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…]

Soundtrack to the Inauguration

Today, Donald Trump transitions from president-elect to president.

I’m struggling here to figure out what to write. I want to write that we elected a valueless misogynistic, race-baiting, xenophobic know-nothing as president, but I confess I’m not sure where to go from there.

I want to decry Mormons’ participation in the Inauguration, only I’m not sure what I can add to what Peter has already said. (Also, what Peter has already said.)

I do know, though, where I’m going to turn musically. Noah Preminger has just released Meditations on Freedom, a protest album, just in time for the new presidency.  [Read more…]

Guest Post: #MutualNight: Afrobeat & Fela Kuti’s “Zombie”

Trevor, a relatively recent BYU graduate and Utah transplant, loves to talk music and religion (though not usually in tandem). He blogs (infrequently) at furusatoe and tweets (frequently) at @thabermeyer.

zombieThe first time I heard Talking Heads’ magnum opus, Remain In Light, I was stunned. Released in late 1980, the album sounded like none of its contemporaries in the burgeoning post-punk/new wave scene. The most striking, differentiating feature of Remain In Light is its complex polyrhythms and percussive elements, immediately noticeable even to the casual music listener on tracks like “Crosseyed and Painless” and “The Great Curve.” Yet, as is the case with most music, the heart of Remain in Light is less innovation than appropriation. Following the release of Talking Heads’ previous album, ‘79’s Fear of Music, friend and producer Brian Eno introduced lead singer David Byrne and the band to the work of Nigerian musician and bandleader Fela Kuti – and it entranced them. As related by Eno, Fela’s 1973 album, Afrodisiac, became the template and inspiration for the Heads’ new album:  [Read more…]

Are Mormon General Authorities Overpaid?

screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-12-21-48-pmJust a head’s-up: I’m not going to answer this question. I’m a law professor. A significant part of my job is to complicate questions that appear, on first glance, simple. Like this one. If you want a simplistic yes or no, I’m sure you can find it somewhere on the internet.

The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that the general authorities who are paid make about $120,000 a year. On the comments to Kevin’s recent post, there seemed to be some significant disagreement on whether they were over- or underpaid, or if their salaries were just right. So which is it?

That’s a tough question; there is no objective “right” amount that people should be paid. And the question is complicated a little by the fact that they’re paid in lockstep, meaning the amount probably represents a raise for some of these general authorities and a pay cut for others.  [Read more…]

Lesson 3: “I Had Seen a Vision” #DandC2017

Learning Outcomes:

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

  1. Describe the religious and cultural context in which Joseph Smith had his First Vision.
  2. Compare the various accounts of the First Vision.
  3. Summarize the relevance of the First Vision to contemporary Mormon belief and practice.

Vermont, New York, and Religious Liberty

Joseph lived in Vermont until he was about 10. In Vermont, there was no state-established church. Rather, each town could select its own minister, effectively establishing a church. Most towns chose a Congregationalist (or “Puritan”) minister.  [Read more…]

What Tax Folks (and Kyle) Talk About When They Talk About Tithing

Yesterday, I saw this tweet from Jana Riess:

The catch: younger members are more likely than their elders to say they’re paying tithing on net, rather than gross, income.

The question of why younger generations are more willing to cop to paying 10% of their net income is an interesting one, and I have no idea if it reflects changes in religious rhetoric or in their financial situations. For that matter, I have no idea if it actually reflects a shift: maybe Mormons have always moved from net to gross as they’ve aged.

What’s clear, though, is that few people, if any, are actually paying tithing on their gross income. I tweeted to that effect, and got into a fun rabbit hole of a Twitter conversation. So, for your reading pleasure: What Tax Folks (and Kyle) Talk About When They Talk About Tithing:
[Read more…]

LaVell Edwards: A Personal Reflection

Tribune file photo BYU Coach LaVell Edwards checks the clock during a game against the Washington Huskies in 1999.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard that 2016 claimed yet another victim. LaVell Edwards, that rock of BYU football, died today.

He coached BYU from 1972 (before I was born) until 2000 (when I graduated from BYU). I grew up watching his teams (and the UCLA Bruins) play football on fall Saturdays with my dad and, as a student at BYU, I went to almost every home game.

I never met him while I was at BYU; my sole access to (and image of) him was cutaway shots to him on the sidelines, unsmiling, arms folded over his chest.  [Read more…]

#MutualNight: Miles Davis’s “On the Corner”

miles_davis_on_the_cornerConfession: the first jazz album I owned was a Kenny G album.

