Responding to Bloomberg Businessweek

When you get right down to it, the root causes of the low quality of media discussion of Mormonism can be reduced to one:  Most people – reporters and commentators most definitely included – neither know nor have thought a great deal about religion, and therefore tend to think about the topic in simplistic terms and with limited or incorrect information. Caroline Winter’s Bloomberg Businessweek story provides a perfect case study how the problem of simplistic thinking and limited information influence and ultimately distort reporting on and discussions of Mormonism.

Winter’s story can be boiled down to two simple questions that are never explicitly asked but nonetheless drive the entire piece: Why does a religion need money? Didn’t Jesus say bad things about money? That’s the essence of the cover gracing this particular issue of the magazine (discussed here), and that’s the essence of the story. They’re interesting questions, and they arise from the debate regarding how to apply Christ’s teachings on money in the modern world as well as thousands of years of financial fraud and abuse by religions organizations and figures. These are thorny, complex issues. Unfortunately, they tend to get reduced down to something along the lines of, “Religion good, money bad, religion with money real bad.”

Let’s take a look at this line of thinking, and begin with a simple statement of fact: In order to accomplish their mission, churches have to pay for things just like businesses and governments do, and they have to pay for them with money. So, if you accept the idea of organized religion, you must also accept the necessity of churches collecting money from their members – who else will give it to them? – and spending that money on the things churches need to function as churches. We’re left, then, with questions of degree and details: How much should a church collect from its members? How much should be donated to charity? Should a church utilize for-profit enterprises to help fund its mission?

Over the course of nearly 200 years, the LDS Church has developed its own answers to these questions. The Church teaches that tithing is a commandment from God that enables the Church to provide the temporal ingredients (buildings, cars, flights) for spiritual activities (temple work, missionary work, church services) while also entitling Church members to the blessings of heaven for their sacrifice and faith. The Church has also determined that it needs to make the best use of its financial resources in order to ensure that it will enjoy financial independence and ability to fund its activities well into the future. This approach makes uses of both typical non-profit activities as well as some for-profit ones.

That’s the Church’s take on those difficult issues; there are many other perspectives, great swarms of which have been unleashed on humanity in the wake of the Businessweek article. Winter has the unenviable task of explicating a topic about which she frequently admits almost nothing is known.  One hates to take advantage of her candor, but it’s worth pointing out again: we’re talking about something that no one really knows anything about, including, admittedly, the author of the piece.  Thus, the world has been treated to a lengthy report on the wealth of a church containing several estimates of that wealth offered by sources without any direct knowledge, all contradicted by the church itself, all while the reporter admits that even those within the Church have no reliable estimation of the extent of that wealth.

Elsewhere, a source (himself an excommunicated former member) assumes authoritatively that executives in church-owned businesses likely earn market-based salaries while failing to provide evidence of his claims while our reporter writes that a Hawaiian tourist attraction appears lucrative, based on her knowledge of ticket prices but not expenditures or scholarships.  One of Winter’s main sources, Keith McMullin, “insists that not one penny of tithing goes to the church’s for-profit endeavors,” but, Winter adds, without any contradicting evidence, “it’s impossible for church members to know for sure.”  An LDS member ominously says of the church’s tithing funds “[t]he money may be perfectly administered for all we know. . . but we don’t know.”  This might have been a very good tagline for the entire article: “LDS Money: We Just Don’t Know.” And when you don’t have good information, you get things wrong.

The defense to this approach is obvious: We don’t know because the Church won’t tell us!  The Church’s lack of transparency is one of Businessweek’s pervasive themes, and one that seems to strike a deep chord with many Church critics.  But the call for transparency is not an argument- it’s a reality which the article takes for granted is undesirable and ought to be changed. Nowhere in the Businessweek article (or in other posts and conversations we’ve seen) does anyone offer any compelling rationale for transparency in the finances of a privately controlled religious organization.  Over and over in Winter’s piece, the notion that the Church is private about its financial matters comes up creepily, without ever a single quotation or remark articulating why transparency really is a must for the Church.  It is true that the Church is private about its finances.  That makes people uncomfortable.  Why?  Well, because most large organizations with a lot of money are publicly held or outright public institutions, so we get to see behind the curtain. When a private institution has money and interests, we want to know what they are, and not knowing reeeally bugs us!

