Category: religion

Faith in the Time of COVID

As I mentioned last week, I had the chance to head back to in-person church on Sunday. It was capped at 25 people, we all had masks on, and sanitizer abounded. Did I feel safe? Yes. Did it feel normal? Not at all. Was it good to be back? I’m honestly not sure. It felt so different. But I think it was an important first step.

In any case, here’s the talk I delivered yesterday. (I discovered that I breathe more when I’m nervous, and when I breathe more with a mask on, my glasses fog up more, which makes it harder to read my talk. Unforeseen problems. I think I need a different mask.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Before 2020, I never really took much time to consider what “essential services” existed in my life. If you’d asked me back then, I probably would have listed things like electricity and groceries. Roads in good repair. Toilet paper wouldn’t have even occurred to me. In a post-COVID-19 world (or at least a world still dealing with it and hopefully getting to ‘post’ eventually), it’s been surprising to see the number of services that have been listed as essential. Services a 2019 version of me would have laughed at. Different countries made different decisions. France, for example, kept its chocolate, cheese, wine, and pastry shops open. Australia made sure its liquor and toy stores would keep running, while here in America, states watched out for gun and marijuana stores, not to mention the WWE.

If nothing else, the pandemic has taught me that we all have different priorities, and what’s considered essential to one person is considered frivolous to others. It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, to have many people upset that churches were being shuttered in the middle of all of this chaos. Somehow, however, it did. Some of this is likely due to the fact that my personal transition from a normal religious life to a socially distant one went fairly smoothly. Our church ended worldwide meetings fairly early in the pandemic, and we already had an extensive curriculum to continue church lessons at home. Not all faiths had that same luxury.

For many people, their Sunday worship services are one of the primary ways they practice their religion. Removing that ability while keeping marijuana stores open has to sting more than a little, especially when by doing so, the government is declaring religion unessential. But at the same time, many of the trappings of church service were difficult to do in a socially distant manner. Just look at how we’re resuming them now. There’s a fifth of the people here who would normally be here. No handshakes. No singing. Lots of masks and a whole lot of sanitizer. Gearing up to go to church today brought whole new meaning to the phrase “putting on the armor of God.”

It was interesting to me, then, that this week’s Come Follow Me lesson focused on the Zoramites, a group I think illustrates both sides of this situation. On the one hand, you had the rich Zoramites who built a tower from which to worship. Once a week, they would all gather and offer up prayers before returning home and forgetting God completely until it was time for church again the next week. In a pre-COVID world, how many of us fell into this category? How much of an actual impact did our religion have on us during the week, compared to the amount it had on us on Sunday?

And then you had the poor among them, who were cast out from these religious practices. They came to Alma and asked him, “Behold, what shall these my brethren do, for they are despised of all men because of their poverty, yea, and more especially by our priests; for they have cast us out of our synagogues which we have labored abundantly to build with our own hands; and they have cast us out because of our exceeding poverty; and we have no place to worship our God; and behold, what shall we do?” For the past four months, our churches have been shuttered. We have had no place to worship our God. So Alma’s response to this group is particularly applicable:

10 Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?

11 And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?

12 I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom; for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.

A time of crisis can do many things for a person. It can make someone panic or rage. It can bring a people closer together or split them further apart. The last nationwide panic I lived through was September 11th. I remember marveling in the days after those awful attacks how unified our country had become. Who else remembers the members of Congress standing on the steps singing God Bless America that evening? That sort of national unity is missing today. Granted, the thought of a large group gathering anywhere elbow to elbow is a little disconcerting right now, but I can’t picture any Congressional meeting today resulting in such a heartwarming conclusion. Maybe the WWE could arrange something.

It’s telling to me that Alma focuses on how the deprivation of a place of worship made these Zoramites more humble. Humility is a trait that could go a long way to helping us through the days, weeks, and months ahead. It’s the ability to recognize we are not all experts, and that taking advice from those with more knowledge than us is a strength, not a weakness. I feel that one of Christ’s defining characteristics was his humility. He went about preaching and practicing the Gospel without the need to continually draw attention to himself. I still see humility being exercised on a local level, but on the national stage, it goes unnoticed, likely because it’s not the sort of thing that sells papers or attracts eyeballs. But its opposite is much easier to find: pride.