“But that’s not jazz!” I hear you (some of you, anyway) saying. And I totally agree. In my defense, though, I was in 7th grade, was looking for jazz to listen to, and it’s what my saxophone teacher pointed me toward.

And in fairness to him,[fn1] Sam Goody and the other late-80s record stores classified Kenny G as “jazz fusion,” a classification that helped give “fusion” a bad name among jazz listeners and aspiring jazz musicians.  [Read more…]

On Fred Karger, Tax Exemptions, and the Mormon Church

Today, Fred Karger asked a provocative question: should the Mormon church lose its tax exemption? To answer that question, he’s asking for certain (anonymous) tips about the church’s use of its money, though implicit in the way he frames the question is that yes, it should. In short, his argument the the church should lose its tax exemption seems to follow these contours:

  • The church has, and earns, lots of money.
  • The church engages in for-profit businesses and investments with that money, and doesn’t pay taxes on its for-profit earnings.
  • The church uses tax-deductible tithing money for lobbying, in contravention of the tax law.

He wants to collect information to ultimately file “the biggest, loudest and most comprehensive IRS challenge to a Church’s tax-exempt status in history.”  [Read more…]

Trump’s Tax Proposals and Mormons

It occurred to me this morning that Trump’s tax plan, if it passed in its current form, would impact many middle- (and some high-) income U.S. Mormons.[fn1] I mean, it would affect U.S. taxpayers in general, but it would have a particular effect on the deductibility of tithing.

The church cares about deductibility. In 2011, Elder Oaks gave testimony to the Senate Finance Committee that the charitable deduction is vital to the nation’s welfare.

And why might that be? Basically, because it reduces the cost of charitable giving, at least for taxpayers who itemize their deductions (more on that in a minute). For example, imagine I’m in the 25-percent tax bracket and I itemize. If I write a tithing check for $1,000, I’ve made a $1,000 charitable donation, and the church has an additional $1,000. But the after-tax cost to me of that donation was $750. [Read more…]

#MutualNight: Sharon Jones and Christmas

sharon-jonesThis year has been lousy with the deaths of prominent musicians. Between Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, and Merle Haggard, one could certainly be forgiven for missing some of the less-famous deaths.

Of all of the musician deaths this year, though, the one that hit me hardest was Sharon Jones.[fn1] I’m not going to get too biographical here—the Rolling Stone obituary is pretty thorough, and has some incredible videos of her performing—but I will say that the world has lost an incredible singer (and, based on the videos, and incredibly charismatic performer).  [Read more…]

What I Want the Church to Say

Yesterday the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve released a statement congratulating president-elect Trump on his victory and praising Secretary Clinton on her campaign. The letter, something of a post-U.S.-presidential-election tradition, is, I think, laudable, and functions as a valuable reminder that we need to both pray and work for the success of the country we live in.

And it makes me think of another letter that I’d like to see. It would go something along these lines: [Read more…]

The Halloween Parent Tax

I was asked on Twitter about the Halloween Parent Tax. And with Halloween coming up, it seemed like it needed a post. So here you are:

Design Considerations

You’ve got a couple options here. Are you going to create an income tax? A consumption tax? A head tax? Each is slightly different, in certain relevant ways:

Income Tax: This is probably what you think of when you think of the Halloween Parent Tax. Essentially, children are required to give their parents some percentage of the candy they get. (My wife’s parents imposed a 15-percent Halloween Parent Tax when she was growing up.) There are some design complications here—for example, are you taking a percentage of the number of pieces of candy the kids get? Or do different kinds of candy have different values? And do you take size into account in calculating candy?[fn1] [Read more…]

Welcome to #MutualNight: Delfeayo Marsalis

young-women-mutual-improvement-association-jewelry-1931_2I can’t, for the life of me, remember when I first heard it, but I do remember hearing (or reading) that, once upon a time, a significant part of Mutual was introducing Mormon youth to the best of literature, music, art, and other learning. After doing some quick Googling that suggested, but didn’t prove, that my memory was right, I did what any right-thinking person would do: I messaged Ardis. And she was kind enough to respond that yes, the M.I.A. had once been a repository of learning about art and culture.

