My Middle Way Mormonism

Over at Wheat & Tares, a number of bloggers have written takes on what they’re calling “Middle Way Mormonism.”[fn1] Although their takes differ marginally from one another, they’re all fairly complementary. And by and large, I think they represent an interesting, and important, take on Mormonism, and one that I want to engage with.

Though they don’t lay out a precise definition of Middle Way Mormonism, the contours seem to be something like this: a Middle Way Mormon is a member who recognizes fallibility and institutional weakness in the church, but stays in the church. And, if that’s roughly what they’re talking about, I’m clearly a Middle Way Mormon. (Also, so are you. And so it your rabid Mormon uncle, with the anti-government takes and the bunker filled with MREs. More on that in a minute.)

The W&T bloggers largely see (in their experience and the experiences of their loved ones) Middle Way Mormonism being triggered by some traumatic episode—a discovery about something in church history or practice, something that brings with it pain and disillusionment. That traumatic episode leads, almost inevitably, to a changed relationship to the church. That changed relationship may result in an temporary or permanent equilibrium, but that equilibrium risks being difficult and uncomfortable to maintain. (FWIW, these are all my words and takes on their excellent posts, and I hope the W&T bloggers will forgive me if I’ve flattened some of the nuance, or misinterpreted some of the assertions, in their posts.) [Read more…]

Two Quick Things Related to the Freedom From Religion Foundation

A quick announcement, and a quick related link:

I’ve been blogging about the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s suit challenging the parsonage allowance for several years, both here and at Surly Subgroup (and, at least once, at Times and Seasons). And, a week from Wednesday, the Seventh Circuit is going to hear oral arguments in the case. Right here in Chicago! Which means you know where I’ll be Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 9:30 am.

And, in anticipation of the case, Professor Anthony Kreis and I are going to do a preview of the case. This Wednesday at noon, here at the Loyola University Chicago law school. If you’re in the Chicagoland area, please feel free to come. The discussion will be great, and there’ll be pizza! (If you’re interested in coming, I’m attaching the official announcement at the bottom of this post; please RSVP here so we have a rough count of how much pizza to order.) [Read more…]

Mormon Obedience: On Disregarding the Prophet’s Preferences

On Sunday morning, President Nelson dedicated his full full talk to shutting down the use of Mormon and other nicknames for the church. This seems to be something he feels passionate about, and something that has been weighing on his mind for a long time. He went so far as to assert that Jesus is offended if we use, or allow others to use, nicknames for the church, and at least intimates that the use of nicknames represents both a victory for Satan and disregard for the Atonement.

So what are we, as faithful members of the church, to do with this? We absolutely have to take it seriously.

But that raises the question of what taking it seriously means. And I believe that this is a tougher question that it appears at first blush. Because taking it seriously isn’t (necessarily) the same as obeying. To take it seriously requires that we engaged, spiritually and intellectually, with what Pres. Nelson has said. [Read more…]

When Religious Tax Accommodations Are Inconsistent

On Wednesday, October 24, the Seventh Circuit is going to hear arguments in the appeal of Gaylor v. Mnuchin. I’ve written about this parsonage allowance case a number of times in the past (see here and here for examples), but as a quick summary: section 107(2) of the Code says that “ministers of the gospel” don’t have to include rental allowances in gross income. Several years ago, the Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged this parsonage allowance on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. They won in the district court, but the Seventh Circuit found that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to challenge the provision.

The Seventh Circuit also suggested, in a footnote, that if they claimed a parsonage allowance and the IRS rejected their claim, they might have standing. So they did, the IRS did, and the district court again found the provision unconstitutional. And now the Seventh Circuit will weigh in (again).

As a side note, this provision (as well as a bunch of others) made their way into God and the IRS, the book I wrote that was recently published about tax accommodations of religious individuals. The fundamental purpose of the book was to illustrate the ad hoc nature of religious accommodations in the tax law, and develop a framework that could provide some consistency as Congress and the IRS consider providing these accommodations. [Read more…]

Required Training

On Monday, I got an email from HR reminding me that, as part of the school’s Harassment Prevention & Business Skills initiative, I needed to complete an online Sexual Harassment for Employees course.

