“Mormon” is deeply Christian

Photo by v2osk on Unsplash. Chosen to serve as a fanciful depiction of the Waters of Mormon.

Spencer Greenhalgh is a nerd, Francophile, and big fan of the Book of Mormon. Professionally, he is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s School of Information Science, where he teaches information communication technology and researches social media in meaningful contexts such as education and religion.

The name “Mormon” is obviously connected to The Book of Mormon, but this name carries different meanings within and outside the text. The external, often derogatory, meaning is enough that the three largest denominations accepting the Book of Mormon as scripture now reject the derived adjective “Mormon,” often preferring to redirect attention to their Christian credentials. This is understandable—and even laudable—but the meaning and history of this name within The Book of Mormon suggests that “Mormon” is, in fact, a deeply Christian word.

“Mormon” also seems to begin as a derogatory term in The Book of Mormon. In Mosiah 18:4 (9:32 CofC), we read of a “place which was called Mormon, having received its name from the king, being in the borders of the land having been infested, by times or at seasons, by wild beasts.” There’s no straightforward explanation here of what “Mormon” means—our identically named narrator might be too embarrassed to do so. Nonetheless, the implication is that “Mormon” is a name kings give to infested places, places no one would go unless they were desperate, places so undesirable that the king’s servants might not look for you there.

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Loving the Darkness: A Halloween Sermon

When, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless, I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. The witches have not turned me into a bat. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.
                        —Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 5

I am an inveterate and unrepentant lover of Halloween. Every October, both my house and my mind play host to the darkest things I can imagine: ghosts and witches, monsters and demons, and evil things that I would be ashamed to even imagine until very late in September. I have a wide selection of Halloween ties to wear to work, virtual costumes for all of my social media sites, and two Spotify playlists of dark Halloween music—one classical and one contemporary—that I listen to all day, every day of the month. (Please feel free to steal them).   

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Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man: D&C 121 and 132

Laura Brignone (PhD, MSW) is a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence. This is Part 2 in a six-part series on the domestic violence implications of D&C 121 and 132. Part 1 can be found here

Welcome back! Last week we focused on spelling out the problem of abuse described in D&C 121:1-6 and experienced in modern LDS congregations. This week we skip ahead to D&C 121:36-39. These verses describe a slippery slope into using the priesthood as a tool of power and control to commit abuse, along with consequences for priesthood holders who do so. This is one of the clearest, most poignant, and most powerful condemnations of abuse in all of scripture.

It’s also not straightforward to put into practice. 

Let’s dive in.

D&C 121:36-39

[T]he rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and […] the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man…. 

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

There we have it. Anyone who self-aggrandizes or abuses another person automatically loses the Spirit as well as their priesthood power and authority. This bright line protects both the integrity of the priesthood and the safety of non-priesthood-holders. 

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For We Shall See Him as He Is

This is a picture of me with my firstborn son. It was on the desk of a woman who loved us, who died this week. She was not a relative, or a confidante. We did not speak the same language–her English was better than my (non-existent) Spanish, but I doubt either of us ever understood much more than a paragraph or two that the other spoke. I know nothing of her inner life, or even of most of the external circumstances of her life, either before or after the years that we saw each other weekly. She didn’t know my politics or my favorite color, and all I knew about her at first was that she was a kindly lady in Relief Society and wanted to earn some money cleaning houses.

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Science, Preaching, Religion, Freedom, etc.

For the past decade or so, I’ve been slowly working through a book on Joseph Smith’s “King Follett Sermon [Discourse].” The book, among other things, tracks the influence of the sermon’s ideas within church culture over time (and the reverse). While working on this project, one of the things that became important to the discussion was the interface between science and the church. That is a very long story that I couldn’t hope to dent much in the book itself but it brought a lot of questions to my mind, especially about modernism and church teachings (I will avoid the loaded term “doctrine” here). These are just some side thoughts I’ve had about the fringes of the book as it has more or less closed out its writing.

