BYU, Religious Freedom (or its Lack), and Beards

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Photo by Adam Jones.

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the New York Times’s article on BYU and beards at least dozens of times in your Facebook feed.

Clearly, BYU’s anti-beard rule is stupid. It just is. That said, stupid isn’t necessarily an affirmative reason to do away with it: plenty of institutions have plenty of stupid rules, and, on the list of stupid rules in the world, the beard prohibition isn’t terribly high.[fn1] For the most part, it’s stupid, but not malicious.

Unfortunately, I learned from the Times article, there’s one situation where it is malicious, hypocritical, immoral, and damaging. BYU no longer offers a religious exemption from its no-beard policy. And that needs to change.[fn2] [Read more…]

Pastors’ Housing, Take 2

ParsonageHarpersLast week, almost a year after a district court in Wisconsin declared the parsonage exemption unconstitutional, the Seventh Circuit has reversed her decision. And thus ends a (brief) chapter in the religious culture wars.

Or not . . . [Read more…]

Visualizing Conference, October 2014

Full GC

What stood out for you at the most recent General Conference? [Read more…]

From the Mailbag: Mission Presidents and Taxes

Okay, not actually a mailbag. But a couple months ago, somebody asked a question on my tax blog:

LDS mission presidents’ compensation/tax advice? Sam, are you aware of the tax advice in the mission presidents handbook – that living expenses for self & family (housing, food, transport, medical, etc.) are paid by the Church, but are not to be reported as income?

Honestly, I wasn’t aware of it but some quick Googling indicates that, yes, the church disclaims any employer-employee relationship with mission presidents and advises them that they’re not taxable on reimbursements from the church.

Could that possibly be right?  [Read more…]

Attacking the Family

Church leaders remind us, on a not-infrequent basis, that the family is under attack, and that we, as members, have a duty to defend marriage and family.[fn1]

As faithful members, I believe that we have an obligation to take these warnings seriously and, more particularly, to actively strengthen the legal and cultural underpinnings of marriage and family in our respective societies.

But defending the family against attack requires us to first understand what is getting in the way of familial formation.  [Read more…]

Days of Conference Past: Homeowners’ Edition

In every April General Conference, we hear the Statistical Report for the prior year. Roughly speaking, the Statistical Report tells us the number of church units, the number of members and baptisms, the number of missionaries, and the number of temples.

And reading a Statistical Report in conference has at least a century of precedent. I’ve been skimming through a number of early-20th-century April Conference Reports, and in April 1915, Pres. Joseph F. Smith read a statistical report in his opening remarks. [fn1] [Read more…]

An Economic Explanation for BYU-I’s Dress Standards(?)

Ashton Kutcher couldn't walk around BYU-I like that.

Ashton Kutcher couldn’t walk around BYU-I like that.

As Steve highlighted earlier today,[fn1] the BYU-Idaho dress and grooming standards are arbitrary and relatively absurd. I mean, seriously, as a born-and-raised Californian, I can’t comprehend a dress code that bans flip-flops.[fn2] The dress and grooming standards can’t be all about modesty, because ankles and toes and beards, oh my! And if all they’re about is obedience, well, that’s stupid. There’s no spiritual value to obeying arbitrary rules.[fn3]

But maybe their actual function isn’t modesty. Or obedience. May it’s economics.  [Read more…]

Germany’s Church Tax

A couple days ago, the Wall Street Journal highlighted (subscription required[fn1]) the accelerating loss of members certain churches in Germany are facing. The popular press is placing the blame at least partly on the new administration of Germany’s Church Tax.

What? you ask. A church tax? What’s that?

So glad you asked. [Read more…]

Fornication Pantaloons (updated)

Tellason_jeans,_button_fly

Can we all agree that this is an abominable Gentile fashion? Because Brigham Young certainly can.

For the last year or so, the last page of The Atlantic  has been a column called “The Big Question,” where various notable people answer a question posed by the magazine. In September, it asked: “What is the most significant fashion innovation in history?” In Jennifer Barnett’s mind, the runner-up was buttons down the front of men’s pants in the 1830s. Which is how this question ties into Mormonism: Barnett says that this innovation “prompted Brigham Young to denounce them as ‘fornication pantaloons.'”

