This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. The God Machine took a little break over the winter holidays, but it’s back. First up is the unsatisfying resolution to a lengthy investigation into some sketchy televangelists.

A senator’s high-profile investigation of spending by televangelists wrapped up after more than three years Thursday with no penalties for the pastors who refused to cooperate and no definitive findings of wrongdoing.

The report released by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley raises questions about the personal use of church-owned airplanes, luxury homes and credit cards by pastors and their families, and expresses concern about the lack of oversight of finances by boards often packed with the televangelists’ relatives and friends.

However, the senator draws no specific conclusions about whether the ministries violated IRS rules that bar excessive compensation for leaders of religious nonprofits.

All of the televangelists involved preach a specific kind of message: if you give to them, even beyond your means, you will make up the money through divine rewards. (In other words, you give the TV preacher $100, even if you can’t spare it, and God may be inclined to give you $200.) To “prove” that their approach “works,” these televangelists live extravagant lifestyles — they say it’s because God has given them great wealth; reality says it’s because they’ve conned a lot of people into giving them their hard-earned money.

Grassley, to his credit, sought to explore whether these shameless charlatans preachers ran their operations in line with federal tax law. But the investigation was incomplete, in large part because the televangelists were less than forthcoming, and the committee, as the AP put it, “did not have the time or resources to enforce” subpoenas.

Still, some good may come of the effort: “The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an independent accrediting group for churches and religious nonprofits, plans to create a national commission in response to the Grassley report to lead a review on accountability and policy.”

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found a 43-foot cross atop public land on Mt. Soledad in San Diego unconstitutional, but did not order it removed. Instead, the judges “sent the case back to a federal trial judge for ‘further proceedings’ on the issue of whether the cross can be modified to ‘pass constitutional muster’ as a war memorial.

* Because the United Methodist Church, like many religious institutions, supported passage of the DREAM Act last month, a leading right-wing activist, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips, has suggested the church should no longer exist. Phillips, a former member of the church, said he left the Methodist tradition because, as he sees it, it’s “the first Church of Karl Marx,” and “little more than the “religious” arm of socialism.” Phillips concluded his tirade by saying, “In short, if you hate America, you have a great future in the Methodist church.” (Remember, as far as conservatives go, the left is hostile towards Christian churches.)

* In November, Pope Benedict XVI noted that condom use can be morally acceptable in specific instances, such as for male prostitutes seeking to prevent the spread of HIV. Now, the Vatican is trying to walk the remarks back, arguing that the statement was the result of a communications breakdown.

* And disgraced former megachurch leader, Ted Haggard, isn’t quite done embarrassing himself — he’ll now have a reality television show called, “Ted Haggard: Scandalous,” airing on TLC. Haggard is best known as the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals who had an affair with a male prostitute/drug dealer.