The New Testament reports that Jesus rarely used fancy modes of transportation to get around. He walked most of the time, although Matthew and other gospels mention that he once rode a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem, where he burst into a temple and tossed out the money changers.
Nearly 2,000 years later, some who claim to speak in Jesus' name are taking a different view. Consider Bishop Eddie Long, who pastors a mega-church in Lithonia, Ga. With a salary approaching $1 million a year and a nine-bathroom mansion situated on 20 acres, Long's choice of vehicles reflects his opulent lifestyle: He drives a $350,000 Bentley.
Far from casting out money changers, Long is likely to join them. In a 2005 profile in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he defended his high-flying ways, insisting, "I pastor a multimillion dollar congregation. You've got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that's supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering."
Long's lack of humility has probably done him no favors. At the time, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), expressed dismay.
"When I hear about leaders of charities being provided a $300,000 Bentley to drive around in, my fear is that it's the taxpayers who subsidize this charity who are really being taken for a ride," he quipped.
In November, Grassley, who serves as ranking minority member on the Senate Finance Committee, ramped things up a bit. He announced that he is seeking detailed financial information from six mega-ministries, Long's among them.
The move sent shock waves through the evangelical community. Grassley is a conservative Republican whose votes on social issues usually please the Religious Right. (His 2006 rating from the Family Research Council was 87 percent.) But the senator has long had an interest in preserving the integrity of the tax laws and has in the past complained about secular non-profits violating the law.
In 2005-06, Grassley held a series of hearings on Capitol Hill that included testimony from large non-profit groups such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Red Cross. Now he's turning his sights to the religious sector.
Grassley's investigation focuses on six ministries, all of which preach the "prosperity gospel"--the theological assertion that wealth is a reward from God:
* Benny Hinn, a TV preacher who runs the World Healing Center Church in Grapevine, Texas. Hinn, who travels the globe conducting faith-healing revivals, lives in a seven-bathroom, eight-bedroom mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean valued at $10 million. It is claimed as a parsonage.
* The Rev. Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga. Dollar drives a Rolls Royce and has large homes in Georgia and New York. He is asked to provide a list of all vehicles provided for himself, his wife, board members and ministry employees.
* Paula and Randy White's Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Fla. In a letter to the ministry, Grassley asks the couple to provide a list of expense account items "including, but not limited to, clothing expenses and any cosmetic surgery for years 2004 to present."
* Joyce Meyer Ministries in Fenton, Mo. Grassley asks Meyer and her husband David to explain expenditures like a $23,000 commode with a marble top, a $30,000 conference table, an $11,000 French clock and a $19,000 pair of vases for the ministry headquarters.
* Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Newark, Texas. Copeland is asked to explain how cash offerings are handled during overseas crusades and to explain the use of a ministry jet for "layovers" in Maui, Fiji and Honolulu.
* Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga. Among other things, Long is asked to explain a church...