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Do Church Members Have a Scriptural Obligation to Revere Christopher Columbus?

That’s quite the lengthy post title, right? Fortunately, the answer is far more succinct:

No.

Of course, I can elaborate too. I base that no on two considerations. First, there’s no textual reason to believe that Nephi sees Columbus in the vision he recounts in 1 Ne. 13. Second, whether it refers to Columbus or not (and see point 1), it doesn’t say anything about the person being an exemplar or in any way worth of our respect, emulation, or celebration.

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“Faith Alone” in Romans 3:28 JST

For about a year when I was an undergrad at BYU in the early 80s my plan was to go on for a PhD and become an academic. My dad was a professor so it sort of seemed like the family business to me. Two circumstances changed my mind and like so many others sent me off to law school: first, we got pregnant, and second, it was a horrible recession, so I had to get a little more practical about that decision. I have no regrets, it was the right call.

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O God, where art thou?: D&C 121 and 132

Laura Brignone (PhD, MSW) is a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence.  Her recent research examines an emergency room intervention meant to prevent intimate partner homicide.

We’re fast approaching D&C 121 and D&C 132 in the Come Follow Me manual. In honor of domestic violence awareness month in October, let’s spend a few weeks exploring the story these two sections tell about domestic violence and abuse in the church, both then and now. [1] 

Note: this first post describes abuse and may be triggering for those who have experienced it. Future posts in this series will primarily focus on church policy and may be less triggering. 

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Mitt Romney, the Expanded EITC and Marriage Penalties

On Thursday, Utah Senator Mitt Romney sent a letter, signed by him and 34 of his Republican colleagues, to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden. In the letter, he objects to marriage penalties built into the House’s reconciliation bill, marriage penalties, he claims, that are exacerbated by the changes made to the earned income tax credit (the “EITC”). He concludes his letter saying, “We believe that marriage is a vital social good. It is misguided and unfair for the government to build bigger barriers for couples to marry.”So is Sen. Romney right? Does the reconciliation bill (available here) increase marriage penalties and disincentivize marriage?

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Revise and resubmit

I’ve been thinking about the way that many religious words accumulate baggage. Over time they automatically evoke certain moods. They become weighed down by definitions and experiences and feelings to the point that they basically lose their power.

Take the word “repentance” for example. When you read or hear that word, stop and pay close attention to how your body reacts. What thoughts come to mind? Is it a positive feeling? People who’ve been wounded by religion might feel really tense. Their fight or flight response is triggered. It begins to open drawers full of painful memories. It might smell stuffy and stale. It might even seem merely quaint.

For other people, the word is so familiar that it’s lost its ability to provoke or challenge. It might slip right past the consciousness of religious people who think of themselves as devout, like they already know everything it means. They’ve mastered it. They know how to describe its process using a few simple “r” letter words.

In either case, I think the word “repentance” becomes worse than useless. It evokes pain or contempt on the one hand and self-satisfied hypocrisy on the other. I think it can be helpful to rethink old ideas using new terms.

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Book Review: James Goldberg’s A Book of Lamentations

James Goldberg, A Book of Lamentations (American Fork, UT: Beant Kaur Books, 2020).

Quite a few latter-day saints have drawn parallels between the events of 2020 and The Book of Mormon. James Goldberg, however, does it better than most. In A Book of Lamentations (2020), Goldberg and the other poets he features meditate on the parallels between The Book of Mormon and the divisions of our own time. “When Latter-day Saints say we know The Book of Mormon is true,” he writes, “we are saying something about human nature. We are affirming that we understand a civilization that chooses hatred and division is fully capable of destroying itself.”

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Doctrine and Covenants is the worst

So it’s coming up on Saturday evening and once again I am at a loss as to what to teach my Valiant 10 class in Primary tomorrow. This is my third time teaching Doctrine and Covenants in Primary. It’s my third year teaching from the Come Follow Me curriculum. And I have to tell you that the Doctrine and Covenants Come Follow Me manual is the absolute worst manual I have ever used. And I taught Young Women in the 1990s.

