In a broadcast that aired Sunday, the CBS television program “60 Minutes” recycled four-year-old complaints about how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints handles its finances.
Most of the questions raised already have rather banal answers, which we discuss below.
But plain responses tend not to capture attention and drive TV ratings, especially during “sweeps” periods (like this month).
But the media’s unusual and enduring fascination with Latter-day Saint finances has extended over the better part of a century, begging the question: Is the goal of these similar media treatments to elucidate a misunderstood faith tradition or instead to further stoke public misgivings?
Riveting the journalistic eye
As a teenager, George Albert Smith worked to help support his family. While on a surveying job with Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, some harmful combination of desert dust and a scorching glare of summer sun damaged his vision, causing permanent impairment in his left eye.
Years later, Smith served as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the faith’s centennial celebration of the early Mormon pioneers arriving in Utah in 1847.
In conjunction with the anniversary, on July 21, 1947, Time Magazine ran a cover story depicting then-President Smith with his injured eye fixated on a pile of dollar sign-leafed sugar beets in front of the temple with rows of gold plates in the background to drive home the point: What you need to know about Latter-days Saints isn’t the core tenets of their faith, but instead their sideways eye for amassing wealth.
And yet, it was just a few decades earlier the church had been on the verge of financial collapse — threatened with bankruptcy and the confiscation of holdings by the federal government. And a few decades into its second hundred years, the church still wouldn’t have the funds to complete its main office building on Temple Square.
Yet by the time the church’s sesquicentennial rolled around in 1997, 50 years after Time’s first cover story, the magazine reverted to the same tropes, printing “Mormons, Inc.” in bold font across the magazine’s iconic cover. The “true great trek” of early Latter-day Saint leaders, the piece argued, was to build a wealthy “empire.”
It’s a plot twist seemingly too good to resist: a church which claims to care for the poor and follow Jesus — the same Jesus who taught it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to fit through the eye of a needle — is secretly more interested in accumulating wealth and power. Any other explanations for the hard-fought financial stability of the faith is met with remarkably little journalistic curiosity.
In 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek slapped cartoon bubbles over a piece of religious art to depict deity instructing Latter-day founder Joseph Smith, “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, buy stock in Burger King … that shall be largely exempt from the frustration of tax.” That same year, Harper’s magazine claimed, with a rhetorical bravado of inverse proportion to the evidence presented, that Latter-day Saints have an “ethos of accumulation that makes so-called prosperity Gospel seem listless by comparison.”
And then there’s Sunday’s “60 minutes” segment. The same themes play out. The church has money. It prefers not to disclose every dollar publicly. Ergo, something nefarious must be taking place.
Along the way, little effort goes into helping viewers appreciate how the faith tradition actually uses its financial resources.
A story in search of evidence
This same story plays out every few decades, despite the church’s commendable self-reliance and efficiency of its humanitarian efforts. Living stipends for full-time church leaders are estimated to be significantly less than the salary of a member of U.S Congress, and hundreds of thousands of dollars less than leaders of large public and private universities or comparable nonprofit organizations.
Lost in this all, once again, are the actual purposes and uses of funds as members and leaders of the church understand them.
Imagine if this became an object of interest among news media. Investigative programs might dig deep into what humanitarian projects the church funds and examine the lives impacted. Or perhaps they’d explore the extensive educational and welfare efforts measurably helping to lift people from poverty across the globe.
But like the many treatments of church finances before it, CBS rehashed the so-called whistleblower’s inference that the church’s funds were “never used” for charitable purposes.
That’s quite a claim.
Little effort goes into helping viewers appreciate how the faith tradition actually uses its financial resources.
Yet in a program taking up such a serious allegation, it was striking that the wide range of ways these funds are perpetually used by the church to fulfill its mission was never really explored at much length — nor were the legal merits of the whistleblower’s claims examined with much scrutiny.
Instead, insinuations were made that the IRS was somehow failing to act by not investigating the church out of fear of “political” repercussions. The prospect that maybe, just maybe, the church could actually be fully compliant with IRS requirements for tax-exemption was less interesting.
Again, it’s “sweeps” season, and CBS needs eyeballs.
But what about the truth?
Even by the whistleblower’s admission, the church spends billions each year on its charitable causes. And since Ensign Peak, the church’s investment arm, is part of the totality of the church’s organization — functioning legally as an incorporated auxiliary of the church — the insinuation the church doesn’t disburse its funds is simply disingenuous. This idea depends on the claim that the church’s investment fund is entirely separate from the church — it’s not, legally or otherwise.
As the whistleblower himself says during the CBS program, church reserve investments are more like a 401(k) (long-term savings), and the other funds are more like a checking account for ongoing operational expenses. But as any financial planner would tell you, perhaps aside from the whistleblower, you don’t draw on your 401(k) except in the event of an emergency.
Funds with a higher purpose
In the meanwhile, Americans might benefit from learning that the church carries its extensive worldwide programs for family history and temple work across 177 temples being maintained (and more than 50 others in construction). It provides funds for disaster relief and for servicing and building chapels and funding the activities of more than 30,000 congregations and tens of thousands of church missionaries. The church educates 850,000 seminary and institutes students and subsidizes four brick-and-mortar higher education campuses, and a global education program called BYU-Pathway, at a total cost of an estimated $1.5 billion per year.
To put that into context, Michael Bloomberg made news by giving away $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University, one of the largest single donations to an American university. Church educational institutions spend nearly that amount every year — in perpetuity.
An earlier clarification by the church still applies today. Despite its many investments and strong financial position today, “the bulk of the church’s assets are money-consuming assets, rather than money-producing.” Tens of thousands of houses of worship, temples, missions, genealogical centers and universities all take money to operate.
On top of that, the church is now giving $1 billion in humanitarian efforts each year. Economic justice activists who dream of wealth redistribution programs from the rich to the impoverished might be surprised to learn this is all done voluntarily.
Seems pretty newsworthy.
And at a time when the U.S. government pays as much in debt servicing as it does for funding the military, it may also be worth celebrating once in a while a large service-oriented organization able to balance a budget and achieve fiscal responsibility over decades.
It’s certainly fair to consider where best an organization should dedicate resources. And it’s fair to debate how large of a cash reserve any organization should maintain. But there’s good reason to believe the ratio of reserves is in line with best practices for large, global charitable organizations.
Sensible people might disagree over these questions in good faith. But that’s not the public conversation being fostered by these sorts of stories.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see secular observers drawing on materialist explanations to make sense of what they witness in communities of faith. But when an entire organization is repeatedly cast in a suspicious light, it starts to feel more like a proxy battle over religion and its free ability to fulfill its mission within a secularizing and skeptical world.
As historians well know, this and other nations have a sad and troubling history of drawing on false stereotypes of wealth accumulation regarding minority faiths.
It shouldn’t be too much to expect conversations about faith and finances to be respectful enough of religious faith and practice to seriously consider the plainly stated spiritual explanations for why they do what they do.
While by no means a recipe for boosting ratings, it may guide America’s own wandering eyes a bit closer to the truth.