Say It Again, Sam (a Plea to Bishops)

You know that moment: the person blessing the sacrament looks at the bishop. The bishop shakes his head. And, instead of standing up and handing the trays of bread or water, the person repeats the prayer. The congregation may be puzzled the second time through. By the third, fourth, or fifth time, they’re holding their collective breath, praying that this time he gets through it.

The first time, his voice is clear, notwithstanding the small error. The second time, if you listen closely, you can hear it begin to shake. And every subsequent time, the shaking gets worse.

So what’s up with that? Well, some combination of tradition and the Handbook. But we should back up a little: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t have a lot of liturgical prayers. By and large, we’re devotional prayer people. But we have a couple liturgical prayers. The big ones are the sacrament prayers and the baptismal prayer, two prayers that we get from our scriptures.[fn1]

[Read more…]

The LDS Church Supports the Respect for Marriage Act

You may have heard that yesterday the church came out in support of the Respect for Marriage Act. For reasons I’ll describe in a minute, this support is, in my humble opinion, a big deal.

But before we get to why it’s a big deal, it’s probably worth looking and what and why the Respect for Marriage Act is.

In broad strokes, the Respect for Marriage Act is a replacement for the Defense of Marriage Act from the 1990s. (And I mean that literally—Section 3 of RfMA repeals a provision of federal law added by DOMA that expressly allows states and the federal government to decline to recognize same-sex marriages enacted in other states.)

RfMA replaces that with its opposite: under the RfMA, states must give full faith and credit to marriages performed in other states, and cannot deny marriage benefits on the basis of the “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin” of the married persons.

[Read more…]

Church Finances in Canada and Australia

Over the last week or so, a number of people have pointed me to investigative journalism regarding the church’s finances in Canada and Australia and asked my opinion on them. Which is flattering but, unfortunately, right now I don’t have a ton of spare time. So rather than go through in detail, I’m going to try to contextualize a little bit of what I think is going on.

And what I think is going on is two things. First, the church thinks of itself and, to the extent it legally can, operates as a single economic entity. Over the last several decades or so, it has consolidated its finances in Salt Lake (which significantly diverges from most religious organizations I’m familiar with, including other hierarchical religions like the Catholic church).

Second, the church is obsessed with being financially opaque. It values its financial privacy to a degree that it can be harmful to the public’s perception. (I’m sure I’ve blogged about this, but I’ve also written about the history of the church’s varying levels of financial transparency/opacity for Dialogue.)

And these two things, I believe, underlie the stories coming out of Canada and Australia. And frankly, my quick blog post (written between getting kids up for school, getting them breakfast, and getting ready for work) may or may not be satisfying. It’s not meant to convict or exonerate the church. And pretty much everything I know about this comes from two articles. And I believe that the church should be more financially transparent, and that such transparency would be good for it in both the short and the long run.

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$906 Million

The church recently released its 2021 Annual Report. The church’s Annual Reports detail its humanitarian and social safety-net endeavors.[fn1] These endeavors should come as no surprise: as in years past, the church has been tremendously active in providing food, clean water, education, and vaccinations, among other things. It engages in these activites on its own and it partners with other charitable organizations.

The aid it provides is unsurprising because it’s the same kinds of things the church has highlighted in previous Annual Reports.

[Read more…]

Oman, A Possible Theology of Same-Sex Marriage Sealings

This morning, Nate Oman posted what may be the most important and consequential piece of Mormon theology I’ve read in a long time over on his Substack. In it, he explores whether and how same-sex sealings could fit in Latter-day Saint theology.

Those of you who know Nate will be unsurprised to find that it is a thoughtful, careful, insightful, empathetic, and fundamentally faithful exploration. He takes as his cue D&C 9, which both describes a stupor of thought as evidence that what we do is not aligned with God’s will and instructs us to study questions out in our mind to figure out what is right, then present our findings to the Lord for confirmation.