Most of the manuals the church produces are not great, Bob. In fact, when I am not teaching Doctrine and Covenants, I rarely use the manual. I just take whatever scriptures the manual is meant to cover that week and I figure something out. It’s not that difficult when you have decent material. I mean, I only have twenty minutes to kill. The problem with the Doctrine and Covenants is that it’s not decent material. I tried to read the Quran once. There was some stuff about a cow and I didn’t understand it, and I’m afraid I lost interest. The Doctrine and Covenants doesn’t even have cows. It’s just God telling Edward Partridge to go to the Ohio or whatever, over and over again. Everything that is worthwhile in the Doctrine and Covenants is covered more eloquently in other books of scripture. But wait, Rebecca, what about the Word of Wisdom? What about all the stuff about church organization and priesthood keys and the three degrees of glory? I SAID WHAT I SAID. Quick, think of your favorite scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants. Now think of your favorite scripture from literally any other standard work, including the Pearl of Great Price. For that matter, think of your favorite episode of Touched by an Angel. Is there really any comparison? I rest my case.

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Steppin’ Out

I was talking the other day with a couple of friends, exchanging crazy mission stories. A recurring theme is the “comp slipped out at night to go visit his secret local girlfriend”. I’m obsessed with these, primarily from a logistical point of view. HOW?? How is the missionary slipping out in the night, undetected? I want to hear from people who either slipped out at night or got slipped out on. Please explain how this was done. It is like some David Blaine-level escape magic.

When you want your integrity and faith at the same time

Back in 2013 I created the Maxwell Institute Podcast with an eye toward constructive or “positive” apologetics. Instead of listing concerns and then giving responses or rebuttals, the show exhibited characteristics like intellectual charity, curiosity, and a faithful seeking style of confidence as opposed to dogmatic certainty.

The show’s style ran against the grain of much that had come before it at the Maxwell Institute and in church productions more broadly, and against the grain of what some church members and some leaders would be comfortable with, although it always stayed within the bounds of appropriate orthodoxy. It was, at the end of the day, a church production. But I believed it could appeal to a wide variety of church members across the culture war divide of conservative/liberal. I know for certain the audience had some very progressive and some very conservative appreciative listeners.

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Call for Papers: D. Michael Quinn: The Life and Times of a Mormon Historian

Few figures in the development of Mormon studies during the late-twentieth century are more significant than D. Michael Quinn. Educated at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and Yale University, Quinn was among scholars who revisited and revised the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He worked as a researcher under Church Historian Leonard Arrington and produced a series of significant works emblematic of the New Mormon History. At times Quinn’s work sparked backlash, and his identity as queer, Chicano, and independent put him at odds with his surrounding culture. His controversial scholarship and activities led, first, to his forced resignation as a full professor at BYU and then, later, to his excommunication from the church. 

Quinn’s legacy has only grown with time. His many articles and books continue to inform and influence scholarship today. The Mormon studies community mourned when he passed on April 21, 2021, at the age of seventy-seven.

We will hold a one-day conference examining the life and legacy of D. Michael Quinn on March 25, 2022, at the University of Utah. Sessions will explore both his experiences as a historical figure as well as his impact on historiography. 

While most panels will be composed of invited speakers, one session will be reserved for junior scholars as a tribute to Quinn’s dedication to mentoring younger generations. We therefore seek paper proposals from those currently in school or less than three years removed from receiving their degree who are working in fields related to those on which Quinn published. These fields include, but are not limited to, Mormon power structures, gender and sexuality, religion and folk culture, post-manifesto polygamy, dissent, and religion and capitalism. Please submit a 250-word abstract and brief CV to quinnconference@gmail.com by December 1, 2021. Decisions will be made by January 15.

Limited funding will be available to assist with travel costs for those whose papers are accepted but lack institutional support. A final program will be announced in January 2022.