Satisfied, I decided to follow through on my main reason for searching and asking: the introduction of a virtual M.I.A. Periodically (and undoubtedly irregularly), I plan on introducing and writing about some type of art, music, or literature that I’m enjoying, and what makes it worth sampling. While I doubt that most of my picks will have any significant Mormon connection, I consider this as Mormon a blogging topic as any that I’ve blogged. After all, we have not only roots in the M.I.A. program, but we have scriptural injunctions to seek after anything praiseworthy or of good report, and to learn out of the best books[Read more…]

Are You Listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast?

There’s no delicate way to put this: if you’re not listening, you should be. Blair Hodges is an excellent, thoughtful interviewer who invites really smart, thoughtful people on the show. He talks with his smart, thoughtful guests about really interesting religious topics, which sometimes touch on Mormonism, but more often, introduce listeners to religious thought that isn’t Mormon-specific.  [Read more…]

What We Didn’t Hear at #LDSConf

On Saturday and Sunday, we heard messages on a myriad of topics. Some resonated deeply with me; others, not so much. But (nearly) as interesting to me as what we heard was what we didn’t: nobody told us to vote for (or against) Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or even Evan McMullin.[fn1]

So what? you rightfully ask. Does the church ever endorse candidates?

No. But last Sunday was a special day:  [Read more…]

Nelson: “I Have Learned to Suffer With Joy” #LDSConf

During the winter of 1838, Mormons were forced to flee from Missouri’s infamous extermination order. On one freezing cold night, Eliza Snow and her family stayed in an overcrowded, underinsulated log cabin. In recalling that night, Pres. Snow wrote:

Not a complaint was heard—all were cheerful, and judging from appearances, strangers would have taken us to be pleasure excursionists rather than a band of gubernatorial exiles. That was a very merry night. None but saints can be happy under every circumstance.

We have a long history of our ancestors and/or church predecessors being happy in what were frankly horrendous circumstances; if they could be happy freezing in a log cabin in the Missouri winter, I should be happy in my modern comfortable situation, right? In fact, I may feel like I have a religious obligation to be happy.  [Read more…]

You Want the Church to Be a Corporation. Really.

I blame Time for the whole "LDS Inc." movement.

I blame Time for the whole “LDS Inc.” movement.

The other day, our own Aaron B. posted this on Facebook:

The single DUMBEST criticism of the LDS Church is the claim that “it’s a business, not a church”, or “it’s a corporation, not a church”. Obviously it’s both …[fn1]

I’ll confess that, like Aaron, I’ve never been particularly impressed by the implication that somehow corporate organization is antithetical to spirituality. After a discussion with one of Aaron’s friends, though, I think I kind of understand where some who object to its corporate status are coming from.  [Read more…]

Pastors’ Housing Revisited

The Chicago Temple First United Methodist Church may have the coolest parsonage anywhere.

The Chicago Temple First United Methodist Church may have the coolest parsonage anywhere.

Not quite three years ago, and again not quite two years ago, I wrote about a Freedom From Religion Foundation lawsuit against the IRS. In the suit, the FFRF argued that section 107 of the Internal Revenue Code was unconstitutional.

Quick refresher: in general, when your employer gives you something, that thing you receive is income to you. And it doesn’t matter if what you receive is cash, is property, or even is services. To the extent your employer gives you something of value, that’s income to you.

Congress has carved out a handful of exceptions to the general rule, though. Maybe most importantly, employer-provided health insurance is not treated as income. So those of us lucky enough to have health insurance provided by our employers don’t have to pay taxes on its value. Similarly, all kinds of fringe benefits are excluded.  [Read more…]

“Work Makes the Difference”: A Church Welfare Proposal

I have a sure-fire proposal to improve church welfare.

Church welfare admittedly has a long and storied history. In 1936, the Church officially inaugurated the Church Security Plan. President Grant explained that the purpose of the plan was to provide

sufficient food, fuel, clothing, and bedding to supply through the coming winter, every needy and worthy Church family unable to furnish these for itself, in order that no member of the Church should suffer in these times of stress and emergency.[fn1]

In 1936, the Great Depression, which hit Utah hard, was still a recent memory, and its effects were still being felt in Utah. So it makes plenty of sense that church leaders were trying to establish a procedure that could help members weather the financial storm.  [Read more…]

Women of Vision

WomenofVision-599x449Yesterday my family and I went to Chicago’s Field Museum. After checking out several other exhibits, we went to the Women of Vision exhibit.

Women of Vision shows some photography that 11 female photographers have shot for various National Geographic stories. The exhibit is (not surprisingly) spectacular. Organized by photographer, the subjects range all over the map, from women’s lives (there was a great display of women in Afghanistan) to architecture to religion (Muslims, Uigars, Christians in the Middle East, shamanism) to African animals.  [Read more…]

Wait: the Church Has Money?!?

