Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–…): Season 2, Episode 25 - Church - full transcript

John discusses predatory churches and TV evangelism, the raising of the American flag in Cuba, the redesign of New Zealand's flag, and President Harding's illegitimate child.

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Season II,
Episode 25

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:

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

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

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.

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 poising

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
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 wthat'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,

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.

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 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 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

"on the nature of fraudulent

So let us do exactly that
and bow our heads

in silent contemplation.

And lo,
another box was ticked.


And finally,
according to our attorney,

"the best case for church
membership will be made"

"by the 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

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.


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 !

- Hallelujah !
- 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.


Season II,
Episode 25