In 1989, President Ezra Taft Benson gave a fantastic talk on the dangers of pride. What it is, why it is so evil, and how to avoid it. If you haven’t read it lately, I encourage you to revisit it, especially in light of today’s environments. Here are a few quotes that stood out to me:

“The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means “hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.” It is the power by which Satan wishes to reign over us. Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of “my will and not thine be done.”’

“The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”’

“Another face of pride is contention. Arguments, fights, unrighteous dominion, generation gaps, divorces, spouse abuse, riots, and disturbances all fall into this category of pride. Contention in our families drives the Spirit of the Lord away. It also drives many of our family members away. Contention ranges from a hostile spoken word to worldwide conflicts. The scriptures tell us that “only by pride cometh contention.”’

If we could, as a people and a world, lower the emphasis placed on personal and national pride, a global pandemic would be much easier to overcome, though it would not solve all our problems.

Non-believers often ask the faithful for an explanation. If God is so great, how can He allow bad things to happen to good people? During a pandemic, why would God let the religious suffer? I read stories of examples of congregations who met before quarantine was called. Church choirs that acted as superspreaders of the disease, killing members in the process. I read of other examples during the quarantine. People who met in spite of the ban, believing their faith would protect them from the disease. That did not turn out to be true. If God loves his children and wants them to come unto Him, why wouldn’t He make sure they could do that without catching COVID? Shouldn’t an all powerful being be capable of that?

The answer, to me, lies in another story from the Book of Mormon. At one point, there are two different groups of people living in bondage to the Lamanites: the People of Limhi, and the People of Alma. Both are longing to be free, and both take very different paths to freedom. The People of Limhi faced their trial without faith. They sent their men against the Lamanites three different times, losing each battle. Their time of captivity was difficult to say the least.

The People of Alma, on the other hand, faced their captivity with faith. Instead of trying to rely on their own strength, they prayed about what to do. In response to those prayers, they received comfort and guidance. Mosiah 24:13-14: “And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came to them in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage.

14 And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.”

So there you have it: two examples of people dealing with the same problems. One with faith, and one without. It’s important to remember the ones with faith didn’t have those problems magically removed. Rather, their capacity for dealing with those problems was increased. They were comforted, and they had hope. Our faith isn’t some cheat code to life that lets us escape social distancing and pandemics. But it can certainly help us handle the fallout from them.

That said, I feel non-believers often look at religion as a band aid. A carrot dangled in front of the unhappy masses that tells them things will get better once this life has been endured. One of the teachings I love most about our religion is that this life isn’t supposed to be a burden. Yes, it’s filled with difficult times and situations. But “men are that they might have joy.” Religion isn’t here to help us make sense of things with a casual “it will all get better after this is over.” It’s here to help us make things better now. Today. Even in the middle of social distancing, pandemics, and political unrest.

So how has my religion helped me in the last four months? One major way it has helped is by providing guidance on how I should handle the situations as they arrive. To me, the current debate between personal freedoms and the safety of others has a pretty simple solution: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If nothing else, wearing a mask is a way for me to show others I care about them and the health of our society. Honestly, I see myself wearing a mask much more often in the future. I always looked at mask wearing cultures as somehow strange. Who would want to go around wearing a mask all the time? Now my views have changed. It’s not strange. It’s considerate.

I wrote on my blog earlier during the pandemic about how masks are the modern equivalent of Moses’ brazen serpent. Growing up, I learned in church all about Moses and the brazen serpent. If you don’t know about the story, the quick overview is that when the Israelites were complaining in the wilderness, poisonous snakes showed up, killing a bunch of them. Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole, telling the people that if they’d look at the serpent, they wouldn’t die from the snake bites. This is referenced again in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 17:41), where it says “the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.”