Nate also doesn’t let ideas off easy. While acknowledging that the church’s treatment of the LGBTQ community does not feel just or fair, he doesn’t consider that, of itself, a compelling theological argument for same-sex sealings. At the same time, he finds our assumption of “heterosexual exaltation” equally baseless.

Instead, he advocates what I will call a theology of humility. He sketches the gaps in our understanding and application of sealings both today and through church history, how those gaps undercut our easy assumptions, and why those gaps allow for same-sex sealings.

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Christian Nationalist Is Incompatible with Mormonism

Yesterday, this piece on Christian nationalism ended up in my Twitter feed. In it, Amanda Tyler, the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty explains why it is absolutely critical for Christians to step up and expressly denounce Christian nationalism.

What is Christian nationalism? The BJC describes it as explicitly promoting the idea that Christianity should explicitly infuse the U.S.’s “public policies, sacred symbols, and national identity.” Implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) it also holds that the only true Christians/Americans are white, conservative, and born in the U.S.A.

It is critical to point out here that there’s a difference between saying (as a voter or a politician), “My values influence my policy preferences” and saying “The laws of the country should codify [my version of] Christianity.” The former, Tyler points out, allows for some work across the aisles, some vision of a better society. She points to Georgia Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor, and Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford, a former Baptist youth pastor, among others.

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On “Laws Related to Abortion”

Several weeks ago, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, the church made a change to its official statement on abortion. Reaffirming its political neutrality, the church gave explicit permission for members to “choose to participate in efforts to protect life and to preserve religious liberty.”

What does that mean? Well, the church explicitly permits abortions in cases of rape, incest, in cases where the pregnancy imposes a serious risk to the mother’s health or life, and in cases where the fetus has serious defects and will not survive.

That is, the church recognizes that there must be some kind of balance between the rights of a pregnant person and the rights of a fetus. In at least some circumstances, that balance favors the pregnant person. Which makes sense—in Mormonism, we don’t have any theological commitment to when life begins. We have, of course, scriptures that suggest it may be sometime before birth (John leapt in Elisabeth’s womb when Elisabeth heard Mary) and scriptures that suggest maybe not (Jesus spoke to Nephi the day before He was born). And from a policy perspective, stillborn children are not recorded as births or deaths on church records and no temple work can be performed for them.

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Girls Should Be Passing the Sacrament. Full Stop.

I’ve written about this twice before, but this time I’m going to be completely blunt: the church needs to allow women and girls to pass and prepare the sacrament. Like yesterday. The Doctrine and Covenants expressly prohibits deacons and teachers from administering the sacrament, which means passing and preparing it are not administering it. Thus, the only grounding for requiring priesthood to do those things is tradition.

And here’s the thing: if we’re arbitrarily preventing women and girls from doing something on the basis that we’ve always prohibited them from doing it, we’re sending them a message. And that message is, “You’re second class, and your contributions are less important.” It doesn’t matter how many times we tell women and girls that they’re important, because our actions and policies send the second message.

[Read more…]

Lafferty, Posse Comitatus and Mormon Remix Culture

Yesterday, Hulu released the first two episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven, an Andrew Garfield-led adaptation of Krakauer’s book by the same name.

And honestly, I don’t have anything to say about it. I haven’t had time to watch it and, in any event, I’m not a television critic. (If you want a set of insightful and sophisticated responses, Juvenile Instructor has you covered!)

But its renewed salience brings up something that I think Krakauer gets wrong about Mormonism. But the thing is, it’s also something most Mormons get wrong about Mormonism: there’s a sense that Mormonism exceptionalism. For critics of the church, that can mean that the bad things about Mormonism are unique to Mormon beliefs and culture. For members, it can mean that the good things are revelatory and unique to us, the result of direct revelation.

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It’s Not Taxes

A popular legal Twitter personality has an evergreen tweet: “It’s not RICO.” See, RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) has become a super-popular rhetorical crime. Trump violated RICO; antifa violated RICO; I’m probably violating RICO just by posting this!