Those complaining about the lack of transparency fall into two camps: (1) Those outside the Church, who have never contributed to it, and (2) those within the Church, who give their money voluntarily in the belief that they give it to an organization appointed and inspired by God.  To the first group, the Church owes nothing at all.  We have yet to hear any legitimate reason an outsider might have for wanting to see the Church’s financial statements, outside of basic curiosity. Calls for transparency from the second group are also problematic.  One generally contributes to the Church because she feels the organization is divine.  The contribution implies trust that the organization has a higher purpose for the money than the donor.  That the donor should then demand accountability from the divine entity presents a great paradox.  Either you believe the Church is led by prophets, and therefore trust them, or you don’t, and you don’t give your money.  If a person thinks he can do better with his money, he has not understood the purpose of tithing in the first place, and may want to opt out.

This is not to say that the Church doesn’t control its finances carefully. There are actually abundant financial controls set up to assure that tithing funds are handled correctly.  The Church views such funds as a sacred trust, and requires semi-annual audits of each unit, with multiple accounting controls imposed on all who handle money, and the threat of excommunication for any who might exploit their position to siphon any funds.  The call for transparency might gain a whiff of credibility if there had been one single financial scandal in the last century of the Church’s history (and no, we don’t buy that there could be lots of scandals that the Church just covers up – it’s way too big to keep many secrets like that).  But there hasn’t.  Critics of the Church’s financial operations bear the burden of proof to show why the status quo doesn’t work.

Although no one has offered a strong reason for the Church to publicly disclose all of its financial dealings, the Businessweek story presents a compelling reason not to.  This article provides proof that any nugget of information about how the Church spends its money will be dissected, criticized, and, worst of all, amplified until it overshadows the real, spiritual mission of the Church, which is to spread the gospel across the world. This was the gist of the Church’s response to Winter’s article: the money is a means to an end– the end of teaching the gospel and helping people to live it.

Now, some would argue that the money is actually the end in itself; that argument, in our view, only makes sense if there’s someone who is benefiting personally from that money. Because the Church isn’t transparent with its finances, nobody can prove conclusively whether someone is benefiting or not. That said, we personally have witnessed quite a bit of of anecdotal evidence that points to the fact that that nobody is getting rich from the Church. The Church is a pretty small world. We know or know people who know the families of several of the General Authorities of the Church. (We’re not anything special; the Church is a small world, and lots of Mormons, especially in Utah, know General Authorities or their families.) We’ve seen their homes and the cars they drive. We know several others who work for the Church as paid employees. None of these people – found at all levels of the organization, including the very top – is rich. General Authorities live comfortable, upper middle class lifestyles. We’d guess they make substantially less than the top employees of comparable non-profit organizations like the Boy Scouts or the Red Cross, and they indubitably make far, far less than most of them were making in the careers they had prior to being called to the ministry. The Church employees we know make less than they would in comparable jobs in the for-profit sector. If these people are in it for the money, they’re doing it wrong.

Speed Round:

  • On spending (supposedly) $2B on City Creek Mall: Salt Lake is the home of the LDS Church. It needs Salt Lake to be a nice place that people want to visit. Again, temporal means to a spiritual end.
  • Michal Quinn says, “It’s as spiritual to give alms to the poor, as the old phrase goes in the Biblical sense, as it is to make a million dollars.”  Wrong.  Just wrong. Quinn needs to back that statement up with enough evidence to contradict everything in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and everything LDS leaders teach twice a year at General Conference.
  • “The church’s “General Authorities” — of which there are more than 100 — consist of the First Presidency, the Presiding Bishopric, the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and at least two other groups, the so-called Quorums of Seventy.” Um, use of “so-called” here seems a little out of place in this so-called article by a so-called writer in a so-called magazine.
  • “In some cases, individual General Authorities augment their salaries by serving as board members of the church’s for-profit companies.” Examples? To the best of our knowledge, this practice was ended and no longer occurs.
  • “The Mormon belief in the spiritual value of financial success goes back to 1830, when the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, announced to his followers that God had told him the following: ‘Verily I say unto you, that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.’” On this matter we’ll refer you to this piece by Alan Hurst,who knocks it out of the park.
  • “Until the 1990s, wards — the Mormon equivalent of parishes — kept some donated member money locally to distribute for aid and activities as they saw fit. Today, all money is wired directly to Salt Lake City.” This is misleading. Local leaders still have a great deal of discretion on how to spend their funds. Bishops distributed millions of dollars in aid to local members without Church HQ ever being involved.

One comment

  1. […] Businessweek story on the finances of the LDS Church was massive.  So was our response.  But even after all those words flying back and forth, we left one important topic unaddressed.  […]

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