In 1953, a struggling American CEO wrote a memo to his company manager, thanking her for her efforts in keeping the IRS at the door and his near-insolvent company from sinking completely:

The arrangements that have been made seem a good temporary measure. On a longer look, however, something more equitable will have to be organized. I am not quite sure what we would call the place … We don't want a clinic. We want one in operation but not in name. Perhaps we could call it a Spiritual Guidance Center. Think up its name, will you … It is a problem of practical business. I await your reaction on the religion angle. In my opinion, we couldn't get worse public opinion than we have had …

The author of that memo was L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. Before rebirthing his Dianetic Research Foundation as a church, the former science fiction writer was so broke and in debt he was forced to sell his typewriter for $28.50. L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986, Forbes magazine estimating his fortune at some US$200 million.

Hubbard had always suspected that religion was the answer to the woes of a gifted creative with no head for business — in 1947, he had allegedly told fellow sci-fi writer, Theodore Sturgeon: "Y'know, we're all wasting our time writing this hack science fiction. You wanta’ make real money, you gotta’ start a religion!" He was right.

It was a lesson learned over 100 years earlier by another creative mind with the business brain of a duck, Joseph Smith. A failed farmer and water diviner, Smith was a man whose business career appeared to be over when he was convicted for fraud in 1826, the court upholding the plaintiff's claim that Smith was “a disorderly person and an imposter”. The following year, however, Smith lucked upon Martin Harris, a rich idiot from New York who agreed to pay Smith's bills while helping him write The Book of Mormon, a ludicrous amalgam of homespun American racism and vast tracts plagiarised from the King John Bible. Today, Smith’s Church of Latter Day Saints controls an estimated $30 billion in assets.

But can such magic tricks be pulled off today? They sure can, and they are. In America, TV evangelists are some of the richest pigs on the continent, their fortunes constructed by faithful fools who view Jesus as little more than a spiritual poker machine — pump Him full of money for a jackpot of blessings. America’s constitutional protection of religious freedom gives spiritual hucksters a free ride, churches swerved by the IRS and the FBI unless they’ve got too many guns or foul-tasting Kool-Aid.

What’s more, turning your ailing company into a religion is nowhere near as difficult as one might think. The Internal Revenue Service’s own Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organisations lists the accepted attributes of a church as defined by the IRS and court decisions:

Distinct legal existence; recognized creed and form of worship; definite and distinct ecclesiastical government; formal code of doctrine and discipline; distinct religious history; membership not associated with any other church or denomination; organization of ordained ministers; ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study; literature of its own; established places of worship; regular congregations; regular religious services; Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young; and schools for the preparation of its ministers.

Which looks like a lot of boxes to tick, but it really comes down to grunt work for a good accountant and a prolific writer or two, particularly when …

The IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held by those professing them and the practices and rites associated with the organization’s belief or creed are not illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy.

In Australia, a nation built by crooks and police rather than Pilgrim fathers, the law is less likely to look the other way where religion is concerned. But the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission still gives a church considerable rope. As the ACNC’s Religious Charities Factsheet states:

When applying to register, religious organisations (including churches) may wish to select ‘the advancement of religion’ as their charitable purpose and ‘religious activities’ as one of their charitable activities. The ‘advancement of religion’ involves belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle and acceptance of canons of conduct which give effect to that belief.

In other words, the only work one has to perform to qualify as a charitable church is doorknocking (another reason why it’s OK to tell peddlers of religion to get off your doorstep — in bothering you, they're simply greasing the wheels of their own machine).

Which is not to say that religious organisations are all crooked, or that they don’t perform sincere charitable functions — in 2010, the American Catholic Church alone spent an estimated US$170 billion on schools and affiliated hospitals. But that’s exactly what you’d expect from the biggest financial power on Earth, whose wealth has been drawn from the pockets of billions who’ve believed in the humble teachings of Jesus Christ. The latest photos of the Pope’s house show he’s not exactly doing it tough.

The latest photos of the Pope’s house show he’s not exactly doing it tough.
The latest photos of the Pope’s house show he’s not exactly doing it tough.

The cult of “church planting” is picking up speed worldwide — in America, StartCHURCH offers to do all the legwork to “assist in making your dream a reality”, while the Australian Christian Churches organisation hosts a slick-looking website that helps cut through the red tape and fill those auditoriums.

All that’s needed for a religious stocktake is belief, an enthusiasm for storytelling, and a certain ruthless ambivalence toward the foolish and their money, a character trait best given voice by the near-destitute L. Ron Hubbard in the late 1940s, as he scribbled down ideas that would be the seeds of a multi-million-dollar spiritual empire.

"Material things are yours for the asking,” he wrote. “All men are your slaves."