I never got the point of that story. If I was feeling sick, and someone told me all I had to do to feel better was to look at a bronze serpent, wouldn’t I at least give it a shot? I mean, we’re talking poisonous snakes here. I’d look at a bronze elephant if it gave me snake immunity. And yet there were the Israelites, not looking and choosing to die instead.

The pandemic has shown me I had overestimated humanity’s willingness to do simple things to avoid bad things. Today, we’re told that if we would all just start wearing masks, COVID-19 would essentially wither away and die. It wouldn’t spread fast enough to keep going. True, this means a lot of us would need to wear a mask even when we aren’t sick (or don’t feel sick), but if all of us put on a mask (even if just 70% of us put on a mask, according to some studies!) we could go back to the life we all remember in February.

I have often thought about how stories that seem so clear cut are much thornier in practice. We get used to reading those stories with the benefit of knowing what the right answer was. When it comes time for us to apply those stories in our lives, the decisions somehow get tangled.

Like the People of Alma, my faith has helped me find a purpose in the problems. It didn’t shield me from the effects, but it helped me have an idea how best to handle those effects, and the constant ability to pray for support and guidance was always useful to me. The shift to studying the Gospel with my family each week felt refreshing. I didn’t have to worry about lessons that went awry, or awkward comments that needed to be handled or explained. I knew exactly what my kids were receiving for instruction, and it was much easier for us to have frequent discussions about how the Gospel can be applied in our lives.

Back when they first announced the shift to two hour church, I looked at the home study program that was introduced to take its place as a nice thought, but not the real meat of the matter. We were losing a whole hour of church! Every week! There was much rejoicing in the Cundick household. But in hindsight, it seems clear to me the move wasn’t made because God wanted to gift me with an hour of my life back each week. The real reason–or at least one reason–was that a global pandemic was on the horizon, unknown to any of us, and having a home-centered approach to practicing religion would prove to be invaluable. True, I suppose some non-believers would call that coincidental. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.

The longer this home-centered church arrangement has progressed, however, the more concerned I’ve become for the health of the church as a whole. When the time comes for us all to transition back to weekly meetings, what portion of our membership will decide those meetings didn’t seem that necessary after all? There’s a reason we’re commanded to gather together oft. I’ve had discussions with members over the years, and we’ve bemoaned the fact that sometimes church can be–I’m going to be blunt here–boring. Boring with a capital B. And I know some of that is my own fault for not being spiritually prepared enough over the week, but I also know that not all talks and lessons apply equally to all types of members. A talk that might really resonate with me might leave the person in the pew next to me snoring in their seat. But there’s something in that mixture–forcing yourself to interact with others and wrestle with the same problems and concepts–that somehow helps everyone involved strengthen their faith. When we’re asked to do things outside our comfort zone or teach things we might not fully understand, that pushes us to grow.

Being around other people who share the same overarching goal of returning to live with God helps us remember our own imperfections. Perhaps one of the reasons things are becoming more and more splintered across the country is for the very reason that so much of our interaction has shifted from the watercooler and public square over to Facebook or Twitter.

We’re not through this pandemic yet. Or rather, it’s not through with us yet. Still, I’m glad to be back in church in at least some form. How has religion helped me through the pandemic? It’s helped me in the same way an answer key helped me learn math. I could struggle through the problems as they came up, but check at the back of the book now and then to make sure I was still on track. Or if you’re more of a humanities than a math person, religion during this time has been my Rosetta Stone, able to give meaning and understanding to things that would otherwise be incomprehensible.

Religion is an essential service to me. I’m grateful I can practice it regardless of where I am or whom I’m with, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that it’s a thing that needs to be a shared experience to be properly understood. I know faith is something that can be disparaged and misunderstood by many, but once again, it’s been one of the few things keeping me sane and focused in these troubling times, and I know it can do that for everyone. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

On Self-Evaluation: Special Guest Post by Denisa

Happy Monday! (For values of “Happy” that include “still stuck in pandemic mode, and likely to remain there”) Denisa was asked to give a talk in church over the weekend, and I liked it so much, I asked her if she’d be willing to let me post it here. She was taken aback by the request (I guess she didn’t think it was as good as I did?), but she ultimately agreed. The talk touches on a lot of things I’ve been thinking as well. (When you’re stuck in social distancing mode, there’s a whole lot of time to think . . .)

