing should be kept in mind: whatever Mrs. Meyer’s fortune, she earned it. That is, it came to her from people who voluntarily paid her for providing them with something for which they were prepared to pay. The County, on the other hand, doesn’t need to earn its income: it simply demands it. It does render services, but if you are not interested in those services, you pay anyway. The collection technique involves threats and intimidation. The government unit decides, unilaterally, the amount to be paid, and how. Disagree, and you can argue your case in a court owned and operated by your opponent, with one of his employees on the bench. Disagree with Mrs. Meyer, and you can simply walk away.

A watchdog group has reportedly asked the IRS to investigate the family, to check on how they are using the ministry money. The clear assumption is that, although the family IS the ministry, and it has earned the money honestly, it cannot simply use that money as it sees fit. After all, whose money is it? The idea of private property mustn’t be taken too seriously — unless it is the government’s private property. Remember: there’s a principle at stake — 750,000!

The ministry may, as intimated, be making obscene profits from hawking the word of God to the religiously naïve and gullible. (The state, to be sure, never profits from gullibility and navet!) The "watchdogs," however, are clearly the offspring of female hounds. If I had to choose between them, I’d pick the religious hucksters. No contest. I don’t want Mrs. Meyer’s services, purple Bible notwithstanding, and I’ve paid her nothing. She hasn’t attempted to collect from me, either. I am equally disinterested in the services rendered by the state, and pay it nothing; but it simply steals from my bank, with blithe disregard for due process. Which presents the greater danger to the people of this state?

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.