Quick Update on Politicking at Church

On Monday, I wrote about a couple ways that the House tax bill might impact Mormons. Well, today Kevin Brady, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, introduced an amendment to that bill. One of those ways was by carving out a small exception to the so-called Johnson Amendment for churches.[fn1] There was a lot of discussion swirling around over whether eliminating it only for churches would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Well, apparently Brady didn’t want to take that risk. His amendment expands the exemption to all tax-exempt organizations. [Read more…]

Mormons and H.R. 1

On Thursday, the House released H.R. 1, its fundamental tax reform bill. (It also released an 82-page summary of the 400+-page bill, and a 300-page JCT report on the bill.)

Now, the bill that has been presented isn’t the law that will be enacted (if any is enacted); the House is scheduled to start marking the bill up today. Still, it presents a view of the House Republicans’ vision for tax reform. I wanted to highlight three provisions that would directly impact the church and Mormons as a result of their religious practices. [Read more…]

BYU and Classical Radio

BYU has just announced that it is planning on dropping Classical 89, the classical music radio station that it runs.

I’m going to be tremendously blunt: this is a terrible idea, and it betrays the school’s educational mission.[fn1]

I understand that classical music doesn’t have the listenership it did once upon a time: in 2013, less than 3% of album sales were of classical music. And there has been a trend for a while of classical stations shifting to alternate formats.[fn2] And I get that consultants and industry professionals recommended the change. But BYU’s in a unique position that allows it to ignore consultants.

A quick personal story: [Read more…]

#MutualNight: Diwali and Indian Jazz

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

Subharnab Majumdar, The Rangoli of Lights. CC BY 2.0

Diwali, India’s most important holiday, starts today. Most of my experience with Diwali has been at the Art Institute of Chicago, which has an annual Diwali Family Festival.[fn1] I’m far from an expert, but the outline of the holiday is this: Diwali, the festival of lights, marks the triumph of good over evil, and of light over dark.

With the upcoming holiday, I thought I’d take a quick listen to some Indian music. Now, if you’re anything like me, your exposure to Indian music has come through two routes: Bollywood and the Indian classical music that found its way into the Beatles’ music.

Unsurprisingly from a country of well over 1 billion people, that’s not the extent of Indian music. [Read more…]

Brigham Young, John P. Taggart, and the Federal Income Tax

On January 3, 1871, Brigham Young sent a telegram to  his counselor Daniel H. Wells. The LDS Church History Library only has the first page of the letter, but even the absence of subsequent pages can’t disguise the story lying under the surface. The first page of the telegram reads:

We think it will be wisdom for the Latter Day Saints to omit paying tithing Some of the Officers of the government seem determined to rob us of our hard earnings which are donated to sustain the poor and other charitable purposes We will carry on our public works and assist the poor by some other method If this agrees with your feelings have Bro Cannon[fn1]

I’m not sure I can emphasize enough how crazy this is: Brigham Young suggested doing away with tithing. While I don’t know the church’s revenue in 1870, in 1880, about $540,000 of the church’s $1 million in revenue came from tithing. And yet Brigham Young was willing to get rid of it in response to some kind of robbery. So what’s going on? [Read more…]

Pastors’ Housing Revisited (Again)

(Note: this is the fourth installment of a series (Part 1: Money for Nothing and the Housing for Free; Part 2: Pastors’ Housing, Take 2; Part 3: Pastors’ Housing Revisited) that spans four years and isn’t over yet.)

Today, a district court in the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that section 107(2) of the Internal Revenue Code is unconstitutional. Again.

So what’s section 107(2)? And what relevance could it possibly have for a Mormon blogging audience? I’m so glad you asked.

Background [Read more…]

#MutualNight: Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt

[For a quick refresher on what #MutualNight posts entail and how they relate to Mormonism, read this.]

Full disclosure before I  get started: Matt Wilson is one of my favorite jazz drummers and musicians. I’d put his last two albums (2016’s Beginning of a Memory and 2014’s Gathering Call) in my top 5 albums of their respective years, and his Christmas album is my favorite Christmas album.

And yet I’ve put off talking about Honey and Salt. And that’s for one major reason: Carl Sandburg. [Read more…]

Churches and the House Appropriation Bill

Last Thursday, the House passed an appropriation bill for fiscal year 2018. The vote was close—211 to 198—and it’s not clear that it will pass the Senate in any kind of recognizable form. Still, the bill has at least some relevance to churches.