Anyway–without further ado, here’s Denisa’s talk:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Good morning,

Soon after COVID-19 closed Maine down in March, I started hearing from friends about all the fun-at-home-things they were doing—making art, spring cleaning, cooking, meditating, doing jigsaw puzzles. And, I was jealous. I was jealous because when the schools closed, my life only got busier. It is true that I wasn’t driving to work and driving kids to lessons and practice and dentists and orthodontists, but I as many of you had to figure out how to do my job and my calling from home. Having never done any teaching online, this was difficult for me and certainly took some effort to get used to.

One thing I kept coming back to was what a colleague said about teaching, “figure out what the basics are, what is most important, and do that”. Of the many things I could’ve taught in my classes at UMF and in seminary I needed to find the foundation/the basics/the gist and make sure we focused on that. This, while simply said, seemed like a lot of work because it meant I had to evaluate what I was doing, instead of just keep going like I was planning on before. It’s familiar and comforting to do what you always have done, and to do it the way you’ve always done it. It takes less energy and much less time to take the traditional approach, but living in this new and socially distanced world required me to go through the change. I had to change my thinking first and then align my actions with it, and though the new way of thinking seemed unfamiliar and strange, I knew it was what needed to be done.

It seems we continue to be experiencing a time of many changes. BC—before Corona, the news of the degradation of our environment including human-caused pollution of our land, water and air and the loss of biodiversity this leads to, was constantly on my mind. I read about it, talked to those who knew more about the situation than I did, and I evaluated my life and actions and resolved to make some changes, for example, in what I choose to eat, and where and how I shop.

The ever-changing news about the spread of Corona and the recent protests have made me rethink and evaluate where I stand on equality and human rights, science, health, and even economy growth. I don’t doubt these thoughts occupy your mind as well. We may have found out that we didn’t quite understand the situation and need to put forth more time and effort to correct this, or we may have noticed we’re not as accepting of others as we thought and that in reality, we care more about some things than what we always believed.

Evaluation and introspection should always be a part of our lives. I almost always dread the time when I look at my class evaluations and read what my students thought about my class and me as their professor. I try to do a good job, but I know my teaching style doesn’t fit well with everyone. In general, I’m usually nicely surprised, but there is always that one or two students who waited the whole semester for the opportunity to say just how much work I need to do to improve. While I don’t enjoy reading those evaluations, I do learn from them and they in turn cause me to look at my teaching through their eyes and again reevaluate to find out if in fact I should change some things. Dismissing the comments of those who say there is a problem would be shortsighted and would make the evaluations a waste of everyone’s time. Just because I didn’t see the problem (as I was comfortable in my own teaching, or living), doesn’t mean there is no problem.

In the past general conference, Elder Gary Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reviewed some of the history of the construction of the Salt Lake Temple and explained upgrades that the temple is undergoing right now. The building was evaluated, and it was discovered that it has been cared for well for the 127 years since it’s dedication, but new advances in engineering (that were unimaginable at the time the temple was built) made the renovation including earthquake protection possible. It was Brigham Young’s hope to see “the temple built in a manner that it will endure through the millennium”. And so, the temple is now closed, so the needed seismic upgrades can be made, that it can endure through the millennium. Will there be more extensive upgrades in another 127 years? I would think so.

All temples have an inscription on them that reads “a house of the Lord”. In 1841 (coincidentally, the same year as our house here in Farmington was built) the Saints were instructed to build a temple in Nauvoo, so the priesthood could be restored there: We read about this in D&C 124: 27-28

27 And with iron, with copper, and with brass, and with zinc, and with all your precious things of the earth; and build a house to my name, for the Most High to dwell therein.

28 For there is not a place found on earth that he may come to and arestore again that which was lost unto you, or which he hath taken away, even the fulness of the priesthood.”

The original Nauvoo temple was destroyed by fire in 1848, but it was rebuilt, and it was dedicated in 2002. Great care was taken to make it a close to the original as possible.

