Johnny Townsend: LDS Church should pay off members’ medical debt

Mormons are all about self-reliance and personal responsibility, but they are also insistent that all members pay a full tithe. These principles come into conflict when members are hopelessly mired in debt, especially when that debt isn’t the result of poor planning or poor choices. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could help both its members and itself by paying off its members’ medical debts.

Recently, a church in Indiana raised $40,000 to pay off $7.8 million in medical debt for almost 6,000 families in the state. This followed the efforts of churches in Chicago to pay off $5.3 million in medical debt for another 6000 families in their area. Which followed efforts by a church in Kansas to use $22,000 from its budget to pay off $2.2 million in medical debt for folks in their state. Even John Oliver, a comedian, raised enough to pay off $15 million in medical debt for people across the country.

The LDS Church is wealthy enough (some estimates suggest it has over $30 billion in cash and assets) to pay off a good deal of medical debt. These other churches have paid off the medical bills of debtors regardless of their religious affiliation, but even if Mormons only want to relieve the financial suffering of their own people, that would be significant relief. Such a program would largely be unnecessary for Mormons in most other industrialized nations, as those countries already have some form of universal health care, but it’s sorely needed in the U.S., where most Mormons reside.

Medical debt can often be purchased for pennies on the dollar, often 10 cents or less. Can the church pay tithing on the emotional and psychological peace of mind of its members? Pay tithing on the financial stability of the saints?

While members of the church are encouraged to pay their own tithing first and then use the remaining funds to address other needs, the truth is that most people will pay their mortgage or rent first. They’ll pay for food and transportation to work. Because they’ve been trained from infancy to be responsible adults, they’ll pay their other bills, too, including medical bills. The church would likely see an increase in tithing payments if it freed its members from crippling medical debt, which throws countless people into financial ruin and bankruptcy every year.

“Countless” is the only term we can use, as the numbers in various reports and articles vary greatly, anywhere from 100,000 people a year in the U.S. to over 600,000. But Mormons are among those whose financial lives are destroyed, and as the church has the power to prevent it from happening, it should do so.

A significant number of Mormons, even those without debt of any kind, cut back on their tithing or don’t pay it at all, simply because they don’t see the church as a generous institution. Purely out of self-interest, the Church would likely benefit by making this effort.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lagged far behind other Christian denominations in embracing civil rights. It still lags in protecting its children from predators, in encouraging full equality for women, in promoting anything vaguely approaching equality for its LGBTQ members. But surely, it can get behind lifting its people out of suffocating medical debt.

The good news, of course, is that members of the church don’t have to wait for church leaders to join the faithful of other religions who are already making lives better for the sick and suffering. Organizations like RIP Medical Debt already exist that we can access. If we are not personally burdened with medical debt, we can donate so that the debt of others is paid off. If we want more control over who receives the aid, perhaps at family reunions, we can get together to buy the debt incurred by members of our extended family.

These kinds of efforts are easier when conducted on a larger scale, however, by those who understand tax law. Since LDS leaders are often slow to address the changing needs of its members, let’s remember that we can always divert some of our funds — even a portion of our tithing? — to those other churches already relieving suffering in the name of God.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of several books including “Invasion of the Spirit Snatchers,” "The Washing of Brains” and “Human Compassion for Beginners.”