I did it that same day, largely because if I don’t get to a work email almost immediately, it can slip out of my mind. And I prefer not to forget to do things that are required for my employment.

The training was basically a series of videos essentially aimed at letting us know what constitutes sexual harassment, with the dual purpose of ensuring that (1) if we’re harassed, we understand our rights and what we can and should do about it, and (2) we don’t do things that constitute sexual harassment. After watching the videos, I had to take a short multiple choice quiz to pass the course. All in all, it took something less than half an hour to complete. [Read more…]

Socialism and Satan’s Plan

Via GIPHY

It happened. Again. On Mormon Twitter, someone mentioned socialism, to which somebody responded that socialism was Satan’s plan. (There were a couple other responses I saw that hinted at the same thing, but didn’t explicitly say it. And maybe there were others who said something similar. It’s not like I looked for every response to the tweet.)

To which I reply: that’s not the stupidest assertion based on Mormon theology ever. But it may well be in the top ten. [Read more…]

Marijuana, Mormon Lobbying, and Tax Exemption

Scrolling through Twitter this morning, this tweet caught my eye:

Curious, I looked at the replies and, sure enough, the first three I read had some variation of, “Well, the Mormon church has to lose its tax exemption now, right?”[fn1] After replying to them, I decided that it would probably be easier to write an explainer than to reply to each one individually.

So: has the church risked its exemption by lobbying against the legalization of medical marijuana in Utah? Short answer: no. [Read more…]

Money and the Kingdom of God

Last week, I was involved in a Twitter discussion that at least implicated questions of economics, government spending, and private spending. A couple of the interlocutors seemed to be arguing under two assumptions: (1) there are only two economic systems, capitalism and socialism, and (2) there’s something quasi-divine about capitalism, and unrestrained capitalism is the only moral or effective economic system.

Now, this post’s purpose isn’t to argue the first of those two points.[fn1] I do, however, want to suggest that we, as Mormons, need to think much more carefully about money than we usually do.

If my experience at church is at all representative, when we talk about money at church, we talk about two things. The first is paying tithing and offerings, and the second is avoiding debt. Online, the discussion usually devolves into the benefits or the evils of capitalism. [Read more…]

Can the Ecclesiastical Endorsement Process Be Fixed?

Over the weekend, a Salt Lake Tribune article highlighted an enormous problem at the BYUs: the annual ecclesiastical endorsement process means that bishops can circumvent the amnesty clause that BYU added to its sexual misconduct policy.[fn1]

And why is that bad? Richelle Wilson gave us an excellent explanation of the problems with weaponizing the ecclesiastical endorsement process, and Angela C. explained clearly some of the dangers of a view of sin that leads to disregarding others’ welfare. So is it bad that a bishop can get a student expelled for something the Honor Code Office explicitly wouldn’t? Absolutely; Richelle and Angela have made an airtight moral and ethical case for it. And I would add, as a policy matter, that it is bad, too. BYU has made the explicit decision that encouraging students to report sexual assault is more important than disciplining them for breaking the Honor Code. This “loophole” will chill the reporting that BYU wants (rightly) to encourage.

So what can BYU do about it? The short answer is, I have no idea. But the longer answer is, I have several ideas. [Read more…]

The Loveloud Foundation

According to my Facebook feed, Saturday was the Loveloud Festival in Salt Lake. Now in its second year, Loveloud is meant to provide love and acceptance for LGBTQ+ kids. If you’ve followed my #MutualNight posts, you can probably guess that, even if I lived in Utah, I wouldn’t have gone. I’m 100% behind the festival’s message and its goals, but I’m not a big fan of its music.