Our house here in Farmington is just a house—we love it and have been slowly working on it, and though it has a beautiful spiral staircase, it is just a house for people. The Nauvoo and the Salt Lake Temple and all the rest of the 166 working Latter-Day Saint temples were built as houses of the Lord, so the workmanship and the furnishings are as close to perfection as was possible when they were built. On the other hand, you would likely not be surprised by the uneven floors and may other flaws of our house on Knowlton Corner.

Yet, the houses of the Lord require updates and renovations even extensive projects like the one taking place at the Salt Lake Temple right now. Perfection as we understand it in this mortal world cannot achieved all at once, it depends on information available to us and understanding of it we have at the time. And, so the Salt Lake Temple while built to perfection standards for 1893, needs work.

There is a lot we can learn from this—we should not let ourselves believe that we have a perfect understanding of things, but we should be willing to continue learning and developing ourselves, so we can be close to the perfection the Lord asked as to strive for while we’re here. This includes being willing to listen to and hear others with the goal of understanding. We know our Heavenly Father loves all of us and His love is what we know as the pure love of Christ—charity which is defined in 1 Corinthians 13 and Moroni 7:45:

45 And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

In Moroni 7:48, understanding what charity is, we’re told what we must do:

48 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.

When Christ visited the Nephites on the American continent after his resurrection, he took time for His people. He didn’t ask for those who were doing just fine, were well taken care of, who did not experience any difficulties—although that would’ve no doubt taken so much less of His time. He asked for those who needed healing as we read in 3 Nephi 17:7:

Have ye any that are asick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or bleprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will cheal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy.

He asked for those who were in the need of physical healing but ended by asking for those who are “afflicted in any manner”. I believe this would include those of us who are feeling comfy because all is going well for us—we’re set in our traditional thinking and living, “not looking for more light and knowledge”. This kind of life in missing the point of being here on the earth and the point of learning “line upon line, precept upon precept”.

So, if we are the ones who forgot to reevaluate and needed a big jolt, it is not too late. During this Corona time, may we take time to evaluate our lives as we have to change them to keep ourselves and our families safe. May we look for what is the most important.

My mission president, President Sorenson, would often ask us what he called “the hard questions”. These were questions designed to redirect us to the basics and stop worrying about how much success we had while on our missions.

Here are 3 of his hard questions:

  1. Is there a God?
  2. Is Jesus Christ the Savior?
  3. Is the Book of Mormon true?

While the difficulties of the missionary work didn’t go away, when we acknowledged God and Jesus Christ are in charge and that the Book of Mormon is true, we knew we would find the answers to some of the tough questions missions and life bring.

May we too look for those answers as we reevaluate our thinking and our life through speaking with our Heavenly Father, reading the scriptures, and pondering what we have to do.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Quarantine Worship

Not that I’m worshiping quarantine. Rather, today’s post is about how people are continuing to worship in this time of social distancing. When this all began (six weeks ago? More or less), shifting over to social distancing from a religious perspective really wasn’t that difficult. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had made a switch in January 2019 that emphasized a learning curriculum that was to be done in the home as families. Up until that point, our church services each Sunday had run three hours. With that change, an hour was lopped off from that to counterbalance the new home-learning.

So when suddenly the church stopped all weekly gatherings completely, world-wide, it really wasn’t that shocking of a step. All the members already had a year’s worth of practice worshiping at home. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not the same as meeting with a congregation, but I’m just saying it wasn’t like religion screeched to a halt. My family continued to meet each Sunday, and life went on.

Of course, that was six weeks ago now. That’s a whole lot of Sundays to go with just home services, which is why I’ve been grateful that our local congregations have mostly shifted over to Zoom services now. For the past month or so, we all turn on our computers (or phone in) and have a couple of talks and some hymns, starting at 9:30 each Sunday morning. Yesterday we had around 100 people in attendance, I’d guesstimate. (There were around 50 people logged in to the meeting, but many of those were households like mine of 5 or more.)

