Most orthodox Latter-day Saints, starting with the conclusion that their church is true, feel a compulsion to defend or rationalize everything it does, no matter how obviously sketchy or wrong. Of course they're not unique in this very human kind of bias - as I wrote the preceding sentence I was also reminded of Trump's sycophantic worshipers - but they're the demographic I'm most familiar with. As I drifted/got pushed to the fringes of the church I found this more and more frustrating. As I deconstructed my faith I realized I needed to look at it from exactly the opposite perspective and simply ask: would an organization led by Jesus Christ behave like this? The answer, all too often, was an obvious no. I didn't say always and I didn't say it never does anything good.
As an aside, I apply the same perspective to individual leaders. I don't want to be judgmental and I don't expect self-proclaimed representatives of Jesus Christ to be "perfect," but I do expect them to be good and to improve when they're not. I think it's exactly backwards to start with the conclusion that they're prophets and apostles, then defend and rationalize their behavior. If Brigham Young had been a leader in any other church or religion, most orthodox Latter-day Saints would easily dismiss him as a violent, racist lunatic, even if he had been normal by the standards of the nineteenth century, which he was not. But because he was a leader in their religion, they have to be like, "Haha, Brigham Young said some crazy stuff, but he sure was a great prophet." I also dismiss George Q. Cannon, J. Reuben Clark Jr., Mark E. Petersen, Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith, Ezra Taft Benson, Boyd K. Packer, David A. Bednar, and Dallin H. Oaks for the awful things they've said and/or done. I'm not saying these men are pure evil or that they should burn in hell or anything, I'm just saying I don't think they're worthy or qualified to be looked up to for spiritual guidance. But instead of holding them to a minimum standard of decency, Latter-day Saints give them blanket amnesty without them ever having to apologize, make restitution, or admit they were wrong about anything like they teach the rest of us mere mortals to do. Kind of like police officers.
So anyway, I've never been any more thrilled about the LDS Church's lack of financial transparency than its lack of historical transparency. It actually did used to report its finances in General Conference but it stopped when Henry D. Moyle drove it millions of dollars into debt with his overenthusiastic chapel-building program that he thought would magically create more baptisms. (The church did get a lot of baptisms during that era, but a lot fewer conversions.) So from the start, the lack of transparency was driven by the desire to hide information that made the church look bad. And the defense from members has always been the same: "The church isn't legally required to disclose its finances." No kidding. I just think that's a weird argument. Normal people don't base most of their life choices on what they're legally required to do or not. The church isn't legally required to help the poor either, but, you know, Jesus. I knew it was very wealthy but I was still pissed in late 2019 when a whistleblower leaked the existence of a fund containing at least $100 billion of untaxed income from member donations that was not being used for religious or humanitarian purposes. It was mostly being used for nothing, though the church had dipped into it to build the church's mall and bail out the church's insurance company.
Ensign Peak is legally incorporated as a separate entity from the church, but I'm not going to worry about that distinction because as far as I'm concerned it is part of the church. It's controlled by the First Presidency and exists solely to further the church's aims. To respond to the first straw man that members invariably present, no, I'm not opposed to the church having funds saved away for emergencies or stock market fluctuations, but $100 billion is a freaking lot of money. I'm quite certain the people raising this defense have no grasp of just how much money it is. At first some said it was for the Second Coming, because you know, I'm sure money will be worth so much after Jesus burns civilization to the ground, and I'm sure he'll really need it. Then it was just a "rainy day" fund. As luck would have it, a "rainy day" came along not long after the fund was exposed. It was called Covid-19. The church could have put the fund to great use and really ramped up its humanitarian aid. It could have made vaccines available to everyone in the developing world. But it didn't. If that wasn't a rainy enough day to justify the fund's existence, then I'd like to know what the hell is. Are they waiting for the zombie apocalypose or the robot uprising? And of course if this scandal had happened to the Catholic Church, Latter-day Saints wouldn't have rationalized it, they would have seen it as proof that apostate Christianity is corrupt. (See also: sex abuse scandals) And now we know for a fact that it hasn't just crossed ethical boundaries, but also legal ones.
The Securities Exchange Commission has fined the LDS Church $1 million and Ensign Peak $4 million - so as far as I'm concerned, it's fined the LDS Church $5 million - for creating thirteen shell companies, aka companies that for most intents and purposes don't exist, to hide $32 billion of stock holdings instead of filling out the required forms that would have disclosed Ensign Peak's (aka the LDS Church's) ownership of them to the government and the public. I don't claim to be an expert on the legal nuances, but that much is not up for debate. Here's the SEC's press release and its more detailed 9-page administrative filing. You don't have to be a math major to notice from the numbers there that the fine is laughably small and won't hurt the church at all. It's more about sending a message. Some other important details that contradict what some members who haven't looked into it are claiming: yes, the leaders of the church absolutely knew about this. Ensign Peak created the shell companies with the First Presidency's approval. It didn't have authority to do anything without the First Presidency's approval. And yes, they knew it was illegal. The church's own auditing department warned them about it twice, in 2014 and 2017, before getting up in General Conference and reading the same statement it reads every year about how everything is fine.