See, sections 101-116 attempt to regulate the IRS, and section 116 would largely eviscerate the so-called Johnson Amendment. [Read more…]

The Homestead Act and Me

Last week, driving home from my brother’s wedding, my family and I stopped at Homestead National Monument of America.[fn1] We didn’t really know what to expect. We only planned on staying for an hour or so, because Nebraska falls halfway into the 21-hour drive from Utah to Chicago, the drive that we needed to do in two days so that we’d be back before our kids had to start school.

We got to Homestead when it opened. And we ended up staying for more than three hours. Because Homestead is amazing; it celebrates the Homestead Act of 1862, which ultimately distributed about 10 percent of U.S. land to successful homesteaders. [Read more…]

Picturing 1867 Utah Tax Assessments

I’ve been looking through 1860s Bureau of Internal Revenue records from the district of Utah for a project I’ve been working on. (It’s a really interesting project; once I get a handle on what I’m going to write, I’ll blog some interesting tidbits.)

As I was looking through the assessment lists, I came across a (pretty decent) doodle of a person’s head. I don’t know anything about who drew the doodle (was it the assessor? the assistant assessor? somebody who got his or her hands on the list later?). I don’t know who the doodle represents (is Stubb or Stout or Shoebridge? or is it a self-portrait? or a generic picture?). [Read more…]

Again With Seminary Start Times

Last year, Angela wrote an important post about the problems with seminary starting so early.

I was reminded of her post because (a) my kids started school today, and (b) I read this article on teenagers, early start times, and sleep deprivation yesterday.

FWIW, the article doesn’t say anything new that Angela didn’t already bring up. But largely, schools are ignoring the more-irrefutable-by-the-day research and keeping the same early start times they’ve had since time immemorial (or, at least, since the 90s when I was in high school). And, as far as I know, nothing has changed with the church’s early-morning seminary program, either.

Angela wrote her post out of experience; I write mine out of hope. Because my oldest is still a couple years away from high school, and I hope the local high school (start time: 7:55 am, which is 35 minutes earlier than the AAP recommends) and the church (which has local seminary at some time earlier than that, I assume) can move to best practices before she hits high school. [Read more…]

Free Trade and the Social Safety Net

On Monday, the church-owned Deseret News published an editorial condemning—in no uncertain terms—the racism of “the KKK and other so-called white nationalist groups.” The editorial leaves no wiggle room, and brooks no disagreement.

And then it turns in what—to me—was an unexpected direction: protectionism.

So I’m a modern liberal, meaning I buy into the economic consensus that free and open trade is a good thing. It increases the net wealth in the world, and provides both Americans collectively, and our foreign brothers and sisters, better access to the goods we need.

But. [Read more…]

Lord, Is It I?

This morning, as I read my Twitter feed, I came to Jack Jenkins, a religion reporter for Think Progress, asking for examples of sermons addressing racism.  As of when I’m writing this, he tweeted out eight examples of sermons representing an array of Christian denominations.

Meanwhile, Guthrie Graves-Fitzgerald tweeted a photo of Charlottesville clergy marching, united, against the racism that invaded—and tried to infect—their city. [Read more…]

Twenty Years

In preparing for day’s Primary lesson on missionary work, I did a quick search to see if I could find anything out Seymour Brunson’s mission.

The short answer is, not a lot of detail on an iPhone during sacrament meeting. I mean, access to the D&C tells me he was called on a mission in 1832. And, thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers Project, I know that his mission was in Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia. And, per Ferron Olson’s Seymour Brunson: Defender of the Faith, he went through those states, baptizing hundreds (as missionaries did in the 1830s) and organizing branches along the way. [Read more…]

Hypotheticals and Our Christian Duty

A quick hypothetical. (For those of you who didn’t attend law school, a law school hypothetical is a carefully constructed situation meant to tease out the implications of a rule or a law. The hypothetical itself isn’t meant to convey any truth value. What I mean is, please don’t argue for or against my hypothetical: it’s the consequences I’m interest in.)

