Big news came for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in recent days when federal regulators slapped the Utah-based faith and its investment arm with a $5 million fine for working to “obscure” the church’s wealth.
Just before that stunning announcement, Sam Brunson, a popular Latter-day blogger and a tax law professor at Loyola University Chicago, discussed the faith’s finances on The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast.
Does this global faith of nearly 17 million members simply have too much money? Could it — and should it — do more for charity? Would further fiscal transparency be a solution?
This much is certain, Brunson said in response to the SEC settlement: that case might be over, but the issue for members isn’t.
Here are excerpts from that podcast:
Do you think many members would stop paying tithing if they knew the church’s full financial portfolio?
Some definitely would, but for the most part, if the information was coming from the church and not whistleblowers and if the church was able to explain what it was doing without responding to public pressure, I honestly don’t think most members would stop paying tithing. I could be wrong about that. But most of the hesitance that I’ve heard from people is the idea that the church not only has a lot of wealth but is hiding the fact of its wealth.
Members say they don’t pay tithing to help the church’s finances; it’s more like a spiritual commitment.
That’s probably right. Most members are paying not because they believe that the church needs money …[but] because of a belief that it’s something that God wants them to sacrifice. But I do think that if they lose trust in the church that asks for that sacrifice, then it may be less appealing, less compelling.
Do you think most members want to know exactly what the church is doing with their money?
I don’t think so. Actually, over-disclosure would be almost as bad as under-disclosure. We don’t need to know every cent that the church pays in its electrical bill on the building that I go to here in Chicago. But probably a general sense [of where the funds are going] — we put this many million dollars toward construction, we put roughly this amount of money into humanitarian aid, stuff like that — wouldn’t be bad. Once upon a time the church did give kind of those broad numbers, how much it sent to wards, how much it used in humanitarian aid, how much it spent on missionaries, even how much it spent on salaries. A more generalized version, not maybe every specific detail, would be great.
The church did report spending nearly $1 billion on charity in 2021. But given the size of the church’s publicly reported reserve funds — in excess of $40 billion — should it be doing more on charity?
Under the legal sense of charity, almost everything the church does to promote religion would be a charitable purpose. But most people aren’t tax attorneys and most people understand language the way that we speak rather than the way that it’s technically been since the 1800s. In terms of aid for the poor, the church absolutely could do more. I don’t honestly know whether it should or not, and part of that is because the church doesn’t explain how it chooses to allocate its money. There may be a good reason that it spent a billion dollars rather than $10 billion, rather than $100,000 or whatever the amount was, but I simply don’t know what that is. …If the church explained its reasoning, that would go a long way toward making at least some people more comfortable.
Do you think the church just has too much money?
Yes. I don’t begrudge big numbers of zeros behind dollar signs. But … I don’t think it needs $40 billion or $100 billion. That money will clearly protect it from a rainy day, but that money will protect it from a whole lot of rainy days. So I personally think that the church should probably spend down more of its money doing … more humanitarian aid and helping the poor, but it could be building more buildings or providing transport for people or building more temples, or getting janitorial services in [church] buildings. There are a lot of different things that it could choose to do with its money.
What do you think most outsiders either get wrong or simply don’t understand about the church’s finances?
A couple of things: One is I don’t think most outsiders or, for that matter, insiders, understand the way that tithing is determined. They don’t understand the flexibility of tithing. We think of it as being an objective 10% amount, rather than an amount based on however we internally define income or increase or whatever language we want to use. And the second is there is some confusion about where the church allocates its money.…Does it come from tithing money? Does it come from the for-profit investments the church has made? And I’ve heard the church say different things about it, but we just don’t know.
What do you think about the church, for instance, putting money toward building a mall in downtown Salt Lake City?
I am an urban snob who would rather see a true downtown-y shopping area, than a mall. But I actually don’t have a problem with it. The church has a vested interest in keeping Salt Lake a nice place to go, a nice place to visit, in providing jobs — and a mall provides jobs for people. It provides a safe place. It provides a reason for people to actually come and spend money in the community and to get introduced to the area. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t work to make Utah a better place. If I were investing in real estate around Temple Square, I would have done it differently, but I can’t say that what they chose to do is wrong or is outside the mission of what they do.
Doesn’t Mormonism consider material goods and wealth, especially a communitarian ethos, as part of its theology, or at least not separate from faith?
That very strongly figures into our history throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century. As we’ve expanded our reach, and our homes and our location, maybe we’ve lost that a little bit. But there is definitely a materiality, which isn’t necessarily the same as materialism, but the physical world is part of our theology and is part of our belief system. There is danger in that, and that danger can fall where we start falling into prosperity gospel ideas, that the material world is a blessing for righteousness rather than is part of our spiritual existence. But I think you’re absolutely right, that materiality, including shopping, including restaurants, including skiing and climbing, is all part of the religious worldview of Mormonism.
What concerns you most about the church’s financial practices?
The lack of transparency. If money, if property, if holdings, if our everyday life is part of our spiritual life, I don’t love the fact that we’re partitioning off that part of the church from the “lesson manual” part of the church. Again, I don’t think that as a member of the church, I have the right to know every little detail about what the church does with its finances. But I would love to be trusted to have some insight into, you know, how the church decides what it wants to do in the material world.
To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a complete transcript and receive other exclusive Tribune religion content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.