Interestingly (for a church that generally does things fairly uniformly), I’ve been surprised to hear this isn’t a practice that’s being done by all Latter-day Saint congregations. Or even most of them, from my anecdotal evidence. I’ve talked to people across the country, and for many of them, church has stopped for all intents and purposes, other than the home-studying component. I had thought Maine was already fairly behind the times, technologically speaking. (Usually that’s definitely the case. Our internet speeds are muuuuuch slower up here, and many people are still using technology that’s ten or more years behind the rest of the nation.) So to have Maine congregations doing things that places with a better technological infrastructure aren’t . . . is strange.

But I’ve only spoken to a few people, and I wanted to spread the net a bit wider. So how about you. Whether or not you’re a Latter-day Saint, if you typically go to church services each Sunday, what have you been doing now? How are you continuing to worship in times of social distancing? I see some places suing governments, demanding their right to worship in person again. I for one have been grateful for ways to both practice my religion but do it in a safe manner. Are other denominations doing the same?

Inquiring minds want to know . . .

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Religion in Politics

As the political season ramps up even more(!), I’m already seeing plenty of posts on social media citing religion to back up political beliefs. You’ve got people who cite quotes from the Bible about the importance of independence, or the sanctity of marriage, or the evils of legalized marijuana, or the need to be more compassionate. And when I see these posts, I have a mixed response.

On the one hand, I’m a deeply religious person, and so it’s natural that my politics are influenced by my religious beliefs. On the other hand, I try to avoid making religious arguments, and I admittedly bristle when those arguments are made online for a number of reasons.

First of all, if you make an appeal to religion as a way of “solving” a political issue, you’re only going to further polarize an already polarized topic. If you have people who agree with you, they’re going to nod and give you a solid amen. You might have people who aren’t religious but still agree with you. They’ll likely just go wander off elsewhere, because why bother. If you have people who aren’t religious and don’t agree with you, they’re going to yell at you for bringing something irrelevant into an important conversation. (At which point you get to begin to argue about religion AND politics at the same time.) Finally, you also might have people who are religious but disagree with your conclusion. (In which case you’re back to arguing about religion and politics again.)*

Second, there’s no really good way to interact with a post that uses religion to prove a point. If you critique it based on religious grounds, then you’re called a heretic. If you critique it based on secular grounds, then you’re just a heathen who hasn’t properly been enlightened yet.

Again, I can and do have political beliefs that are influenced by my religion. But do I believe God agrees with those beliefs? To me, that’s what’s happening when these sort of posts are shared online. They’re saying “God wants you to vote against _________” or “God needs you to protect ___________.” And that kind of argument is really tenuous at best.

What if it’s a Muslim making the post? What if it’s a Jew? A Buddhist? If you would dismiss those religious posts as irrelevant, then why post your own version of them? Because your religion is right and theirs is wrong? If that’s the case, then we’re right back to arguing about religion and politics again instead of just politics.

It can feel very cathartic to find a religious quote or argument that really resonates with us, and that’s fine. It’s when we go on and use that quote to try and convince others that things just fall apart for me. Because a religious quote is using an appeal to an ultimate authority to prove your point. It’s saying, “Not only do I think I’m right, but GOD thinks I’m right too. So if you disagree with me, you’re just flat out wrong.”

“But, Bryce,” I anticipate some of you saying. “There are certain ultimate truths out there. Why *shouldn’t* I post something if God is clearly in favor of it or against it? I need to make sure everyone knows they’re wrong.”

To which I respond, “Unless God has decided to make you His ultimate mouthpiece on earth, maybe deciding to speak for Him on social media is a bit premature.”

If actual church leaders aren’t throwing up posts left and right in favor of a candidate or against a position, maybe we could learn a thing or two from that and follow suit. If they *are* putting up those posts, then go ahead and share and like them, I suppose, but don’t expect that post to be the sort of a Mic Drop post online that you want to think it will be.

Generally speaking, I believe there are good people with deeply held religious beliefs on both sides of the aisle. No party has a monopoly on virtue or faith. Almost every single hot button political issue I can think of is a thorny mess of contradictions, with no clear right and wrong answer.