Let’s imagine that it has been established that homosexual behavior (however you want to define that) is sinful. What do we, as members of the church and the ward, do when an LGBTQ individual comes to church? And what if it’s clear that that individual is participating in homosexual behavior (again, whatever we want to define that as)? [Read more…]

Virtue and Self-Reliance

One summer, my parents’ ward held a special Sunday School class for the kids who had come back from college for the summer.[fn1] The Sunday School class was essentially a basic financial life skills class, the kind of thing that every college student (and most of the rest of us) needs, but that is woefully undertaught. The teacher, a member of the bishopric iirc, was a financial planner. He talked to us about budgeting, about saving, and other simple, practical skills.

I haven’t thought about that class in years, but my memory was jogged as I read (on Twitter) about a combined priesthood-Relief Society lesson on self-reliance. [Read more…]

Paul Bunyan and the Mormons

On Wednesday, we left the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum[fn1] in Eau Claire, WI, and drove to the Goose Island Campground[fn2] in La Crosse, where we were going to spend the night. As we followed the GPS to our campsite, it suddenly gave us this direction:

[Read more…]

The Boy Who Cried Religious Freedom

The June issue of The New Era includes an article entitled “Why Religious Freedom Matters: What’s at Risk.”

As I read through it, I had two primary thoughts. On the one hand, I applaud the church for attempting to educate teenagers about their civil rights and responsibilities. This is an important topic, and one that our teenagers should be exposed to.

On the other hand, though, I’m perplexed and bothered by the actual delivery. The content ranges from accurate to irrelevant to speculative to flat-out wrong. So while conceptually, I think this article is both necessary and important, it ultimately fails spectacularly.  [Read more…]

The Religious Liberty EO Is a Big Nothingburger

Yesterday, Donald Trump signed his 34th Executive Order, titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” And, much to everybody’s surprise (really!), it doesn’t do anything. Like, at all.

I was interested because of rumors (backed up by leaks of early drafts) that it would fulfill his promise to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” Or, at least, that he would order the IRS to quit enforcing the prohibition on churches endorsing or opposing candidates for office.[fn1] In fact, the night before, there were reports that the EO would provide that the IRS should “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson amendment which prohibits religious leaders from speaking about politics and candidate from the pulpit[.]”

Several colleagues and friends started discussing how we would divide the blogging duties over at The Surly Subgroup when the EO was signed and released. Then it was signed. Then it was released … and it didn’t look anything like what we expected, forcing us largely to rewrite our posts. If you’re interested in an explanation of what the so-called Johnson Amendment is, David Herzig explains it here. For a detailed, excellent review of what the EO actually says and does, Ben Leff has your back here. And if you decide that, in spite of the contentlessness of the EO, you want to sue,[fn2] I talk about some impediments you’ll face here. [Read more…]

Trump, Tax Reform, and Mormons

On Wednesday, Donald Trump released his tax reform plan.

Scratch that: he released a one-page outline detailing highlights of what he wants his tax reform plan to look like. But even with its limited details, as my friend and colleague David Herzig points out, it is worth taking seriously. Presidents have traditionally had some power to shape tax reform according to their priorities, and at the very least, Trump’s Wednesday memo provides insight into his tax preferences.

And, because this blog focuses on Mormonism, here’s a great place to ask this question: how will his tax priorities affect U.S. Mormons? [Read more…]

#MutualNight: Ella!

If she were alive, Ella Fitzgerald would celebrate her 100th birthday today. [Read more…]

Lesson 17: The Law of Tithing #DandC2017

Learning Outcomes

At the end of class, students will be able to

  1. Describe the roots of tithing in the Hebrew Bible and in American Protestantism.
  2. Assess how scriptural text relates to contemporary practice in Mormonism.
  3. Explain how the blessings from tithing compare to Prosperity Gospel ideas.

[Read more…]

Obligatory #TaxDay Post

Happy Tax Day![fn1]

Most years (and maybe every year) I do a tax post on Tax Day. I’ve been struggling to think of one the last couple days, though: there haven’t been a whole lot of Mormon tax (or even religious tax) developments over the last several months, and those few there have been[fn2] I’ve already posted on.

So I thought that I’d do something that isn’t really timely, but is interesting. See, as I was researching for my book,[fn3] I came across a Tax Court decision that dealt with the Church of Jesus Christ. I’m pretty sure, name notwithstanding, the Church of Jesus Christ is not part of the family of Mormon churches,[fn4] but its web presence is really, really limited, so most of what I know about it comes from the court’s opinion. Even if the Church of Jesus Christ isn’t a Mormon church, though, the case itself has to engage with Supreme Court tax precedent that is the result of the Mormon church. So here goes: [Read more…]

We Should Argue More at Church

Seriously.