The thing is, RICO is a very narrowly-tailored law. There are specific criteria a crime has to meet to violate RICO and basically, if you hear someone say that somebody else violated RICO, you can be about 99% sure not only that they’re wrong, but that they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

I thought about that the other day when a friend pointed me to a clip from a popular Mormon-themed podcast.[fn1] In the clip, the podcaster makes a blockbuster announcement: the podcaster has just discovered why the church builds so many temples. Specifically, the podcaster was told by an “inside source”:

It turns out that for the church to maintain its tax-exempt status, for the Mormon church to maintain its tax-exempt status as a charity or as a church, it has to do something with its money. And so building temples is one of the major ways the church can spend a boatload of money with all this cash that it keeps collecting and stay in business and be perceived as a charitable institution.

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Gender and the LDS Church in the Global South, Part 2

Participants in various geographies valued their church membership for helping them differentiate themselves from the ‘outside’ culture. Fijian participants valued the church’s progressiveness (see Part 1); US and NZ participants valued the church’s respect for motherhood. Furthermore, responses to the 2019 temple updates reveal a gap in priorities between Fijian, US, and NZ participants.

An ethnographic introduction to issues of gender and religion in the Global South.

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Brad Wilcox and Institutional Problems, Part 2

Monday night, I saw a clip on Twitter of Young Men general presidency member Brad Wilcox making a tremendously racist statement in a youth fireside. I posted about it yesterday and, in the comments, people told me it wasn’t just racism. There was misogyny and religious bigotry mixed in too.

So last night I looked at a little more of his address and, well, it too is not good. So today I’m going to add a little. I’ll note that I still haven’t watched the whole thing and today’s post will be a lot shorter, in large part because I have to do actual work that I get paid for; thus, I’m going to pull out one or two parts.

Today’s post won’t be overshadowed by questions of the sincerity of the apology though because, unlike his statements on race and the priesthood, there has been no apology.

And with that, here we go:

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“Lead Out in Abandoning Attitudes and Actions of Prejudice”

Note: between when I drafted this post and when I scheduled it to go live, Bro. Wilcox apologized for his statement. And it’s a real-deal kind of apology, not a squishy avoiding-blame one; in fact, it’s a model for one step of precisely what I hoped for. I’m still going to posting for two reasons. First, while apology is a critical part of repenting, it is not the only step. And second, I don’t think this was primarily an individual problem–there is an underlying institutional problem that his comments highlighted and his apology didn’t and couldn’t change. But I’m making some changes to what I previously wrote in light of his apology.

Last weekend, Bradley Wilcox, second counselor in the Young Men’s general presidency and associate teaching professor of ancient scripture at BYU-Provo, gave a youth fireside in Alpine, UT. Somewhere in the fireside he asked, rhetorically, why Black church members didn’t get the priesthood until 1978. (To be clear, his framing of the question is wrong: in the first decades of the church, a number of Black men received the priesthood; it wasn’t until 1852 that Brigham Young imposed the priesthood-and-temple ban on Black members.)

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Butts in the Pews(?)

Photo by Drew Murphy on Unsplash

Over the last month or so, I’ve heard from several family members and friends that their wards are trying to wind down online church. There are variations, of course, everything from announcing that there will be no more Zoom church to making the link available only to people who get approval from the bishop (presumably because of health or familial issues).

I’m not clear on whether these are ward, stake, area, or general church initiatives. But I am clear that this is a terrible idea, made more terrible because nobody has explained the underlying reasons to restrict or eliminate online church.

The most immediate reason it’s a terrible idea is the current omicron wave, which sickened as many as 1 million people Monday alone, is quickly filling up our hospitals, and is just as quickly shutting our schools.

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The Church, the State (of Utah), and Welfare

On Thursday, ProPublica and the Salt Lake Tribune published a fascinating article detailing a link between Utah, the church, and welfare payments. I assume most readers here have already read it. If not, you really need to read it. Maybe before reading this post but, if not before, definitely right after.