I’m not sure what I think this post is going to accomplish. I fully expect to continue seeing posts from both sides drawing religion into politics. Maybe my best approach to dealing with it would be to just decide not to say anything on any of the posts. Probably safest for me . . .

But if you’re thinking about posting something in this vein, and this post makes you think twice about it, then maybe I’ll have done some good.

*If only we could somehow throw in a divisive sports reference into the same posts. Something like “God said the Yankees need to lead the country against socialism.” Maybe that could make things even more spicy in the Facebook comments.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

A Latter-day Saint’s Take on the “Mormon Whistleblower”

When my alarm went off this morning, in my sleep-addled state, I tried to turn it off but instead swiped over to the news. And the first thing I saw was this headline: “Mormon Church has misled members on $100 billion tax-exempt investment fund, whistleblower alleges.” It turns out reading a headline like that is a really good way to go from sleep-addled to fully awake (not that I’d like to use it on a daily basis). I read the article over, then thumbed around to find the Salt Lake Tribune article on the same topic, finally delving into the full 74 page “expose” both articles referenced.

Not the way I’d planned to spend my morning, but it’s a topic I’m heavily invested in (pun intended), so I couldn’t really help myself. Since it’s something I imagine a fair number of you might be coming across in your daily news grazing, I decided I’d write a response to the piece, anticipating some of my friends wondering what I had to say about it, as their token Latter-day Saint friend.

It’s not like I haven’t written about church finances and tithing before, but what do I think about these allegations, specifically?

Well, for one thing, I think it’s important to go to the source of the allegations. In this case, the closest we can get is that 74 page document I referenced, which is written by the brother of the whistleblower. I’ll be honest. That document is extremely obtuse. Reading it is about as much fun as jabbing myself in the eye with a spork. It’s got footnotes to the footnotes, with some of those footnotes seeming to be longer than the document itself. More than that, it uses arguments that just aren’t easy to follow or even make sense of, but a few things shine through. First, it’s written by a person who is Not a Fan of the church, which should come as no surprise, considering he’s penning a document clearly intended to hurt the organization. Second, the ultimate accusation comes to “the church has been stockpiling money instead of spending it for charitable causes” and “the church used some money illegally to bolster a church owned insurance company and a partially church owned shopping mall.”

Setting aside my critiques of the document as a whole, these are serious allegations, and they need to be addressed. For the first, that the church has stockpiled $100 billion or so in an account that only accrues wealth and never doles it out, the whistleblower (according to his brother) says the church brings in $6-$7 billion in tithing revenue each year, spends $5-$6 billion of it, and invests the remaining $1 billion. For a church with 15 million members, that figure seems . . . very low. That’s an average of $466/member per year. Remember, tithing in the church is supposed to be 10% of your increase, which would mean church members make on average $389 per month. Even accounting for a worldwide membership, with a significant portion living in poverty, I have a hard time believing that figure. The Tribune article sites an expert who has estimated the annual tithing inflow of the church at more like $35 billion, which seems more logical.

Why does it make a difference? Well, charities regularly stockpile a reserve. Rainy day funds against times of trouble. (It’s something the church actively reinforces to members, always encouraging us to have at least a few months’ worth of money saved up against emergencies. Ideally a year’s worth.) The whistleblower was positioned in a place to directly observe how much money was being invested, so I trust his $1 billion/year figue. $1 billion of $6 billion is saving 16.7%. If the church is spending $5 billion/year, then having $100 billion stockpiled is enough to last it 20 years. On the other hand, $1 billion of $35 billion is saving 2.9%. If the church is spending $34 billion/year, then that $100 billion is enough to last it about 3 years, which seems much more reasonable.

What I mean to say is, the whistleblower’s ultimate figures don’t pass the sniff test, which leads me to question the conclusions he draws from them. I’m not saying he’s making the numbers up, but I wonder how well informed he actually is, and if he sees the whole picture. (Then again, some of this might come down to most of these figures being drawn from the whistleblower’s brother’s 74 page missive which, as I said before, is quite hard to follow. So perhaps there’s a concrete argument to be found here somewhere. I have to assume there is. The whistleblower was regularly charged with keeping track of billions of dollars, so I assume he’s good with numbers . . .)

