John Oliver Starts His Own Church to Expose "Predatory" Televangelists

John Oliver as a Televangelist — H 2015

"You'd be better off burying your money in the actual ground."

John Oliver dedicated Sunday night's show to eviscerating televangelists who fleece Americans for money using "seed faith," and he took it one step further by creating his own church.

Seed faith is the concept that if you "plant a seed" by donating money to a televangelist, you reap the harvest by receiving God's favor. Televangelists use this concept, for example, on people with cancer. Televangelist Gloria Copeland, for example, suggested that rather than undergoing chemotherapy, going to church and donating money would be a better way to get healed. 

The televangelists also preach that if people who can't afford to donate money do so, God will help them wipe out their credit card debt.

"As an investment, you'd be better off burying your money in the actual ground," said Oliver, "Because at least that way there is a chance your dog may dig it up and will give it back to you one day."

Oliver was clear he was not criticizing all religion, just televangelists who use people's faith to take their money and create their own massive, personal wealth. He spotlighted televangelists who have multimillion dollar jets that they often use for personal use. Kenneth Copeland called the jet a "preaching machine" and then used it to go hunting with his son. Oliver referred to him as the "reverse Noah," killing animals two by two.

For seven months, Oliver has corresponded with televangelist Robert Tilton's church to find out what happens when one donates money to him. "It's like having a pen pal who's in deep with some loan sharks," said Oliver, revealing how the process worked. He was asked to send money in various ways, once told to put a one dollar bill the church sent him in a Bible and then send it back with 49 dollars. Oliver kept the dollar bill in protest.

In order to test the legal limits of what religious entities are allowed to do, Oliver set up his own church called "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption." He hired a lawyer to help him navigate the loose IRS requirements and Rachel Dratch served as his televangelist wife for a promo video asking people to donate money. He even provided a toll-free phone number at the bottom of the screen and requested viewers call in to donate money.

THR called the 1-800-This-Is-Legal phone number set up by Oliver. Callers are greeted with a recording of Oliver asking them to send money to a P.O.Box in New York. "If you send us money, you will be greeted by many miracles," says Oliver, before giving a disclaimer to the miracles.

"Get off the phone and find someone who is willing to give me money," he says, repeatedly shouting at the caller to send money or risk God's wrath.

His website for Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption describes it as a "tax-exempt organization that you certainly can't say is not a church." He says he is "dedicated to collecting copious donations and all manners of divine blessings, but mainly the donations."