Sheesh. It feels like I’ve been writing a lot of Mormon posts over the past few months. Not my real intent with this blog, but at the same time, a lot of my friends come here for my take on Mormon current events, so I kind of feel obligated to oblige. And–probably due to the Romney run for presidency–Mormons have been in the news a lot lately. Up this time? Businessweek did a smear story on Mormon finances. (And for the official church response to the article, go here.) Why do I call it a smear and not a balanced article?
Because that’s what it is.
The entire slant of that article is very anti-Mormon, from the way it paints Thomas Monson as the head of the corporation, to the way it frequently cites ex-Mormons for many of its sources. (Hint: if you’re talking to people who have left a church and are now making money writing books about that church, chances are they have an agenda. And that’s to sell those books. It’s not to write about how great the church was.) The Mormons it does cite, it does so in an effort to paint us all as money-grubbing greedy pigs.
Yes, I might be taking it a bit more sensitively than a non-Mormon would, but what would you expect? And I’m sorry, but when the cover image is this gem, there’s not really any way to take the article other than as a smear:
So. How accurate are the facts of the article? I’m not an insider when it comes to Mormon business affairs, but I do have some connections, and I’ve seen how things run “behind the scenes” to a small extent. I can speak to how things are conducted on a local level, and I know that a large chunk of money goes out to individuals in need in the community on a case-by-case basis. I know that no one’s getting rich on a local level from the church. That’s a fact.
But once you move up the ranks to the upper echelons of the church, are people making money?
Again, I don’t have access to people’s bank accounts, so I can’t guarantee that they’re not. But if they are making buhzillions of dollars, they do an excellent job of not spending any of it. My grandparents used to live in the same condo complex that Gordon Hinckley (the prophet before Thomas Monson) lived in. I would see him and his wife in the elevator sometime. It was a nice condo complex. It had a pool (I loved that pool) and an exercise room I used once. But it wasn’t a multi-millionaire’s hangout. My grandfather was an organist, my grandmother a school teacher–if that gives you any idea.
The Mormon church is a pretty small community, even with it getting as big as it is. (14 million members now, probably around half of those are actually active). Especially in Utah, it’s not a community where you could be throwing money around and not have it come back to bite you. Too many eyes to see it.
That said, yes, I believe some of the church leaders have a great deal of money. I’m not sure how much. They made that money–for the most part–in their individual business ventures before they became church leaders. Among the current Twelve Apostles, there’s a heart surgeon, U of Chicago law professor, nuclear engineer, president of Papermate, several university presidents, a healthcare executive, and lawyers. All of them retired now, of course–but all of them made a whole lot more money than I make, you can bet that. Should they have left their full time careers that provided for their families, only to start making minimum wage? Some in society seem to think church and wealth have to be an either/or. Mormons definitely don’t believe that. And I guess that can come across as grating to people. That said, Mormons are very generous with their money. Just look at how much Romney has donated. But then again, he donated it to the church, so it “doesn’t count.”
Sometimes it seems that non-religious people feel like anyone who’s religious really ought to be wearing burlap all the time. Mormons definitely don’t take that tact. We certainly believe you can be spiritual and financially successful. Of course, we don’t believe your personal financial success is an outward indicator of your spirituality–despite the efforts of Businessweek to paint us like that.
The article has an unspoken accusation that the church leaders are getting rich off this. That because the church doesn’t show all its finances to whomever asks, it must be trying to do something nefarious. The City Creek mall is a prime example of this. The church spent a lot of money on the project, so it must be a conspiracy of some sort. Here’s my take: downtown Salt Lake was dying. People were moving out, and it wasn’t exactly the place you’d enjoy hanging out on a Friday night. Certainly not with a family. Smack dab in the middle of downtown Salt Lake is Temple Square–a tourist destination for people coming to the city, and also the center of church operations. If the downtown had continued its downward spiral, that spot would have lost much of its utility to the church. Investing the money in the City Creek Center is a way to counteract that trend.
Again, what it comes down to for me is that if this is a crime or part of some scheme, who’s benefiting? The for-profit operations of the church are run as companies. They pay their taxes. I can see the contrast between what’s typically thought of as religious matters and business matters, and how they bleed over into each other in some areas of the Mormon church.
Where does the money go? You’ve got BYU, where tuition is $4,500 per year for Mormons–$9,000 per year for non-Mormons. That’s a steal–and it’s that low because the church values education highly, and subsidizes the prices for students. You’ve got the operating costs of all the buildings and properties across the globe. You’ve got serious welfare efforts–both on a global and local scale. You’ve got 50,000 missionaries out in the world. They pay $400/month each, true. But they get a whole lot more than that back, depending on where they’re living. You try living on $400/month and see how far it gets you in New York City.
Plus, the church is very much into practicing what it preaches. It teaches its members to save money. To live prudently. To make wise business decisions. Should it come as a big surprise, then, that it’s thrifty with its money? That it benefits from the good business sense of its leadership? What do people want–an institution that’s deep in debt? One that gives 100% of its money to other institutions? I think the church is in a lose-lose position with some people.
I don’t know. If you think Mormons are secretive and up to no good, this article is going to confirm that belief. My blog post won’t likely do much against it. People can say I’ve been taken in by the church. That I’m brainwashed or whatever. But like I said, I’m not uninformed. My family is friends with a lot of church leaders, including some of the current Twelve Apostles. These are good men. They aren’t pulling a fast one on anyone. If they are, they’re seeing no benefit from it other than little 0s being added to some bank account somewhere.
I just don’t buy it.