The tl;dr of the article is this: since about 2009, Utah has underspent on its social safety net. Also, based on an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) it signed with the church, it has counted volunteer hours performed for the church in calculating how much it has spent.

Reading the article the first time, though, left me with questions. And it turns out I’m not the only one who didn’t entirely understand what was going on: on Friday, the Editorial Board of the Tribune published an unsigned op-ed, the heart of which were these three paragraphs:

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“Severe, Pervasive, and Objectively Offensive Race-Based Harassment”

Photo by Rolande PG on Unsplash

Yesterday the Salt Lake Tribune reported on the end of a Department of Justice investigation into the Davis School District in Utah. And frankly, its findings were disgusting. You can (and should) read the DOJ’s report here, but in summary, but in summary, the DOJ found “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive race-based harassment” in Davis schools by students and staff. A taste of the kinds of harassment Black students had to deal with: white students called them

monkeys or apes and said that their skin was dirty or looked like feces. Peers taunted Black students by making monkey noises at them, touching and pulling their hair without permission, repeatedly referencing slavery and lynching, and telling Black students “go pick cotton” and “you are my slave.” Harassment related to slavery increased when schools taught the subject, which some Black students felt was not taught in a respectful or considerate manner. White and other non-Black students demanded that Black students give them an “N-Word Pass,” which non-Black students claimed gave them permission to use the n-word with impunity, including to and around Black students. If Black students resisted these demands, they were sometimes threatened or physically assaulted.

(Note that the report also discusses anti-Asian discrimination.)

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Masks and the First Amendment

Photo by Kyle Austin on Unsplash

Effective today, the city of Chicago has reinstituted an indoor mask mandate. And we’re not alone: Washington state and Washington, D.C. have them. Dallas appears to have one. Benton County in Oregon has one. And I’m sure there are others and, in light of the Delta variant and the U.S.’s not-so-impressive vaccinate rate, there will be others.

A week ago, the First Presidency sent a letter to all members of the church encouraging us to get vaccinated and wear masks at indoor meetings where we couldn’t social distance.

What does this mean for our church meetings? Well, in light of the First Presidency’s guidance, I would have thought it would be uncontroversial: we’ll return to requiring masks in our meetings, at least in places that have implemented mask mandates.

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Grading the Church’s Pandemic Response

Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about how the church has responded to it. And [deeply fatherly voice]: I’m so disappointed.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course. The church started out great, cancelling all church meetings at the front end of when we (in the U.S., anyway) realized this was a serious problem. But since then, it hasn’t done a lot to deal with this unprecedented (in recent memory, anyway) worldwide issue.

There are two main areas that really stoke my fatherly disappointment: vaccines and the return to the status quo.

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Believing in the Big Lie

Almost exactly a month ago, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey looking at partisan and religious belief in the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

To be clear, the assertion that the election was stolen is stupid. The only basis for the assertion is that people can formulate the concept in a (grammatically) coherent way. Donald Trump’s attorneys had dozens of opportunities to assert that there was something illegal about the election in court but were unable to convince judges of any political persuasion. State Attorneys General support the fairness of the election. The Big Lie is, precisely, a lie.

And who believes it? According to the PRRI survey, 61% of white Evangelical Christians. But not that far behind them?

Mormons. Forty-six percent of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (in the United States) mostly or completely agree that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

This represents an existential threat to the future of Mormonism.

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Hugh Pinnock, Mark Hofmann, and Taxes

Last week I mentioned that, in anticipation of Murder Among the Mormons I was reading Victims. And I talked about Mark Hofmann’s tax planning.

I’m only a little bit further through the documentary today (I finished the first episode), but I’ve made a bunch of progress on the book. And, reading it last night, another tangential tax issue leaped out at me.

See, it turns out that when Hofmann needed to borrow money from First Interstate Bank, Elder Hugh Pinnock of the Seventy put in a good word for him. Pinnock assumed that Hofmann was a legitimate documents dealer who had a big deal in the works. And the bank apparently assumed that either Pinnock or the church itself was guaranteeing the loan.

