“What does God need with a starship?”
— Capt. James T. Kirk
You know who those guys at Temple Square could really, really use right now? Those folks who show up every year at the Academy Awards, looking somewhat awkward in their tuxes and evening gowns, carrying locked briefcases holding the carefully tabulated results of the Oscar voting.
If someone like PricewaterhouseCoopers was famous for auditing the books of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the years, then news that the church has maybe $100 billion in undisclosed and untaxed assets — if the accusations reported Monday by The Washington Post hold up — would not be a problem. And, if it did turn out to be trouble, then the church could blame the auditors, the way the Academy blames the accountants when Faye Dunaway reads the wrong name for Best Picture.
The laws concerning nonprofits that are religious orders are, the Post tells us, rather fuzzier than those governing other nonprofits — nonprofits such as, oh, I don’t know — The Salt Lake Tribune. So it is not for sure that, even if the allegations are true, the church owes Uncle Sam billions of dollars in improperly avoided taxes.
If you are a happy member of the LDS Church, then The Post’s revelations are either much ado about nothing or a hit job on God’s own church by one of the leading lights of the Eastern Establishment Lamestream Media. Fake News.
If you aren’t, well, it’s about damn time someone noticed that these supposed followers of the Lamb of God are not only wheeling and dealing in astronomical sums — a stash much larger than not only the biggest nonprofit foundations but also rivaling the world’s largest for-very-much-profit corporations — but hiding it. From the IRS and from their own tithe-paying members.
And it is the members who, if the revelations are true, have the most to complain about.
Faithful Mormons of all socioeconomic levels are expected to turn over 10 percent of their earnings to the church. For some of them, that’s a real strain. Concern that some of poorest people on earth were being asked to tithe to an entity that has literally billions set aside was, reportedly, the motivation for the whistleblowers.
The LDS faith is hardly the only church that makes that demand of its followers, but it is no surprise that is the most successful at it. It is also no secret that the LDS Church is a big-time tycoon, owning a big newspaper, broadcasting properties, and lots and lots of land, including the City Creek Center, across from its headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City.
Echoing Capt. Kirk, some people, LDS and non, have been heard to ask, “What does God need with a shopping mall?” Others have accepted the idea that the church reasonably didn’t want a decrepit downtown on its front porch and that investing its money in real estate, or anything, is a proper thing for anyone to do with surplus funds, against a day when the funds aren’t so surplus.
But $100 billion? And, according to some church officials quoted in The Post’s article, it’s not being held against the next real estate bubble but in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ.
To which, one can only wonder, will Himself take a check?
The whole idea of the law recognizing anything — churches, legal aid societies, environmental advocates, even news operations — as tax exempt is in large part that those outfits provide a service to the community, to the nation, even to the world, that otherwise might fall to government.
The LDS Church, like most religious organizations, clearly earns that favorable treatment through charitable works like disaster relief, feeding the hungry, healing the sick and all that basic Jesusish stuff that non-Christian faiths also pursue.
The idea that any church’s core mission — convincing people to believe as they believe about the supernatural and the hereafter — is a service to the community that earns it the right to stiff the taxman at all levels of government has always been pretty thin. And, absent all the truly good works churches do for the poor and unfortunate, might not last.
The solution to the LDS Church’s dilemma is, of course, actually pretty simple. Open the books. And, if there is anything there that’s not up to code, make it good.
No church needs a USS Enterprise. But the LDS is not the only religion that should have a PWC, E&Y or KPMG keeping very public track of its affairs.
George Pyle is the editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.