But pretend for a moment that this wasn't illegal or that the church didn't realize it was illegal. Anyone can see that it was still dishonest. What was the entire purpose of creating these shell companies? To hide information. What was the purpose of that? I think we need look no further than a shockingly candid admission by Roger Clarke, the head of Ensign Peak, about why that entire fund was kept secret in the first place: "Paying tithing is more of a sense of commitment than it is the church needing the money. So they never wanted to be in a position where people felt like, you know, they shouldn’t make a contribution." He didn't say the church isn't legally obligated to be transparent about its finances, he said the church doesn't want members to know how rich it is because it doesn't want them to stop giving it money that it doesn't need. And somehow it also hasn't figured out yet that it can't cover up unflattering information forever, or that the resulting scandals make it look worse than if it had just been honest in the first place. I wonder how many more times it will publicly shoot itself in the foot before it learns.
In General Conference in 1907, President Joseph F. Smith said, "Furthermore, I want to say to you, we may not be able to reach it right away, but we expect to see the day when we will not have to ask you for one dollar of donation for any purpose, except that which you volunteer to give of your own accord, because we will have tithes sufficient in the storehouse of the Lord to pay everything that is needful for the advancement of the kingdom of God. I want to live to see that day, if the Lord will spare my life. It does not make any difference, though, so far as that is concerned, whether I live or not. That is the true policy, the true purpose of the Lord in the management of the affairs of His Church." Guess what - that day has arrived. The LDS Church is rich enough to fund itself in perpetuity without ever taking another penny from members who can barely support their families. But it continues to require tithing anyway. I guess President Smith was just speaking as a man. I also take issue with those who defend tithing as a "voluntary donation" because it really isn't when members are taught from birth that God will separate them from their families forever if they don't pay it. The very least the church could do is be transparent about what it does with those donations. But it has literally broken the law to avoid doing that.
The most right-wing members have more creative defenses. I saw someone insinuate that this is the government's fault because it persecuted the church over polygamy, so of course the church doesn't trust it and doesn't want to be honest with it. As an aside, the more I learn about polygamy the more I feel llike the government wasn't wrong to persecute the church. The Supreme Court compared it to human sacrifice, and that comparison was more apt than I could have imagined. But anyway, everyone involved in the government or the church at that time has been dead for quite a while. Get over it already. The funny thing is the same members who think this way probably also can't understand why Black people are still bothered by segregation. I've seen Kwaku El and others claim outright that churches shouldn't pay taxes so the church was justified in lying to the government and they only regret that it got caught. They're unhinged, but at least they're honest about supporting dishonesty.
Of course the LDS Church provided its own spin in a statement written by its anonymous PR staff and not by the First Presidency, who authorized the illegal activity, because apparently the First Presidency only deigns to write statements about pointless crap like changing the name of tithing settlement to tithing declaration. The statement doesn't deny the church's wrongdoing - indeed, the church's settlement with the SEC prohibits it from doing so - but it does throw "legal counsel" under the bus and downplay the culpability of "senior leadership." And it contains this much-maligned gem in the Q&A section: "Q: Did Ensign Peak fail to comply with SEC regulations? A: We reached resolution with the SEC. We affirm our commitment to comply with the law, regret mistakes made, and now consider this matter closed." Yes, you read that right. The church asked itself a yes-or-no question and then refused to answer the question. I'm sorry, but does it have an actual fetish for making itself look bad? It literally could have just asked a different question. The PR staff should have consulted with Brad Wilcox - he always knows when people are asking the wrong questions. By the way, the honest and grammatically correct answer to the question is yes. Now I have another question: what do people do when they actually "regret mistakes made?" Hint: it rhymes with "shapologize."
Anyway, this specific matter with Securities Exchange Commission may be closed, but Ensign Peak is still under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and may also be investigated by the Senate Finance Committee. So as far as I'm concerned, the LDS Church is under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and may also be investigated by the Senate Finance Committee. I want my tithing back. To current members, if any have read this far, I say this is wrong, you know it's wrong, and you know that you're wrong if you ignore it or contort yourself into pretzels to pretend it's okay. Your moral compass should not revolve around the church always having to be right. Hold your leaders accountable for breaking the law and lying to you.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.