Daystar is that low-budget religious channel that you flip past when you're searching for something watchable on TV. You might have lingered for a few seconds once or twice, momentarily transfixed by Joel Osteen's hair, but only as long as it takes for your brain to kick back into gear.
Don't be fooled by appearances, though. The sprawling global television network, which is based in Bedford and boasts $233 million in assets, is not actually a television network. It's a church.
Never mind that it has none of the trappings traditionally associated with a place of worship. It has no members, at least none that are physically present on a regular basis. There's no Sunday sermon, unless you count those delivered by the televangelists who pay Daystar for airtime. The closest thing to a sanctuary is the gauche TV studio network founders Marcus and Joni Lamb broadcast from.
NPR does a deep dive into the organization for All Things Considered today, puzzling over how an organization that is so clearly not a church can be classified as one under the tax code.
The main reason is that the IRS isn't terribly interested in adjudicating what is and isn't a church. Start auditing religious institutions and congressional wrath will be sure to follow. Best to take an organization's churchdom at face value. Besides, it's not like it matters much to the treasury's bottom line whether a group is considered a church or a nonprofit, since both are exempt from most taxes.
One of the main benefits of being a church is that churches get to keep their financial dealings secret. Unlike secular nonprofits, which must file an annual report of contributions and expenditures, they report virtually nothing to the IRS.
Daystar did, however, disclose much of that information in a now-closed 2011 employee lawsuit. NPR found a trove of Daystar financial documents covering 2005-2011, many of which it links to in its story.
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They discovered that the network gives considerably less to charity than the Lambs have advertised -- $9.7 million versus a claimed $30 million -- and there are plenty of expenses that at the very least raise eyebrows.
Daystar spent non-donation ministry income on expenses that included $572,154 in sponsorship and expenses for a Christian NASCAR driver named Blake Koch; a $2.3 million loan to Rev. Frank Harber, Lamb's former special assistant and golfing buddy, to start a church which defaulted on the loan; and the network spent $97,320 at retail bookstores to buy up copies of Joni Lamb's autobiography, Surrender All, helping drive it onto a bestseller's list. Daystar says the books were given away as premiums to donors.
In other words, exactly the type of stuff the secular world would expect a televangelism network to spend its money on. But even if the NPR piece contains no real surprises, it offers a useful reminder: If you come across Daystar on TV, please, for the love of God, keep flipping.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.