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Criticism follows Businessweek cover on Mormon Church finances

Looking closely at LDS Church businesses, finances

The new Bloomberg Businessweek magazine cover on LDS Church finances drew broad-based criticism Thursday.

"The Businessweek cover is in such poor taste it is difficult to even find the words to comment on it," said Michael Purdy, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Sadly, the cover is a reflection of the bias and speculative nature of the article itself. It is narrow and incomplete, omitting, for instance, a good deal of information given on how church resources are used.

"The article misses the mark and the cover is obviously meant to be offensive to many, including millions of Latter-day Saints."

The magazine hits newsstands Friday, but the cover illustration was released Thursday. It caricatures a classic LDS painting of what to Mormons is a sacred visitation by John the Baptist to early LDS leaders Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. The cover created instant and broad reaction across news, political, business and religious websites. The cover headline reads "Inside the Mormon Empire." The accompanying illustration portrays John the Baptist telling Smith and Cowdery to "build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King, and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax," to which Joseph responds: "Hallelujah."

"As someone who has been watching the coverage of politics and faith and more specifically of 'the Mormon question' for the last year, I see this as a great step backward," said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a school dedicated to excellence and integrity in journalism. "I thought we were past ridiculing sacred images of other faiths, even radical Muslims, let alone our fellow Americans. I doubt the story is as out of whack as the cover, but on its own, the cover crosses way over the line between commentary and bigotry."

Faith leaders also criticized the cover.

"This cover ridicules respected spiritual leaders and the Mormon faith by distorting a picture of sacred value and respect and turning it into a caricature, said Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Seminary, a graduate-level seminary for Evangelicals. To be clear, a journalistic examination and analysis regarding the financial practices of any group is always fair game. But if such mocking and distortion were focused on Evangelicals or Catholics, we would call foul. For the Mormon community--and all of us--this is out of bounds.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, posted a comment about the cover on his Facebook page: "This is simply disgusting."

"It would be nice if news outlets were more sensitive to religion," said Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "It would also be nice if we had world peace."

Winston recently co-authored a survey report that found most Americans consider media coverage of religion too sensationalized.

“I would be more concerned about the (in)accuracy of the article,” Winston said, than about the cover illustration, adding that the article itself did a poor job of explaining Mormon theology. Many religions have worldviews that incorporate both economic and spiritual values, a fact the Businessweek article missed, she said.

Winston said the cover reminded her of the controversy generated by a 2008 New Yorker cover featuring Michelle and Barack Obama dressed as Islamic terrorists. In each case, she said, a news outlet was attempting to communicate a complex message in pictures, a difficult task that isn’t always pulled off with sensitivity.

In the lengthy cover story by Caroline Winter, titled "How the Mormons Make Money," Winter wrote about what she called "a vast church-owned corporate empire that the Mormon leadership says will help spread its message, increase economic self-reliance and build the Kingdom of God on earth."

The story focused almost exclusively on the for-profit businesses and economic holdings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its conclusions on speculative numbers because, according to Winter, the church "offers little financial transparency."

The story itself described the church's humanitarian efforts, but historians who study the church said the article didn't mention the church's major investments in higher education, welfare programs in local congregations around the world, an international Perpetual Education Fund, administration of the world's largest family history program, temples, chapels and missionary work. Some of those charitable and religious efforts were described in an article posted Thursday on the LDS Church's Newsroom website.

Historian Terryl Givens said the media has been exploring LDS Church finances almost from its founding in 1830.

"In 1842, the New York Herald was one of the first media outlets to mock Mormons for mingling the sacred and the profane," said Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of four books on Mormonism published by the Oxford University Press. "James Gordon Bennett referred to a Mormon "empire" in which the members "are busy all the time establishing factories to make saints and crockery ware, also prophets and white paint." Mormons have always been particular efficient at mustering the resources necessary to provide for the temporal as well as spiritual needs of the people. Hostile observers have always preferred to notice only the acquisition, and not the dispensing, of those resources. That reflects a cynical perspective, but also an absurdly narrow view of religion."

W. Paul Reeve, associate professor of history at the University of Utah whose research specialty is Mormon history, joked that the article "leaves the reader wondering if there is anything spiritual in Mormonism at all" because of its single-minded slant on LDS finances.

Brigham Young University history professor Brian Cannon said profits from economic "enterprises are invested in ways that benefit church members, including the church's heavy subsidization of tuition at its schools."

In addition to what he considered a lack of spiritual insight in the Bloomberg Businessweek article, Reeve felt there was a lack of depth in the numbers, noting that while the story talks a lot about the international humanitarian expenditures of the church, it doesn't seem to take into account the significant amounts that are expended through local LDS welfare efforts.

"The story didn't seem to account for charitable contributions made each month on a local level," Reeve said. "Even in poor wards (congregations), you still get a pretty significant monthly contribution that is being disbursed on a local level."

Nor does the article reference the enormous financial outlays the LDS Church makes in building and maintaining nearly 20,000 meetinghouses and 138 temples currently in operation around the world; training and supporting a missionary force of more than 50,000 full-time missionaries; providing buildings, materials and teachers for more than 700,000 seminary and institute students around the world; creating and providing classroom instruction materials for church leaders and teachers; support of Boy Scouting and similar activities for young women; as well other administrative and ecclesiastical costs.

"There's a lot that seems to be left unsaid here," Reeve said.

Reeve felt it was clear that the reporter had a "point of view" she was trying to communicate through the story, but he said reporting on the finances of private organizations is difficult and said "when you're not transparent with your financial holdings it leaves the door open for people to nibble around with whatever information they're able to find."

This isn't the first time a major publication has tried to explore and explain the LDS Church financial structure. In 1997 Time magazine did a cover story on the subject. Two months after the story came out, President Gordon B. Hinckley referred to it during the Church's General Conference and noted that while the "article praised us as a well-run financial institution," it "grossly exaggerated the figures."

"The money the church receives from faithful members is consecrated," President Hinckley said at the time. "It is the Lord's purse. Our church facilities are money consuming and not money producing. We are not a financial institution. We are The Church of Jesus Christ. The funds for which we are responsible involve a sacred trust to be handled with absolute honesty and integrity, and with great prudence as the dedicated consecrations of the people.

"We feel a tremendous responsibility to you who make these contributions," President Hinckley said. "We feel an even greater responsibility to the Lord whose money this is."