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Mormonism and its Money

This is a power struggle, not a moral or even fiscal conundrum, and one that we've seen before.

The Washington Post’s recent news story, captioned “Mormon Church has misled members on $100 billion tax-exempt investment fund” is likely to be met with little resistance to its message. It is a familiar one: Mormonism is too rich and stays so by exploiting its members. The old canard takes its new form in a former employee and devotee’s complaint to the IRS that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is hoarding money, which should be given to charity. Indeed, it has hoarded so much, according to an accompanying video, members would not have to pay tithing if that money were used instead of saved. What’s wrong with this picture? A lot and, not least, the facts. Forbes has already responded to the fallacies related to the legal claim: “there is nothing in the tax law that prevents churches from accumulating wealth.” [See also a subsequent analysis here.]  However, the moral claims in the complaint – miserliness, dishonesty, and exploitation – invite us to investigate further.

Does the Church of Jesus Christ “hoard” money? Or, stated in less inflammatory terms, does it insist on maintaining levels of liquidity in excess of what is necessary to cover its present and anticipated expenses? The answer depends upon the Church’s liabilities and its intentions. This we can’t know for certainty; any more than we can know how anxious its decision-makers are about the future of the economy and, more specifically, the influence of current areas of membership growth on the Church’s financial stability. We can, however, get a sense of the extent of its ongoing commitments, as well as its economic philosophy, from the public record.

Most obviously, unlike other Christian churches, this one has centralized the payment of all expenses associated with membership, regardless of the amount of member contributions. All such contributions are wire transferred to headquarters and distributed globally to local congregations to pay for worship, welfare and proselytizing. Other initiatives, such as temples, are handled directly by headquarters in consultation with local members. As a guest at local church services or activities, you will never observe the plate being passed for a donation or hear of a campaign to support a church program, renovate a facility, or pay for professional services. All monies for construction or lease and maintenance of buildings and payment of utilities and program costs for the Church’s 30,506 congregations, ‎3,341 diocese and 421 missions come from Salt Lake City. The same is true for its 159 temples and visitors centers and for its 4,400 family history centers in 136 countries and who knows what else. So much more could be itemized that this brief paragraph is but a glimpse of only the Church’s inward facing activities and, even so, omits much, such as its information and communication networks – digital, print and film, as well as web-based on several platforms and over broadband, cable, and satellite.

Yes, students pay to attend the Church’s universities. Compare, however, Brigham Young University’s $5,790 (member) and $11,580 (nonmember) tuition to my employer’s $13,682 (in-state) and $46,330 (out-of-state) rates. And, though digital copies of scriptures and all manuals may be read online and downloaded freely, members must buy their own print copies. These, too, are subsidized. Like all other personal use items, they are available from the Church’s not-for-profit Distribution Center. Missionaries, too, are subsidized, paying approximately $500 per month for living expenses, regardless of whether assigned to Paris, France, or Paris, Tennessee. Where they cannot afford it, the shortfall is covered by donations, again guaranteed by headquarters. In sum, not only is there every attempt to remove money from the sanctuary, there is some serious redistribution of wealth going on in the Church of Jesus Christ. This is especially obvious in light of the Church’s principled effort to give all members equal access to the benefits of membership, regardless of their geographic location and economic circumstances.

Other aspects of the Church’s economic philosophy bear on the question of whether the Church is hoarding or prudentially saving. Not least, it does not leverage debt but pays cash for all expenses associated with its temples and probably other especially sacred sites. More significant, however, is the Church’s charitable commitments in terms of money and personnel and to both members and nonmembers. That it has an unusually robust welfare and disaster relief system may be known, but its scope can hardly be represented here except in passing: food production and supply centers, immigrant services, employment centers, literacy programs and access to higher education, family counseling, and drug addiction services, as well as its own version of Goodwill. The Church has contributed millions of dollars in the form of goods and cash to governmental agencies and NGOs. As a matter of principle, it is especially dedicated to addressing the systemic causes of poverty through such initiatives as immunization, clean water, farming techniques, improved wheelchair design and access, and neonatal resuscitation training.

But, is it doing enough? All must wrestle with their conscience and in exactly these terms, writ small. How much do I need to thrive and when is that at the expense of another’s greater need? Dollars as a percentage of wealth will always fail to meet the commission “to proclaim good news to the poor. . . to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18) So, the answer must be that neither it, nor we are doing enough within our own sphere of influence. But, a fairer question, the one we would want asked of us, is whether the Church’s efforts are increasing. This appears to be the case. In its first year, 1985, LDS Charities donated $11 million in response the Ethiopian famine. In 2018, it funded 155 projects in 50 countries at an unknown cost, however, recent news reports show it to be making single donations at least as large as $10 million. The Church does not publicize the dollar value of its charitable activities, only amounts and types of supplies donated and labor provided. This two-month report gives some sense of the scale of its disaster response at any given time. For example, during the sixty day period after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, LDS Charities sent more than 40 shipping containers with food, water, building materials, hygiene kits, and cleaning supplies to the affected islands of the Caribbean, and redirected its missionary force to disaster relief. A year later, it was still involved,

Finally, what about the IRS complainant’s charge that Latter-day Saints are being financially exploited by their church? – that if it would just use the “hoarded” funds the members would not need to pay tithing? This is both financially and spiritually short-sighted. At some point, even with reliance on investments that augment membership offerings, the Church’s commitments to the members would become impossible to meet. The larger problem is, as any Bible-reader knows, tithing is about faith, not about money. It is true, as the complaint complains, local leaders will counsel all members to tithe before they pay their rent or any other expense, for that matter. This is because tithing is viewed entirely as a religious practice for the formation of discipleship.

As for the hardship potentially imposed by religious offerings, they can be difficult indeed. But, it must be acknowledged that the difficulty and the possibility of being exploited is mitigated, even defeated by the Church’s safety net. If you can’t pay your rent or your grocery bill, it is assumed you will talk to your congregational leader. Not a paid employee of the Church, he is inclined to understand temporal necessity and be liberal with institutional assets. They are, after all, not his own. He has no proprietary relation to them. They are, rather, donations from others, near and far from him and mediated by an institutional apparatus designed to reach the very person he’s asked to help. Moreover, he will not be taking from his congregation. They have already given, and they are merely the tip of a very large income distribution and savings apparatus grounded in an ethic of care.

One final issue. What about transparency? Why can’t the Church simply publish its internal audit and other financial records? First, it is important to note, as does Forbes’ Peter J. Reilly, “Most financial scandals involving churches involve the people running them looting them, not the church saving up too much money. There is nothing in these allegations that indicates that LDS leadership is enriching itself.” Indeed, as noted by Michael Quinn, historian and author of The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth and Corporate Power (2017), there has been a remarkable lack of financial scandal in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This could serve as further encouragement to be financially transparent. That is, if the question were one of malfeasance, but it’s not. It’s about competing views of what should be done with Church money and who gets to say so. In other words, this is a power struggle, not a moral or even fiscal conundrum, and one that we’ve seen before from those who don’t understand Mormonism and how it handles its money.

Kathleen Flake