But even if all the whistleblower’s numbers are true, the main argument (that the church is stockpiling money) is not nearly as damning as his brother might wish. I mean, if the whistleblower had come forward and alleged the church was stockpiling billions and spending it all on hookers and blow, then we’d be talking about some seriously bad decision making. But the big bad in this case seems to be “Church Saving a Lot of Money and Investing It Wisely!” Too wisely, apparently.

That’s a bit flippant. I apologize. We can and should certainly have a discussion about how much is a reasonable amount of cash to have in reserves. Harvard’s endowment is $50 billion. Should a 16 million member, worldwide organization have more, or less than that? If it’s entirely charitable (and thus tax exempt), how much is too much? Does the law say? If it doesn’t, should it? If it does, has the church gone over that amount? (I tend to think the law doesn’t say. Otherwise the whistleblower would have included that in the allegations.) Having a debate and setting a figure is certainly a topic for discussion. But it’s not nearly as problematic as the whistleblower’s brother would like it to be.

On the other hand, the allegation that the church spent around 2% of its war chest to prop up an insurance company and a shopping mall, if true, is more worrisome. According to the whistleblower, the church used tithing money for this, something church leaders specifically said they weren’t doing. “Thou shalt not lie” applies to church leaders as much as it does to members, and if this claim pans out, then that would upset me. But again, I wonder how big a picture this whistleblower had of the whole operation. The church has (many) lawyers, and it’s got more than enough money to spend. Why dip into this account illegally for something that it apparently has oodles of money to cover in other ways? The pieces of the argument don’t add up.

But naturally, whenever something like this comes up in the news, you’ve got an instant crowd gathering with torches and pitchforks, angry about the church. I get that people have issues with my religion. Its approach to gay marriage, equal rights, and other issues upsets and hurts many. But the allegations people like to trot out in these cases (that the church is defrauding millions of people out of their hard earned money) just aren’t founded on anything reasonable. Who profits off this? Do the allegations say the church president secretly bought an underground lair, where he swims around in ill-gotten profits, Scrooge McDuck-style? The closest critics can come to real critiques is that the upper echelons of church leadership get a yearly stipend. The figure I’ve seen lobbed around is $160,000/year, which, granted, is more than I make and more than a whole lot of people make. But at the same time, for most of those men, it’s a whole lot less than they would have been making if they hadn’t quit their job to devote their whole time to the church.

I’ve seen these men. Met them. Talked to them. President Hinckley lived in my grandparent’s condominium complex when he was a member of the First Presidency. I stayed in that complex many times, and I’d run into him in the elevator from time to time. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” it wasn’t, but it was a nice place and close to downtown. It had a pool. I liked that.

These men are going around the world, busy almost all of the time. Critics say they’re taking “church-paid vacations.” If I had to do the things these men have to do on these “vacations,” you’d have to pay me a whole lot more. Let me get the supposed plan right.

  • Step One: Convince members to pay 10% of their income to the church.
  • Step Two: Become a leader in that church
  • Step Three: Take a huge pay cut
  • Step Four: Work until you die, with no retirement, but live in a pretty good condo, and live a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle

I could go on, but I don’t have time for it. In the end, these allegations come across as interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the whistleblower’s brother would like. If some of them pan out, and it turns out the church has been breaking the law, I’d like to think it was unintentional. If it was intentional, I’d like to think it didn’t go all the way to the top. If it went all the way to the top, this wouldn’t be the first time a church leader has made mistakes, and it won’t be the last. We don’t believe our leaders are infallible. But to really alarm me, you’re going to have to find the hidden pleasure palace the leaders are all hanging out in, where they break all the commandments while they ridicule the chumps who pay their tithing. And I just don’t see that happening.

Anyway. If you’ve got questions, I’m happy to answer as best I can. Just keep things civil, as always.

%d bloggers like this: