This week in Mormon Land: Following the money, siding with Santa, leaving the Scouts

The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want this free newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Money, money, money

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) City Creek Center and the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The touchy topic of church wealth resurfaced this week when a “whistleblower” complaint filed by a former portfolio manager for the faith’s nonprofit investment arm accused it of amassing a $100 billion portfolio from contributions intended — but never spent — for charity in potential violation of tax laws.

The governing First Presidency responded, insisting the church “complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes and reserves,” while defending the stockpile as “wise financial management” based on a “sound doctrinal and financial principle.”

Whether IRS rules were broken is subject to debate — a tax expert at Forbes doubts it — but the size of the account and the lack of transparency about it are triggering questions inside and outside the faith.

“What’s weirdly karmic about this whole debacle is that it could have been avoided if the church had simply continued to exercise transparency about its income and expenditures, as it did in the early and mid-20th century,” Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess wrote. “Instead, its commitment to secrecy, presumably to avoid criticism, has opened the door to further criticism.”

Sam Brunson, who teaches tax law at Loyola University in Chicago, said few churches have to worry about managing so much money.

“Whether $100 billion is too much for the church to have sitting, unspent, [is] an important thing to think about. It’s a question that the church needs to seriously engage. It’s a question that we, as members of the church and as tithe payers, need to seriously engage,” he wrote in a bycommonconsent.com blog post. “And the question of how large an endowment tax-exempt organizations (including, but not limited to, churches) should have is an important question we, as a society and the voting public, need to engage with.”

Case of the lost wallet

(Photo courtesy of Adam Smart) Adam Smart, while in the Ventura, Calif., Mission.

What does it mean to “sustain” church leaders?

It’s a question Latter-day Saints discuss in their homes, debate in their classes and contemplate in their consciences.

Does it mean to “agree with” or does it mean, as dictionaries suggest, to “support, strengthen, uphold, buoy up or encourage”?

The question became key in the case of Adam Smart, a 19-year-old missionary from Idaho serving in Ventura, Calif., after he lost his wallet and had to replace his temple recommend.

Smart’s personal backing of same-sex marriage — though he promised to preach only the church’s position against it — passed muster with his local lay leaders. His mission president, arguing that the young proselytizer’s LGBTQ stance didn’t fully “sustain” the church’s top leaders, believed otherwise.

Smart’s willingness to toe the church’s line as a missionary, while privately holding a different view, Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Utah State University told The Salt Lake Tribune, “is a generous act, the epitome of sustaining.”

Eventually, Smart got his recommend, but he felt so emotionally exhausted by the ordeal that he chose to go home.

“I had been stretched like a rubber band to a breaking point,” he said. “I couldn’t do the healing I needed to do on my mission.”

Read the full story here.

An article of faith — in Santa

(Scott Sommerdorf | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Santa Claus waves to kids in 2017.

Top church leaders, it seems, do sustain a certain Brother Claus.

LDS Living compiled a series of quotes — from Russell M. Nelson to Howard W. Hunter and John A. Widtsoe — attesting to the virtue of that jolly old elf.

It included this gem from the late apostle Boyd K. Packer:

“I want to emphasize that I have no quarrel with that well-fed gentleman with the red suit and the white whiskers. He was very generous to me when I was a boy, and we are looking forward with great anticipation to his visit at our home. All of those things with reference to Christmas are appropriate and good, and all of them are for children — except, I suppose, the mistletoe.”

We should note that St. Nick also got an endorsement from our own “saint,” Tribune columnist Robert Kirby, whose belly has been to known to shake “like a bowl full of jelly.”

“He’s real,” Kirby writes of the North Pole’s most famous resident. “You just have to work him into your lives. You do that by being Santa. Give people not just what they say they want but what they’re truly in want of.”

This week’s podcast: Gayle Ruzicka on ERA and her faith

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, speaks to those gathered as Abortion-Free Utah launches a public campaign to end elective abortion in the state during a press event at the Utah Capitol on June 19, 2019.

When Utahns recently rallied for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, there was Gayle Ruzicka vowing to oppose it.

Considered one of the most powerful people in the state never to have held elected office, Ruzicka, the conservative activist and president of the Utah Eagle Forum, can be counted on to be in the midst of high-profile fights — from abortion to sex education, gay marriage to conversion therapy, hate crimes legislation to medical marijuana.

She talks about her activism and how her Latter-day Saint faith informs her lobbying — even when it stretches beyond the church’s positions.

Listen here.

Podcast for women

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Bonnie H. Cordon, center, first counselor Michelle D. Craig, left, and second counselor Becky Craven in 2018

The latest episode of the “Latter-day Saint Women” podcast features the Young Women general presidency and the role revelation played in recent changes to church youth programs, including a revised theme for girls that honors the faith’s belief in a Heavenly Mother.

“We talk about this being a new theme, but the reality is that it is an extension of what we have been doing in the past,” second counselor Becky Craven said in a news release, “because we believe in living prophets, we believe that Jesus Christ is at the head of this church, we believe that this is a living church and that revelation reigns.”

Easier path to baptism

As children of polygamists go, so go those of same-sex couples — and vice versa — at least when it comes to conversion and church policy.

Back in 2015, the church pointed to its limits on baptizing children of polygamists as justification for the controversial edict barring kids of same-sex couples from religious rites.

Leaders scrapped the LGBTQ policy in April. And now they have loosened the rules for children from polygamous households as well.

“The handbook has been updated to reflect earlier announcements by church leaders related to the baptisms of children whose parents are in a polygamous or same-sex relationship,” church spokesman Daniel Woodruff confirmed in an email.

So, these kids no longer need to “repudiate” their parents’ teachings or obtain First Presidency approval to join the church.

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal — and gone?

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Boy Scout troop posts the colors during the opening of the 2018 legislative session at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

Everyone knows that the church’s exit from Scouting is going to have a big impact on that iconic youth organization. But how big?

Try 400,000 and change, The Associated Press reports.

That’s how many young people the Boy Scouts of America will lose virtually overnight when the Utah-based faith severs its ties with the group in favor of its own global program for children and youths.

Of course, Latter-day Saint boys and girls still will be free to become Scouts — one Scouting executive hopes to retain at least 20% of them — but boys no longer will be automatically enrolled.

“One of the advantages we always had with Scouting is that it wasn’t ‘churchy,’” Wayne Perry, a Latter-day Saint who is a past president of the Boy Scouts of America and a current member of its national board, told the AP. “They were getting the Scout Oath and the Scout Law, which are incredibly compatible with the church’s philosophies and views, but they weren’t reading out of the Book of Mormon.”

Music makes the season

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square Christmas concert is alive with music of the season featuring Broadway star Kelli O’Hara in the Conference Center on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.

Tony winner Kelli O’Hara and Emmy winner Richard Thomas shared their gifts of singing and the spoken word in this year’s yuletide concert with The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.

“Music is the great unifier,” O’Hara said in a news release. “I grew up singing in the choir at church and at Christmastime.”

Added Thomas: “Whatever faith you come from, beautiful music is beautiful music.”

The 2019 concert will be broadcast next year as a holiday special on PBS and BYUtv.

A new duet

Hey, 5 Browns, you have new competition — from one grade schooler and one nonagenarian.

YouTube singing sensation Claire Crosby teamed up with — guess who? — church President Russell M. Nelson for a holiday performance.

With Nelson on the piano and Crosby on vocals, they offered a simple, sweet rendition of “Silent Night.” View it here.

“Music is such a powerful form of worship, and that reality is never clearer than during the Christmas season when we enjoy beautiful carols that testify of the risen Lord,” Nelson wrote on Instagram. “This December I hope you will make time with family and friends to enjoy the glorious music of this season.”

By the way, the age gap between singer and accompanist: 88 years.

Temple update

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Temple in Arequipa, Peru.

Church President Russell M. Nelson originally was scheduled to dedicate Peru’s third temple, but the honor fell to apostle Ulisses Soares on Sunday.

“Today is a glorious day for all Arequipa and for this beautiful country,” Soares said. “At this special moment, we must raise our thoughts to our Heavenly Father and his son, Jesus Christ, who is the true cornerstone of this work and of our lives.”

Peru, with more than 605,000 Latter-day Saints, already has temples in Lima and Trujillo with a fourth, the Lima Peru Los Olivos Temple, under construction.

Quote of the week

“I do not believe that ‘trust us, we’re in authority’ is an adequate substitute for actual [church] financial disclosures. When missionaries ask us to pray for a testimony of the Book of Mormon, at least we have the published Book of Mormon to read. I wish the same was true of our financial statements.”

Carolyn Homer, By Common Consent blog post

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.