Every time[fn1] I write about the church’s investments, I get pushback. Usually that pushback involves asserting that there is something immoral or wrong about the church accumulating wealth. The implication is something like, it’s not that the church can’t have money, but it should use its money to promote good things,[fn2] and it should promote those good things now.

Often the justification for this mindset consists of scriptural exhortations to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc.  [Read more…]

Winter Quarters in Omaha #PioneerDay

MTCExterior4_DetailWe didn’t plan on being in Omaha on the day before Pioneer Day. To be frank, the approach of July 24 doesn’t generally trigger anything in my mind. I mean, the ward I went to when I was a kid usually had a picnic at Lake Poway sometime around the end of July that was loosely inspired by Pioneer Day, but it was mostly baseball and hamburgers and hot dogs, and rarely made any mention of 1847 or pioneers or anything.

But months ago, we’d decided that Omaha was a decent halfway(-ish) point between Rocky Mountain National Park[fn1] and Chicago, and so that was our stopping place on Friday night.  [Read more…]

Encountering Mormonism on Route 66

IMG_3884(This post isn’t really a Fourth of July thing, except that there’s something distinctly American about Route 66. So we’ll go with it.)

We talked about taking a Route 66 vacation this summer. After all, we live in Chicago (and Route 66 starts across the street from the Art Institute!), and it ends in L.A., just north of my parents’ home. But with this year’s Every Kid in a Park (which, btw, if you have a kid who just finished fourth grade and you haven’t enrolled yet, I don’t think it’s too late), we switched to a visit-National-Parks trip.

Still, our National Parks roadtrip ended up overlapping briefly with Route 66—we were going to Petrified Forest National Park, which is on historic Route 66, and we decided to stay in nearby Holbrook, in Wigwam Village #6.[fn1] [Read more…]

How Much Accommodation?

130114152903-abc-schoolhouse-rock-just-a-bill-horizontal-large-galleryLast week on The Surly Subgroup, I wrote about a bill making its way through the House right now. The last section of that bill would make it even harder than it already is for the IRS to audit churches it suspects have campaigning for or against candidates for office.

Reading the bill (and writing the post) crystallized for me a question I’ve had at the back of my mind: how much accommodation should we push for? That is, should there be an upper to the exceptions churches and other religious organizations seek from the law?  [Read more…]

LDS Inc.

mormons incSo the first thing to do is admit that I don’t always get internet-speak. That said, is there any way that “LDS Inc.,” written in implicit (or explicit) disparagement of the church isn’t stupid?[fn]

I mean, I see it occasionally. And I kind of assume that its provenance is the Aug. 4, 1997, Time magazine cover.

The thing is that while contextually, the use of “LDS Inc.” is clearly meant as a criticism, I can’t figure out what is being critiqued. Saying “LDS Inc.” may make a (vaguely) factual assertion, but it makes no substantive moral or ethical assertion.  [Read more…]

The Mormon Church in the @PanamaPapers?!? [Updated]

[Update below]

Yesterday, the ICIJ released its searchable Panama Papers database. (For some background on the Panama Papers, you can look my BCC post or my Surly Subgroup post. Or the ICIJ’s site.) Some enterprising individual appears to have plugged Mormon-related words into the search bar, and came up with at least two hits: Bonneville International and Deseret Investment.

Now, this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing with this database: searching for those who think they can use tax havens to avoid meeting their obligations. So should you be outraged that the church is doing this?

Short answer: no. But I’m a law professor, so the short answer is never enough.   [Read more…]

Review: The Mormon Jesus: A Biography

Mormon JesusJohn G. Turner, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Cambridge: Harvard UP 2016).

Just this month, Turner followed up his excellent biography of Brigham Young with something almost entirely different: an intellectual history of Mormonism’s approach to Jesus. And, just so that I don’t bury the lede here: you need to read this book.

Turner approaches the Mormon Jesus thematically and relatively comprehensively (or, at least, as comprehensively as he can in a 350-page book). He spends the bulk of his words on 19th-century Mormonism, but he touches on events as recent as Denver Snuffer’s claim to have seen and spoken with Jesus (83-84) and as ancient as Clement of Alexandria’s view in the late second century that “the gospel had abrogated polygamy, not monogamous marriage) (220).  [Read more…]