Full disclosure: I’m a faithful (I think) and active Mormon.
Second update: The LDS Church itself has already responded to the article here.
So an article from Bloomberg Businessweek titled, “How Mormons Make Money,” is a popular topic of commentary in Utah this week. I started to put up some thoughts on Facebook, but my commentary quickly outstripped Facebook’s limited character requirements, so this got transferred to my political blog. For those who think it might not fit well, trust me, this topic engenders every bit as much controversy as any political conversation.
Part of the so-called “Mormon Moment,” the article is the first major effort at exploring the finances of the LDS Church since Time Magazine ran an article titled “Mormon, Inc.,” back in the late 1990s. The Businessweek effort is factually interesting, and I enjoyed reading it. But I thought that, overall, the article has a slightly negative and suspicious tone to it, which, though it is, to an extent, understable, prompted me to comment on some of the themes that I saw.
Before I begin, you should realize that this commentary comes unapologetically from an insider’s perspective (also, note the standard disclaimer about this being my own view and not reflective of the official view or position of the LDS Church).
Theme 1: The Mormon Church is a business disguised as a charitable nonprofit enterprise.
This is news to me and, I suspect, every other Mormon I know. Despite all of the donated time and volunteer efforts, the LDS Church’s ecclesiastical organization extensive and expensive, taking a significant amount of resources . . . as in billions (I suspect) of dollars of resources . . . to run. And like many nonprofits, the LDS Church supplements its donations with for-profit subsidiary businesses. But one shouldn’t confuse the fact that the LDS Church runs for-profit business with the idea that it’s a business first, and a religious organization second. The LDS Church’s financial excursions are driven by its mission, not the other way around. Anyone who thinks that the LDS Church exists to serve LDS, Inc., needs to explain to me where all the Mormon billionaires are who are getting fat off the $8 billion in yearly tithing donations that flow into Salt Lake City from around the world — and why I’m not one of them.
I think it’s significant to note that the LDS Church isn’t the only nonprofit that makes an awful lot of money (FYI, I suspect that the LDS Church, despite being a tax exempt nonprofit, does pay quite a bit of taxes on unrelated business income, like other nonprofits with for-profit subsidiaries used to help finance operations). While it’s legitimate to question whether churches, partisan educational associations, fraternal organizations, and other evangelical (in the secular sense of the word) organizations should be tax exempt, it’s best (in my opinion) to stay away from the type of subtle (or not so subtle) villainizing you sense in the Businessweek article, because I suspect that fact is that, these days, most nonprofits aren’t charitable organizations in the traditional, almsgiving sense.
Theme 2: Mormons believe you can’t be faithful without being prosperous.
The Businessweek article quoted Keith B. McMullin, formerly of the LDS Church’s Presiding Bishopric, as saying “We look to not only the spiritual but also the temporal, and we believe that a person who is impoverished temporally cannot blossom spiritually.“ Does this mean that Mormon’s really believe that poverty hampers spiritual development?
I don’t believe this. I’ve never been taught this. I can say that I’m confident it’s not a part of Mormon theology.
But what is there in Mormon theology that would possess McMullin to reference a tie between temporal and spiritual development?
I think there are three ways in which Mormons associate temporal and spiritual development, and I’ve selected three quotes below that illustrate them. Hopefully they’ll provide some insight on the matter:
Quote 1 (from 2 Nephi 5:13):
And we did observe to keep the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord in all things, according to the law of Moses.
And the Lord was with us; and we did prosper exceedingly; for we did sow seed, and we did reap again in abundance. And we began to raise flocks, and herds, and animals of every kind.
. . .
And it came to pass that we began to prosper exceedingly, and to multiply in the land.
Quote 2 (from Doctrine & Covenants Section 78):
For verily I say unto you, the time has come, and is now at hand; and behold, and lo, it must needs be that there be an organization of my people, in regulating and establishing the affairs of the storehouse for the poor of my people, both in this place and in the land of Zion —
For a permanent and everlasting establishment and order unto my church, to advance the cause, which ye have espoused, to the salvation of man, and to the glory of your Father who is in heaven;
That you may be equal in the bonds of heavenly things, yea, and earthly things also, for the obtaining of heavenly things.
For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things;
Quote 3 (from a recent address given by Bishop H. David Burton at the LDS Church’s semi-annual General Conference):
In 1897 a young David O. McKay stood at a door with a tract in his hand. As a missionary in Stirling, Scotland, he had done this many times before. But on that day a very haggard woman opened the door and stood before him. She was poorly dressed and had sunken cheeks and unkempt hair. She took the tract Elder McKay offered to her and spoke six words that he subsequently would never forget: “Will this buy me any bread?” This encounter left a lasting impression on the young missionary. He later wrote: “From that moment I had a deeper realization that the Church of Christ should be and is interested in the temporal salvation of man. I walked away from the door feeling that that [woman], with … bitterness in [her heart] toward man and God, [was] in no position to receive the message of the gospel. [She was] in need of temporal help, and there was no organization, so far as I could learn, in Stirling that could give it to [her].”