I am, however, a big fan of charitable organizations. And guess what? The sponsoring organization of the festival is the Loveloud Foundation, a tax-exempt public charity.[fn1]

Now I don’t know a lot of details about the Loveloud Foundation; it received its tax exemption last year, and hasn’t filed a Form 990 yet. (Next year it will file the form, which is a public document.) But there are a couple broad things that we know about it just by virtue of its being tax-exempt. So let’s have a Q&A explainer! [Read more…]

Study Bible Bleg

I’m going to be quick here: after years with an iPhone, I’ve switched to an Android phone. That switch came with one unexpected loss: the Lumina app.

The Lumina app is great. Not only does it have the text of the NET Bible, but it has the notes from the study Bible. And it is free.  [Read more…]

Tithing and Coercion

A number of comments on my post yesterday talked about the coercive nature of tithing. I thought I’d follow up on that idea in a new post, with two principal thoughts.

A History of Tithing and Coercion

The idea that tithing is coercive has a long and storied history. It may well predate 1870, but I know it goes back at least that far. I give more details about it on p. 139 of this paper, but the short of it is, the Bureau of Internal Revenue was trying to tax the church on its 1868 tithing revenue. One of the church’s assertions for why tithing was not taxable was that tithing represented a voluntary contribution by members. [Read more…]

$32 Billion?!?

On Wednesday, MormonLeaks announced that they had connected the church to $32 billion in U.S. stock market investments. [KUTV story.] And how did it figure this out? Ingeniously, actually: it looked at the Form 13Fs for thirteen LLCs to see their stock holdings, and it discovered that domain names matching the LLCs’ names were registered to Intellectual Reserve, Inc., which holds the church’s intellectual property.

So, should you be outraged that the church has at least $32 billion in the stock market? I mean, sure, if you’re a fan of being outraged by stories of religions having money (though frankly, if that’s what you’re in the mood for, maybe this is a better source of outrage). But it’s probably worth taking a minute to figure out what we do and don’t know before going full-throated outraged. [Read more…]

Immigration and the Twelfth Article of Faith

In the last couple days, an apparently Mormon Twitter user claimed to have reported someone in his ward to ICE, which started deportation proceedings against the family. I’m dubious of the claim, frankly: this person has a history of acting as trollishly as possible to get reactions. (And, for that reason, I’m not going to name him or link to his tweets—if you really want to see it, it’s not hard to find.)

However, in the last couple of days, we at BCC have verified instances where Mormons have called ICE on their ward members. I assume they claim they’re doing it because of the Twelfth Article of Faith, and especially that part that says that we believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

Upfront: those people are lying. They’re calling ICE because they’re racists, xenophobes, or otherwise un-Christian-like.[fn1] [Read more…]

The Church Is Dropping Boy Scouts and Personal Progress. Now What?

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you’ve heard that yesterday the church announced that it’s cutting ties with Boy Scouts, effective December 31, 2019. It’s also going to drop Personal Progress for girls, effective the same time (as far as I can tell). Most of the commentary I’ve seen is cheering this decision as a great move.

And I think I agree, though perhaps not for the same reasons many are cheering. [Read more…]

What’s the Buzz? #LyricJCS

Full disclosure: my history with Jesus Christ Superstar is pretty thin. The first time I remember experiencing it was after my wife and I got married, and she got a DVD of the 1973 film version.[fn1]

The second time was this last Easter on NBC.

The third time was Saturday at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. (Spoiler alert: if you’re in or near Chicago, or will be on or before May 20, get tickets to this show. Right now.) [Read more…]

Book Announcement: God and the IRS

I’m thrilled to announce that my book God and the IRS: Accommodating Religious Practice in United States Tax Law (New York: Cambridge UP, 2018) has just been published and is available for your reading pleasure.