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James Huntsman Lawsuit Dismissed

A quick follow-up to one of my previous posts: a federal judge dismissed James Huntsman’s fraud lawsuit against the church on Friday.

This may not have been an absolutely forgone conclusion, but it comes pretty close to one. Remember, Huntsman was suing to get his tithing money back from the church. That’s a tough ask in the first place because, other than conditional gifts, US law treats charitable donations as belonging to the recipient. Just because you later regret having made the donation doesn’t mean you can rescind it.

So Huntsman alleged that the church had fraudulently induced him to pay tithing. He relied, he said, on several statements from the church that it did not using tithing money to build City Creek when, in fact, it did use tithing money to build City Creek.

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Book Review: Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars

Beyond the Mapped Stars (Knopf, 2021)

I was startled to realize recently that I had never read a mainstream novel by and about an LDS woman, despite holding a PhD in English. Although many contemporary LDS writers have achieved national recognition in science fiction and young adult literature, it remains rare for a national press to publish a book by an LDS author in which their religion features prominently–a fact that many have attributed to the lack of national interest in Mormonism, the suspicion with which members often receive unofficial books that deal with the Church, and the lack of robust institutional structures for supporting LDS literature. Those that are published (many of which are excellent) often derive their marketability by playing into sensationalized tropes about Mormonism held by outsiders, particularly those that depict LDS women as in need of rescue from their culture. Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars (Knopf, 2021) is a significant achievement, because Eves has written a young adult historical novel published by a national press that both satisfies the hunger of LDS young women to recognize themselves in literature while focusing on themes and events that have universal appeal.

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On “Hot Drinks”

I suspect that we’ll never find a definitive explanation of how the proscribed “hot drinks” in D&C 89 came to be interpreted by the church as referring purely and solely to tea and coffee. Today, of course, that is the church’s official interpretation of what “hot drinks” means, but early in the history of the D&C that wasn’t entirely obvious.

In fact, in January 1838—almost five years after Joseph’s receipt of the revelation—prominent members of the church on the high council disagreed about whether the Word of Wisdom’s invocation of “hot drinks” referred to tea and coffee. During a high council meeting, W.W. Phelps said he had not broken the Word of Wisdom. Oliver Cowdery, by contrast, said he had drunk tea three times a day during the winter as a result of his poor health. David and John Whitmer piped in that they didn’t drink tea or coffee, but also that they didn’t consider either to be hot drinks as referred to in Joseph’s revelation.

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The Texas Abortion Ban and the Death of Constitutional Rights

Got your attention? Great!

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the Supreme Court didn’t stop a Texas law that bans abortions performed by Texas physicians after six weeks from going into effect.

The Texas law is clearly unconstitutional. Whether or not you think the right to abortion should be a constitutional right, there is no question under Supreme Court jurisprudence that it is. And the Supreme Court has never allowed a six-week abortion ban to go into effect before, even temporarily.

So what’s different about this Texas ban? Enforcement. Usually statutes that prohibit abortion are enforced by the state government. That means that procedurally, pre-enforcement challenges are straightforward: you sue the government, which would enforce the law, and your case works its way through the court system. If the courts think you have a reasonable chance of winning, they can issue an injunction, preventing the law from going into effect until there has been a full hearing.

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How can we measure our lives?: The crisis edition*

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com


As I received with hard-won indifference a job rejection this week, I contemplated how the do-it-all feminism of the nineties on which I had been raised had rested on two assumptions: (1) that there were plentiful sufficiently-paying and meaningful jobs; and (2) the existence of cheap childcare. The latter, I now understand with a clarity that eluded me in my twenties, was synonymous with the maintenance of a set of class, racial and gender hierarchies in which less-educated and often Black women provided care to professional, often white families. 