Mormons believe that God, while causing the rain to fall on all men and women alike, blesses those who strive to follow Him in both temporal and spiritual ways. The theology of Mormonism also assigns spiritual importance to meeting temporal human needs — not only for the person who sacrifices to do so, but for the person whose needs are met. Mormons see nothing inherently spiritual about impoverishment (in contrast to sacrifice, which tends to attune one’s soul to the needs of others) and believe that the reduction of temporal inequality tends to foster spiritual development by eliminating some of the conditions that contribute to spiritually-sabotaging feelings of jealously, contention, and discontentment.
Therefore, McMullin’s comment should be taken for what it is — an acknowledgment that there’s a connection between a person’s secular and spiritual life — and not as an assertion that rich people are more righteous, that a person’s wealth is an indicator of their spirituality, or that material prosperity is a precondition to salvation isn’t taught in the LDS Church.
Theme 3: The LDS Church is overly secretive about its financial operations.
Every General Conference, the LDS Church leadership goes through an amusing ritual where they have a member of the Church’s auditing department give a 1 minute spiel about how the Church’s financial operations have been audited and found to be consistent with generally accepted accounting principles. The Church also makes sure that it lets the members know, one way or the other, about its humanitarian operations throughout the world. And once or twice a year, members are taught in Church about the importance of tithing and fast offerings, and how each type of donation made to the Church is generally used (e.g., tithing is for buildings and the administrative structure, fast offerings are for meeting physical needs, etc.). But aside from that, members hear very little about the details of the Church’s financial operations. There’s no question that the LDS Church does keep its financial condition quite close to the vest and the vast majority of members don’t have much of an idea at all of what the Church does financially, aside from running the day-to-day affairs of a worldwide ecclesiastical organization.
So . . . the LDS Church is secretive about its financial affairs — should this bother me? I don’t think so. And it doesn’t. I find myself asking, “Is it overly secretive?,” and “What’s the alternative?” What would happen if the LDS Church opened up the doors and showed everyone where each dollar of their tithing was spent? Can you imagine the amount of second guessing? Too many temples at too much cost, too expensive buildings, too much spent on air conditioning, the wrong models of cars . . . there would be no end to the matter. Where money isn’t being exacted from people through political force, at the point of donation the money becomes the property of the donee, to be used in its discretion.
I think a lot of the angst over the secrecy is based on the assumption the Church is taking money from members of the pretense of charity and instead using it to run big businesses for purposes unrelated its religious mission. And this brings us to the City Creek Center. Should the Church really be taking $2 billion and spending it on a fancy real estate development project in a prosperous part of the world? Certainly not . . . assuming the project is just about real estate and disconnected from the mission of the LDS Church (much as I like what City Creek will do for SLC). But I don’t view City Creek as just a real estate development, any more than I view church ranches as nothing more than cattle operations. Instead, I see it as the Church being creative when it comes to its mission, which is three-fold and accomplished or further through a variety of — both traditionally ecclesiastical (such as proselytizing) and non-traditionally ecclesiastical (see above) — means. Based on this perspective, I don’t view the secrecy with respect to the LDS Church’s for-profit operations as something sinister. Instead, I view it as a tactic to allow the Church to try and be effective and efficient with its mission . . . and maybe even make the occasional mistake without being publicly crucified. I wouldn’t mind a bit more transparency, but I think calls for the doors to be thrown wide open and every expenditure to be publicly disclosed are unwarranted and probably counterproductive.
Let me offer a bit of perspective, for what it’s worth. I think it’s important to keep in mind the roles history and theology might play in all of this. Whether it’s now justified or not, there is still a strong sense of outside persecution within Mormonism, and I think quite a few of the LDS Church’s for-profit financial operations can be explained in part by a strong drive to be self-sufficient and independent, and to ensure, at least to the extent possible, that it is never again in the position where it so vulnerable as to be dependent upon the good graces of groups that may not wish it well. It’s this desire for independence (and the ecclesiastical freedom/relative security that comes with it) that prompted the Mormon move to Utah and and creation of their own polity. Once alone in Utah, Mormons created all kinds of farming, manufacturing, and retail enterprises and set up a strong hierarchical organization in order to be totally self-sufficient, and not be reliant on outside help or intervention.
Just as history may provide an explanation for the LDS Church’s affinity for business, the persistence of the Church’s for-profit operations may be partially due to theology. Mormons believe that there will come a time, prior to the Second Coming of Christ, when the Church, in conjunction with its members will need financial independence. I suspect the for-profit arm of the LDS Church is developed and sustained with that thought in mind as well.
The LDS Church is a charitable religious organization, not (primarily) Mormon, Inc.