As background to the book, the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment (as well as the jurisprudence courts have used to interpret and apply the Religion Clauses) have a sometimes-complicated interplay. Because the law sometimes imposes on individuals’ ability to practice their religion, the government can sometimes accommodate their religious practice, exempting religious individuals from generally-applicable laws. At the same time, though, in general, the law can’t favor religion over non-religion; as a result, sometimes religious people can’t get an exemption from the generally-applicable law. A lot of religious litigation turns on where, in a given situation, the line between permissible and impermissible accommodation falls. [Read more…]

#TaxDay 2018: For Ye Were Strangers

The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.   —Leviticus 19:34

My liturgical calendar tells me today is Tax Day,[fn1] and so it’s time for another installment of my annual Mormons and Taxes post.

This year’s has nothing to do with the income tax, and, in fact, very little to do with the United States. Instead, we’re going to look south of the border to the Mormon colonies in Mexico. [Read more…]

Taxsplainer: How the Utah Legislature Is Raising Taxes By Doing Nothing

The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that the Utah legislature has just enacted a large tax increase on many Utah families, in spite of its putative 0.05 percentage-point tax cut. How can that be? [Read more…]

On Kirton McConkie’s (Lack of) Women Shareholders

The other night, I was listening to the most recent Slate Money podcast. In its second segment, the hosts talked about the recent gender pay report in the United Kingdom. They specifically mentioned about Goldman Sachs and Condé Nast, both of which, it turns out, have a pretty sizeable gender pay difference.[fn1]

There are undoubtedly many reasons why men’s income was significantly higher than women’s, but the podcast highlighted one in particular: high earners. At Goldman, women make up only 17% of the top quartile by income. At Condé Nast, there are more women at every income quartile, but it appears that incomes are skewed by the top 5%; in fact, the five-person executive committee is entirely men. [Read more…]

Why Mormons Should Root For the Ramblers in the NCAA Tournament

So there are four teams left: Kansas, Villanova, Michigan, and Loyola University Chicago. And as Mormons, you should probably be cheering for Loyola this weekend. Why? Let me count the reasons:

Your team’s out anyway

I mean, unless you’re a fan of Kansas, Villanova, or Michigan, in which case I assume you’ll be rooting against Loyola (though you can still cheer for the Ramblers!). But there are no Mormon-adjacent schools left. BYU? Never been to the Final Four. (In fact, it holds the kind of depressing record for most trips to the tournament without making the Final Four.) [Read more…]

Women in Jazz #MutualNight

(Quick reminder: if you’re curious why I’m writing about music on a Mormon blog, this post will summarize what #MutualNight posts are.)

We’re nearing the end of Women’s History Month; in light of both the month and the current environment of #MeToo, I thought it might be worth looking at women in jazz.

Because honestly, women have historically been excluded from jazz. Sure, you can point me to Billie and Ella and Nancy Wilson and maybe even Carmen McRae. And you know what? They’re all singers. They’re amazing singers, but, while “[w]omen singers were tolerated and even spotlighted, especially with the advent of the big band era, … [women] instrumentalists had a much tougher time of it.“[fn1] [Read more…]

Lesson 11: Because the Lord Was With Him #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings

Genesis 34, 37-39[fn1]

Learning Outcomes

By the end of class, students will be able to:

  1. Discuss how and why the scriptures subvert our expectations as readers.
  2. Identify different models of divine aid illustrated in the scriptures.

Introduction

In many ways, the story of Joseph in Egypt is the superhero origin story of the Israelite people. I mean, yeah, we’ve had some feints at origin already, everything from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham. And Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all received a covenant wherein God promised them land, descendants, and blessings.

But it’s Moses and the exodus from Egypt that really kicks things off. And without Joseph? The Israelites wouldn’t have been in Egypt to miraculously escape, and Moses wouldn’t have led them in the desert for forty years (and created the typology embraced by everybody from Jesus to the Nephites to African-Americans to Mormon pioneers). [Read more…]

Protests, Parkland, and BYU

In the nearly-immediate wake of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the superintendent of a Texas school district announced that students who participated in protests (or “awarenesses,” whatever those are) would face a three-day suspension.[fn1]