I don’t mean this as some kind of Swiftian modest proposal. I’m completely serious about it. Maybe it’s my background as an attorney, but I believe that disagreement—that the airing of conflicting viewpoints—helps us discover truth. And Truth. I mean, we don’t know everything yet; that’s literally an article of our faith.

And it’s not just a matter of finding truth (or Truth). We don’t have to fully think through our beliefs when we just assert them, especially if everybody nods in assent. Assertion is easy, and allows us to be lazy in constructing our beliefs. When we have to defend our assertions, we see the weaknesses, the places we need to study more, the places we need to look for further revelation. Putting our ideas into the stream of discourse helps us improve and increase our understanding. [Read more…]

Lesson 14: The Law of Consecration #DandC2017

Learning Outcomes

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

  1. Identify commonalities between the Law of Consecration and other communitarian religious movements.
  2. Explain the roots of consecration in the Mormon church.
  3. Assess how consecration fits in the modern church.

What Is Consecration?

In October of 1830, Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, Parley Pratt, and Ziba Peterson went west on a mission to the “Lamanites.” As they travelled, they came to the Morely farm near Kirtland, Ohio. Morely, along with fifty or sixty others, were part of “the Family” or “the Big Family.” Eleven core families moved onto the Morely farm and established a communitarian society, where they held goods and property in common. [Read more…]

Needing/Getting

I haven’t been able to shake Mike’s excellent post from Thursday. The identification of need with belief strikes me as an important one for our faith.

But I haven’t been able to shake it not just because of the insight it provides, but because I’m a step outside of the world Mike describes: frankly, I don’t need the church to be true.

That’s not to say I don’t believe, or that I don’t participate. I do both. But I don’t need the church to be true in a way that previous generations may have. [Read more…]

#MutualNight: The Reunion Project’s “Varanda”

I’m pretty sure the first straight-ahead jazz album I ever owned was Stan Getz’s “Anniversary!” It’s been a long time (I was probably in 8th or 9th grade at the time), so I don’t remember all of the details, but I know I had it on tape, I’m almost positive I bought it at Sam Goody, and I probably bought it because the store was playing it at the time.

Years later, I opened my mission call to Brazil. When I opened it, I basically knew three things about Brazil: that it was in South America, that they spoke Portuguese, not Spanish, there, and that Brazil was the home of bossa nova. See, Stan Getz was one of the earliest American jazz musicians to popularize Brazilian bossa nova in the U.S., and Tom Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema” led that charge.[fn1] And although “Anniversary!” wasn’t bossa nova, it introduced me to Getz, who eventually led me to Americanized Brazilian music. [Read more…]

What If the Church Didn’t Remain Politically Neutral?

On Sunday, Carolyn Homer wrote a thoughtful post about why, even if Donald Trump manages to “totally destroy” the so-called Johnson Amendment, the church shouldn’t start publicly endorsing or opposing candidates for office. On almost every level, she is certainly right: anything else opens the door to real discomfort and mischief.

And yet, I want to propose that, if Trump succeeds, the church (or, rather, members of the Quorum of the Twelve) should start endorsing candidates.

Stay with me—this isn’t any kind of modest proposal, and I’m being completely serious. But my proposal requires some explanation and significant caveats. [Read more…]

On Totally Destroying the Johnson Amendment

Yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump (among other things) reiterated his campaign promise to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

The phrase “Johnson Amendment” may well be meaningless to you. It’s kind of a stupid name for a broadly-misunderstood provision of the tax law. So, to get us all on the same page, a quick explainer: [Read more…]

On Moral Issues and Trump – Updated

iwasastranger_siteToday, the church is hesitant to enter into the political sphere. For the most part, I think that’s the right decision: church leaders don’t have any expertise in public policy or governance.

The church has, however, reserved the right to speak to “issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences.” Over the last couple years, it has invoked its right—duty, even—to speak to issues ranging from the legalization of recreational marijuana and physician-assisted suicide to alcohol laws in Utah to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

It has been outspoken in its support of religious liberty. As far back as 1992, Elder Oaks testified in support of of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and he has continued to emphasize the importance of religious liberty. [Read more…]