At middle age, I am now old enough to have had both of these assumptions thoroughly dispelled. There are some people whose interests and training have been lucky enough to correspond with market demands and structural expectations, but I trained first to be an academic and then (primarily because of the failing academic job market) to be a lawyer. I have stayed home for the last few years due to a combination of desire, complications with remote working and never finding the right job in the same city as my spouse. I cannot presently work firm hours with two children and a limited support network. Although outsiders often suggest that I find a public sector position or hang up my own shingle, I know that such jobs are extremely difficult to get (I’ve been rejected from every one to which I’ve applied) and that starting a business is no easy lift (and one for which I have no passion). Although I wouldn’t consider the dismantling of my career(s) a privilege, I enjoy being with my children far more than I expected. I know that if I went back that I would give up some things I value.

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3 quotes I like better than the musket stuff

When I worked at BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute I was aware of Elder Maxwell’s musket analogy that Elder Holland recently borrowed. The Institute had been tasked with fortifying the faith of Latter-day Saints, which includes apologetics, or defending the faith, so we spent a lot of time thinking about it. I helped cultivate a style of apologetics that exhibited charity, curiosity, flexibility, and strength.

Not everyone was satisfied. Elder Maxwell was often cited as calling for more aggression with his metaphors about muskets and slam dunks. But in all my time at the Institute those analogies didn’t resonate with me. I was more drawn to this counsel from then-Elder Henry B. Eyring, who called the one of the Institute’s predecessors (FARMS) to a undertake a ceasefire back in 1994:

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Words and Consequences

We owe Robinson Crusoe to the 18th-century public’s inability to understand satire.

True story. Daniel Defoe did not set out to become a writer. He wanted to be a wealthy merchant, and he had all kinds of idea about how to do so. But he was also a dissenting Protestant at a time when conformity to the Church of England was compulsory under the law. In 1702, Defoe wrote an anonymous pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in which he repeated most of the Anglican arguments for coerced conformity and then took them one step further to argue that those who would not conform should be killed.

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I Want It Back

There are two recent lawsuits filed against the LDS church that are worth taking a look at. Both lawsuits demand that the church return donations to the donor (or the donor’s heirs).

And both face a major impediment: as a general rule, if you make a charitable donation, you can’t get that donation back. And that’s the case even if the you have a falling out with the charitable organization. In fact, that’s the case even if the charitable organization uses your gift in a way that you, personally, find offensive. (In that case, you can certainly stop making charitable donations in the future, of course. But you don’t get your prior donations back.)

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. And the plaintiffs in the two cases try to get around the rule by using two different exceptions.

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On Peace and Getting Along

Divisiveness is in the news again at the BYU, and, it seems, we must all pick a side. On the one side, we have same-sex marriage, commandeered commencement speeches, disobedience, sin, and disunity. On the other side we have institutional dignity, unequivocal love, loyalty, swords beaten into plowshares, and peace. Easy choice, right? Who wouldn’t want peace? That is, after all, what all disciples of Christ should work for.

But we have to be careful when striving for peace. Like most beautiful and powerful words, “peace” can mean several things, not all of them worth striving for. The ancient world gives us two profound metaphors for peace: the desert and the river. Both deserve careful attention.

The concept of desert peace comes to us from the great Roman historian, Tacitus, speaking about Rome and the much-vaunted Pax Romana. Without any context, his famous phrase “Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (They make a desert and call it peace) works like a wrecking ball on the idea that peace is always a good thing. It reminds us that one can get to a permanent absence of war simply by destroying every living thing. Where there is no life, there is no conflict.

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Conspiracy Theory and the Idea of Freedom: The Lessons of Bo Gritz

We live at a time when conspiracy theory is spreading. This is my third post on its particularly Mormon manifestations. See the first here and the second here

In 1985, James “Bo” Gritz received a patriarchal blessing. According to him, a few years later, it promised “the gift of discernment,” and “the ability to explain in words people will understand. You will have multitudes that will follow you. They will have no allegiance to you. They will only have allegiance to what it is you stand for.”