There was immediate blowback; the Parkland shooting have led to a remarkable level of engagement among high school students on issues of gun violence and regulation. But the threat of suspension could have a significant chilling effect on student activism: colleges can revoke acceptances for, among other things, disciplinary actions. So in theory, a student in the Needville Independent School District, who has already been accepted to college, could have her acceptance revoked if she participated in a protest (or awareness!) and was suspended. [Read more…]

Reminder: Church History Symposium tomorrow and Friday

Just a quick reminder: the 2018 LDS Church History Symposium is happening tomorrow at BYU and Friday at the Conference Center in Salt Lake. The topic—“Financing Faith: The Intersection of Business and Religion”—looks fascinating, and there are a host of great people presenting.

Also, I’m presenting Thursday at 1:00 in room 2265 of the BYU Conference Center (“Brigham Young vs. the Bureau of Internal Revenue“). I’ve got some pretty cool slides to accompany the presentation. If you’re in town and available, I’d love to see you then!

Announcement: Church History Symposium 2018

This semester, I’m teaching a course on not-for-profit corporations. Today’s class deals with the duties of charitable trustees and board members to invest the organization’s money responsibly.

The class is at least tangentially related to this year’s Church History Symposium, to be held on March 1 at the Conference Center at BYU and March 2 at the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake. This year’s symposium is entitled “Business, Wealth, Enterprise, and Debt: The Economic Side of Mormon History, 1830–1930.” [Read more…]

Lesson 2: God Knew Abraham #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings

Abraham 3, Moses 4:1-4

Learning Outcomes

By the end of class, class members will be able to

  1. Describe strategies for profitably reading Abraham.
  2. Evaluate what it means that God knew us before we were born.

Introduction

Eight years ago, I was sitting in a Sunday School class in Chicago with my daughter in my lap. I was probably half paying attention to the lesson, when suddenly the discussion started getting heated. People were arguing that we definitely, most certainly don’t believe in predestination. We’re foreordination people! Then others would pipe in that they didn’t see any substantive difference between predestination and foreordination. [Read more…]

Christmas in Three (Musical) Acts #MutualNight #ChristmasEve

Chicago Decembers are a great preparation for Christmas. Between the Holiday Train, the lights on Michigan Avenue (and everywhere else), the Christkindlmarket, the Neapolitan Crèche at the Art Institute (and, in fact, the crèche exhibit at my employer),[fn1] in Chicago, the War on Christmas has been going Christmas’s way since long before our president declared victory.

For me, while all of these things are great, music is a central part of the mood and message of Christmas. And after Karen’s incredible deep dive into Mormon Christmas music, I thought I’d share how 2017 live Christmas music shaped up for me. [Read more…]

The Median Mormon Family and the Tax Plan

Plenty of people are wondering how the GOP tax bill will affect them personally. Although pretty much everybody has been wondering, the Washington Post recently spotlighted a Mormon family with those questions. So I decided to take a look.

A quick disclaimer first: the answer is, it totally depends on your personal situation. And because of that, I’ve decided to construct an average (or sometimes median) Mormon family. I’ve constructed them with their Mormonism in mind where I could find specific Mormon stuff; where I couldn’t, I used Utah data. And I totally get that that’s not 100% accurate. Most Mormons aren’t in Utah, and a significant percentage of Utahns aren’t Mormon.

Still, it’s good enough to give a rough, blog-worthy estimate. So, without further ado, meet the Nephi family!  [Read more…]

Mormons and the Tax Bill

Five and a half weeks ago, I posted about a couple ways that the House tax bill would impact Mormons and the Mormon church. Since that time, the House passed its tax bill and the Senate passed its bill. The bills differed, so they went to a conference committee, where (GOP) Senators and Representatives tried to come up with a compromise that both houses of Congress could agree on.

And this afternoon, they released their bill; the GOP wants to pass it before Christmas.

Now, I haven’t had time to go through all 503 pages[fn1] of the bill; still, given that I did a preview of changes that would affect the church and Mormons, I thought I’d revisit them in light of the new tax bill.  [Read more…]