I had two reactions when I read this. The first was that those two words, put together, may be the greatest phrase in the history of clothing. The second, though, was skepticism. That sounds like too good a story to actually verify.  [Read more…]

Church Finances, 1947-Style

In April 1959, the Church published its last financial report. The last here is important, though, because, for almost half a century leading up to that report, the Church presented a relatively detailed financial report in each April General Conference.

Until a couple months ago, though, I’d never seen the financial reports that the Church issued. In the course of his reading and research, J. Stapley came across the Church’s 1947 financial report, and offered to let me blog it. I jumped at the chance, and the disclosure turns out, in many ways, to be as fascinating as I’d hoped.  [Read more…]

In Which I Unpack a Finance-Based Atonement Parable (or Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Work on Wall Street)

Understanding the Atonement is tough.[fn1] To try to understand it, theologians have come up with theories to describe the whys and hows of the Atonement, and stories to illustrate how the Atonement works.

We’ve got a handful of favorite illustrative stories in Mormonism, including bicycles and lickings. I was recently reading chapter 12 of the Gospel Principles manual, and I came across an Atonement story that I haven’t seen in a while: a parable of a debtor and a creditor. What follows are my thoughts as I reread it:[fn2]  [Read more…]

Work We Must

ChildlabourcoalIn the comments to Russell’s missionary post, there seems to be a strong consensus potential missionaries need to learn to work hard. And I agree; missionary work demands hard work. A corollary, according to many of the comments, is that kids these days do not, in fact, learn to work hard.

That assertion I find a little more problematic. Partly, it’s because I teach Millennials professionally and, in my experience, many of them do, in fact, work hard. And partly it’s because the accusation of laziness is an evergreen one; every generation, it seems, considers the subsequent generation the laziest ever (conveniently, it seems to me, forgetting their own youthful laziness).  [Read more…]

Defining Doctrine

In Church, and in Church-related discussions, I often hear people differentiate Church policies from doctrine. Policies, they say, can (and not infrequently do) change; doctrine, on the other hand, cannot. It has never changed and will never change.

These doctrine-vs.-policy discussions are rarely satisfying, in my experience. We argue over whether we’re talking about doctrine or policy, but rarely make it any further. And in part, I believe, the impediment is that we don’t really have a clear sense of what we’re talking about when we say “doctrine.”  [Read more…]

Some Tax Benefits Are Just for Churches

(I originally wanted to call this “Pastoral Housing, Take 2″[fn1] but, it turns out, pastoral housing is only one small aspect of the case.)

Last week, a federal court in Kentucky issued a decision in a lawsuit that could have far-reaching ramifications for churches.[fn2] In broad strokes, American Atheists, Inc., Atheists of Northern Indiana, Inc., and Atheist Archives of Kentucky, Inc. sued the IRS, arguing that certain tax provisions applicable solely to churches were unconstitutionally discriminatory. [Read more…]

The Book of Mormon: My Testimony

So in Priesthood today, I offhandedly remarked that I believe that Nephi made a mistake in killing Laban. And boy-oh did that ignite some pushback.[fn1] And I realized that I ought to explain how that belief fits in with my testimony of the Book of Mormon.

As a starting point, I believe that the Book of Mormon is true.  [Read more…]

Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, or Why I Might Be Okay With the 3-Hour Block

Last night, my wife and I went to hear the final performance in this season’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Chicago residency. Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel performed all five of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and cello.  [Read more…]

Noah and Alma

Sorry, no, not that Alma; his son.

As Grant Hardy has pointed out, Mormon likes to tell stories that parallel each other. Often, those parallels seem meant to starkly contrast good and evil; the parallels between King Benjamin and King Noah immediately spring to mind. Other times, they seem to illustrate the consequences of different behaviors. Compare, for example, the escape of Limhi’s people from the Lamanites with the escape of Alma Sr.’s people.  [Read more…]

“Celestial Kingdom Jurisdiction” and Tax Protesters

In 1999, Jimmie Duane Ross got $840,000 from his former employer, the result of an arbitration hearing. I don’t know what Ross did with that money; I do know, however, one thing he didn’t do: pay his taxes.[fn1]

Which is wrong, of course, but not by itself newsworthy. Lots of people don’t pay their taxes.[fn2] So why blog this? Two reasons: first, today is April 15th.[fn3] Second, in addition to standard tax protester arguments for why he didn’t need to pay his taxes, Ross made some expressly Mormon arguments.  [Read more…]

Merging Religious and Secular News(papers)

deseret_news_private_collecThe Church News is moving. It has just announced that stories from the Church News will be posted on DeseretNews.com, that LDSChurchNews.com will redirect to the DN site, and that eventually the archives will be moved as well.