Regardless of how accurately Gritz reported on the blessing, this was certainly how he liked to perceive himself. He possessed special insight as a result of spiritual gifts; he stood for a Cause, not personal aggrandizement; nonetheless, he was part of a movement.

When Gritz received the blessing he was well past forty, but this was because he was a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His conversion was similarly dramatic—the product, in part, of the same impulses that drove his interpretation of his blessing.

Gritz was a career soldier, a Vietnam veteran, and by all accounts a sterling officer, the recipient of multiple honors and praised all the way up the military chain of command. He retired after thirteen years of service at age forty in 1979. He remained restless, though, and drank deep of the anti-government cynicism that pervaded the 1970s: the product of American withdrawal from Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and the growing mobilization of conservative thinktanks, funded by major corporations, that steadily blasted regulation as the death of freedom.

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Elder Holland’s university address reflects a failure of moral judgment that is endemic to the Church

A few months ago, there was a twitter thread about what it means to be an LGBT ally if you are a member of the church. Is it even possible? It gave me pause. I’ve never considered myself much of an ally because, believe it or not, I usually keep my mouth shut and roll my eyes. And it reflects in my friends. I have a few gay friends, but none who are particularly close. I’m sure I have some homophobic tendencies. I am who I am and I’m okay with that. But it made me wonder about why I’m in the church.

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What if I Don’t Recognize Jesus in my Final Interview (or The Tricky Jesus Test)

I heard the story of the Jesus Interview at church again last Sunday. Once again, as I listened to the story* of the people who didn’t recognize Jesus, I imagined myself flubbing up an interview in a similar way. For one thing, I haven’t spent a lot of time visualizing Jesus sitting behind a desk.

I created a 9-question ‘Tricky Jesus Test’ to help me think about the notion of an elusive God, the kind of Jesus that would dismiss me from the room if I didn’t recognize him in time.

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The Parable of the Talents: What If It Really Is About Money?

This is not a post about the recent disclosures regarding the LDS Church’s investment in the City Creek Mall, but it is inspired by some of the discussions I have had about those disclosures. More than anything else, it is about the difference between managing (including investing) money and spending money, which, I think, is at the heart of the disagreement. If the Church has been spending tithing dollars on city malls, that is a big problem. If they have been investing savings — wherever the origin —in a in a city mall, then, it seems to me, that is no different than investing in oil companies, or tech stocks, or bitcoin. The management of resources, I think, follows a different set of moral rules than their expenditure.

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Let’s Talk About Money

I don’t have any idea if $100 billion is a good amount for the church to have in its endowment. Personally, I tend to think, given its revenue and expenditures, that the number is high. At least as long as it continues to bring in a significant amount of tithing annually, it feels to me like it doesn’t need a cushion quite that big.

But the thing is, I don’t know. Church leaders are completely opaque in how they’ve made their investment/spending decisions. And to be honest, I suspect that it has been a decision only in the loosest sense. Inertia is a powerful force and decisions made 20 years ago carry a lot of weight.

But arguably the church should communicate its financial thinking better. And I don’t mean that the church needs to tell members exactly how much it has in assets (though it certainly could). But I believe that if the church viewed members as stakeholders, it could and would communicate its thinking to us. What considerations has it made in deciding whether to spend or invest? How did it decide how much it needed for current expenditures and for future expenditures.

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It’s not about masks, it’s not about vaccines

It’s now been about a week since the First Presidency sent a message to each member’s inbox directly encouraging everyone to get vaccinated against COVID if possible, and to wear masks in any indoor setting where you’re not socially distanced, until the pandemic is over.

Sam’s post today does a great of of explaining why a regulation requiring masks for indoor meetings, religious or not, would not violate anyone’s first amendment rights. But as I read Sam’s post it occurred to me that for many members, the real takeaway from the First Presidency’s instruction last week is not the narrow issue of masks or vaccines at all, or of their the legal issues surrounding governments requiring such precautions. The takeaway is really about epistemology.

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