The Myth of Mormon Secrecy Part II: LDS Church Finances

Part II of a series discussing the Myth of Mormon “Secrecy.” See Part I here.

As explained in the first episode, many outsiders fret about the perception that the LDS Church is “secretive,” a worry that perhaps borrows from the notion that Mormons are cultists, which would only gain strength if people conclude that the LDS Church is insular and guarded. The idea of LDS secrecy, however, arises from only two issues in the galaxy of programs and practices of the Church. The first is Temple worship, dealt with in Part I. The second is the LDS Church’s preference for maintaining privacy regarding its finances, something that has gained more prominence in recent weeks after the Oregon Supreme Court refused to intervene in one plaintiff’s attempts to unveil the entire picture of the Church’s financial status.

What then, is the truth about the secrecy surrounding LDS Church finances?

Whenever one of the big news weeklies publishes a cover story on the LDS Church– something that happens with increasing regularity as time goes on– they point to the Church’s financial status as an issue of interest. It is something of a parlor game to make conjectures about the wealth of the Church, though no guess can claim to be authoritative given the paucity of the data. This is because the Church does not release any such information. The LDS Church is a fully private institution, beholden to no one, and is quite conscientious about avoiding entanglements with any government or other entity.

Thus, the first thing to note on this matter is that there is no requirement that the Church answer to anyone about its finances. It is not a government agency, it is not a publicly-held corporation, and its only constituents (its members) place a high amount of trust in the Church, or they probably wouldn’t give it money in the first place.

As for the Church’s reasons for its longstanding privacy over financial matters, there is no official statement explaining the official rationale, but informed observers agree that there are many reasonable explanations. The first is that the Church sees its funds as sacred, since most of its income comes from the donations of individual members (faithful members pay one tenth of their income to the church as “tithing”). Releasing numbers on revenues, expenditures, and overall worth would demean the sacrifices many members of the church make in order to tithe to the Church. Secondly, and more important, the Church has an interest in maintaining its focus (and that of its members and the press) as a spiritual institution, not a financial one, and the tabloid interest that would follow disclosures of its wealth would certainly distract from its larger mission. Finally, as Church President Gordon B. Hinckley has been fond of noting in the past, none of the Church’s ecclesiastical assets produce any income at all.* Rather, the vast network of chapels, missionary homes, universities, etc. consumes a great amount of resources but bring in almost nothing. Thus, allowing the Church’s assets to be measured against other private entities (one Time article from a few years back placed the Church’s wealth somewhere in the Fortune 500, just below Union Carbide and just above the Gap,) completely misses the point.

In short, yes, the Church remains quite private about its finances. And yet this should not be taken as affirmative cause for suspicion about how it uses its funds. As I have noted before in this space, despite the privacy that shrouds Church finances, no hint of a scandal has been raised in many generations, and the enormous building, proselytizing, and other ongoing projects give a visible accounting of where most of the Church’s assets are being allocated. It also bears repeating that the leaders of the Church are known to live modest lives, and it is an obvious fact to those that live near and interact with them that they are not being enriched by the Church’s “sacred funds.” These general points are somewhat substantiated by this Time article praising the Church’s “fiscal probity.”

It is interesting to note that some have focused on the LDS Church’s unwillingness to disclose its financial status while failing to hold other large religious organizations to the same standard. Despite the rumored wealth of the Catholic Church, one rarely hears criticism about its refusal to publicly address the topic. There must be precious few churches in the world that disclose the details of their finances publicly, where there is no legal requirement that they do so.

To conclude, it does Mormons a great disservice to view them as secretive, given the willingness of Church leaders and members to discuss their faith openly “at all times, in all things, and in all places,” to quote a well-known Mormon scripture. Yes, there are two topics on which the press and outside world are kept on the outside, but even on those topics, the Church is becoming increasingly willing to accommodate. One example of this trend is the relatively recent practice of publicizing Temple open houses, in which the public is invited to tour newly-constructed Temples before they are dedicated for use. This compromise has led to many non-Mormons being allowed inside Temples, with favorable reviews being commonplace.  Even those critical of the Church have haled a perceived new era of openness regarding its history, its extensive archives, and even its acceptance of varying views on controversial topics.

In a society so secular as ours, there will always be tension between the curious public and those that take their religion seriously and hold their beliefs as sacred. It is precisely to navigate that tension that our modern notions of pluralism and tolerance have arisen. For those who wish to focus only on the two tiny points on which Mormons would prefer to maintain their privacy, the charge of secrecy will remain relevant, though misguided. But for those open to viewing the entirety of Mormon experience and practice, there is little reason to cling to such stereotypes.

*This statement refers to the Church’s ecclesiastical holdings, as distinguished from a network of profit-making corporations in which the Church is invested. The LDS Church does engage in certain business endeavors, most likely to be a good steward to the funds it has received by multiplying those funds where possible. The Church also engages in businesses that will further its interests, such as the massive construction project currently ongoing at the heart of Salt Lake City. This project involves retail outlets, restaurant, and housing adjacent to the Church’s headquarters and Temple Square, giving the Church a vested interest in the vitality and attractiveness of the area.

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