Which is fine and good, I suppose. Apparently, the Church News was hosted on a platform that couldn’t be supported or upgraded.[fn1] So the consolidation seems to make sense from a technical point of view.  [Read more…]

Taxing the Temple

10439537According to yesterday’s news, the Church lost an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights and, as a result, will have to pay property taxes on the Preston, England temple.

Of course, the decision raises a number of questions, not the least of which is how a property tax dispute gets to the European Court of Human Rights in the first place. Other fair questions include whether this evinces European prejudice against the Mormon church and what ramifications this decision will have for the Church.  [Read more…]

The Shape of Faith to Come

ornettejazzWhen I was in high school or college, I bought The Shape of Jazz to Come, Ornette Coleman’s seminal 1959 free jazz album. I listened to jazz at the time, especially Miles’s electric stuff, but even more I listened to James Brown and Prince and P-Funk and various alternative rock bands. In fact, I’d probably never heard Ornette Coleman before I bought the album.[fn1] I bought it because I knew it was important, and I wanted to like it. [Read more…]

Polygamous Tax Evasion

In the litany of evils perpetrated by polygamists, one evil stands out above the rest: tax evasion. Feel the chill? Yes, tax evasion.

O RLY? you might ask. [Read more…]

Joseph Smith on Wall Street

josephsmithstatueNo, I don’t mean Joseph Smith’s 1832 visit to Manhattan, though he stayed at 88 Pearl Street, which is mere blocks from Wall Street,[fn1] and he may well have walked on Wall Street.  I also don’t mean the bronze statute of Joseph Smith that stood in the Financial District.

No, I mean the name-checking of Joseph in 2012’s induction ceremony for Kappa Beta Phi, a secret Wall Street fraternity. [Read more…]

Plan of Salvation: Shark Edition

As I was reading chapter 3 the Joseph Fielding Smith manual for tomorrow, I came across the awesomest sentence fragment I have ever read in a Teachings of the Prophet manual. It also happens to be the awesomest example ever used to explain resurrection. As he describes the universality of the resurrection, Pres. Smith writes:

Every fundamental part of every body will be restored to its proper place again in the resurrection, no matter what may become of the body in death. If it be burned by fire, eaten by sharks, no matter what. Every fundamental part of it will be restored to its own proper place. [Emphasis added.] [Read more…]

Transgressors in Eden

This Sunday in Sunday School, we’re going to study the Fall.[fn1] The lesson quotes Elder Oaks distinguishing sin from transgression[Read more…]

Polygamy, Society, and the Mormons

When I returned to my office after winter break, I found two large brown boxes (with “Joe Christensen” written on the sides) waiting for me in the mailroom. I was pretty sure I knew what they held and, sure enough, upon opening them, I saw copies of Taxing Polygamy, my (finally published!) article dealing with the difficulties that a regime of legally-recognized polygamy would present to the U.S. tax system.

And, in celebration of its finally being published, I thought I’d do a little polygamy-blogging, starting with this broad introductory post.  [Read more…]

Twitter at Church

Next week, classes start again. The first day of class, as I provide an overview of the class, I’ll tell my students that, thanks to the magic of the internet, they have easy access to plenty of things that are more interesting and engaging than what I can provide. Seriously, even if I were the most engaging professor in the world—and I’m not bad, frankly—I can’t compete with cat videos, instant messages, and the rest of human knowledge and entertainment available online. Still, I have no interest in banning laptops in my classroom. Instead, I suggest that, entertaining or not, my lecture and other classroom interactions will generally be more valuable than said cat videos.  [Read more…]

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