I hope that Kevin Barney will forgive me for slicing the lunch meat deli-thin by using his post on tithing practices as a springboard for this related post. In my defense, I’ve been meaning to write something like this for months, but just haven’t gotten around to it until I saw a comment from reader Martin in Kevin’s thread and feared my window was closing quickly.
According to Scott Trotter, a spokesman for the Church, the LDS Church has “a long-standing policy of not profiting from alleged ill-gotten gains.” In general, this means that the Church does not knowingly accept tithing or other donations which come through unclean hands. What exactly “unclean hands” means in this context is a subject we could probably spend days talking about, but there is (likely) at least some level of common agreement about what would constitute ill-gotten gains among Latter-day Saints. For example, I doubt that many would dispute the ill-gotten nature of funds received through a bank robbery or street-mugging, and most of us would certainly be uncomfortable with the idea of building a temple, distributing welfare care, or sending humanitarian aid to disaster areas with funds that were obtained through such channels. However, those examples aren’t particularly useful to the average Mormon in the pews, since most of us are a) not bank robbers/thugs and b) most of us don’t really even know anyone who is. Thus, our chances for glaring judgmentally and wagging our fingers in disapproval at our neighbors are horribly diminished unless we expand our definition of ill-gotten gains.
The task of determining what ill-gotten gains are becomes more difficult when money is paid to the Church on funds which, initially, seem to be paid with clean hands, but are later revealed to be otherwise. For example, in the past couple of years, there has been at least one well-documented case of the Church returning tithing funds. In 2008, approximately $200,000 in tithing paid by Val Southwick was “returned” to the SEC after Southwick was found to have earned his tithed income through a fraudulent investment scheme. Similarly, the Church was recently sued for tithing funds it had been paid by another individual implicated in an alleged securities fraud.
I think it is interesting that the statement from Scott Trotter regarding the Southwick matter indicated that the Church does not profit from alleged ill-gotten gains. By using a more liberal trigger of “alleged” instead of something more stringent like “probable,” there is a much wider swath of donations that could conceivably fall under the umbrella of unclean donations. Without further clarification, this is extremely low burden to meet–almost anyone can “allege” wrongdoing and link it to money. I would assume that there is some level of plausibility the Church considers, but I have no information on what that would be.
Another interesting case to consider is that where the donations are definitionally “ill-gotten,” but that the definition is disputed heatedly along political, cultural, and other socioeconomic lines. Since it’s my favorite thing to talk about in the whole wide world, I want to focus this discussion on a particular example: tithing paid by illegal immigrants.
Suppose that you live in a hypothetical geographic region which has recently initiated legislation designed to identify illegal aliens in your community. Suppose also that you know of numerous families in your ward or stake who happen to be illegal aliens. Suppose also that you are called to be the Bishop of that ward. Finally, suppose that two individuals come to your office, separately, seeking counsel.
Person 1: “Bishop, I know that Family X are in this country and earning a living illegally. Any money we receive as a ward from that family represents profits on ill-gotten gains, and the Church has said that we don’t profit from such.”
Person 2: “Bishop, you know that I am not a legal resident of this geographic region. I am, according to current laws, an illegal worker. I know that the Church does not want to receive unclean funds as tithing and fast offerings. Yet, I desire to pay tithing. What should I do?”
(In other words, the question I’m getting at here is this:
What are the boundaries between legal/moral (working lawfully as a plumber), legal/ill-gotten (I would personally place winnings from gambling in this category), illegal/moral (I would personally put an illegal immigrant working as a plumber here), and illegal/ill-gotten (Ponzi scheme)? )