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Mark Hofmann and Taxes

In anticipation of watching Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons,[fn1] I started rereading Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case.[fn2]

And right at the end of chapter two something leapt out at me: in addition to searching for (and forging) rare documents, Hofmann engaged in tax planning! Chapter two discusses Hofmann’s attempts to sell the Anthon Transcript to the church. Initially he asked for a set of six Mormon gold pieces in exchange. Why the gold pieces rather than cash? In part, he said, because he wanted a “tax-free exchange” (Turley, 38). (Note that, after negotiation, the church gave him one five-dollar gold coin plus some historic Mormon notes and a first edition of the Book of Mormon missing its title page.)

Now if you’ve read much of my blogging, you know these three words leapt out at me, a virtual technicolor attention grabber. So what was Hofmann trying to do?

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Accomplishing God’s Work of Leading Out Against Prejudice

I wish the Church would tackle racism and nationalism with the same energy it devotes to sex. 

It’s not difficult to envision.  Just take every resource the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints currently spends defending chastity and reallocate them to anti-racism.  When we’re inevitably challenged for being too “political,” emphasize the great moral need for social policies which recognize the divine worth of every soul.    

We have the foundation to accomplish this.  In October 2020 President Nelson pleaded with us “to promote respect for all of God’s children.”  The Prophet “grieved that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice.”  He then called “upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.” 

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No More Disposition to Speak Evil: A Lesson Plan to Address Racism in the Church

Here is a lesson plan for BCC readers who need a Sunday School or Relief Society/Elder’s Quorum lesson to address white nationalism. I welcome constructive feedback and will update this lesson plan periodically to incorporate it, so that it can be a living resource for the future.

Opening Hymn: I’m Trying to be Like Jesus

Objective: Teach members how to use the peaceable doctrine of Christ to confront concrete examples of racism in their everyday lives.

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On Terryl Givens and Abortion

Yesterday Terryl Givens published what he characterized as “A Latter-day Saint Defense of the Unborn” at Public Square Magazine. He ultimately concludes that Latter-day Saints are obligated to oppose abortion and that there is basically no room for personally opposing abortion but supporting its legality and availability.

Givens seems completely sincere in his revulsion for abortion. But that sincerity has led him to pen (type?) a deeply misleading and unchristian jeremiad against his fellow citizens and fellow-Saints who take the opposite tack.

I’m not going to detail all of the factual and legal problems with his piece, though I will highlight a couple of what I consider to be the big problems. I’m also want to point out that the way he’s framed his argument undercuts any assertion that he makes it in good faith and that it demonstrates a huge lack of moral imagination.

[Read more…]

Excluding Our Fellow Saints From the Sacrament

In Illinois, we’re now halfway through our sixth week under a stay-at-home order (and my family’s seventh week at home). And the stay-at-home order looks like it’s going to last at least another month here. That means at least 12 Sundays in Illinois without meeting together at church (and, even when the stay-at-home order ends, some people may make the eminently responsible and defensible decision to continue social distancing, and delay their return to church).

Ultimately, I don’t think putting church meetings on hold is optimal. (To be clear, it’s both necessary and good. It’s just not ideal.) We need human contact, and we need the spiritual benefits that come from gathering together. That said, it’s necessary, and on net, saving the lives and the health of our fellow Saints is both beneficial and will bless us and them.

Still, this extended time away from church means that some people—single women and families without priesthood holders in the home, for example—won’t have the ability to take the sacrament for three months or more.

The church has made a tentative stab at recognizing the position these women and families are in. On April 16, the church provided instructions for administering the church during the pandemic. The instructions provide that “In unusual circumstances when the sacrament is not available, members can be comforted by studying the sacrament prayers and recommitting to live the covenants members have made and praying for the day they will receive it in person, properly administered by the priesthood.” [Read more…]

Coronavirus and the Sacrament

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were out of state at a climbing competition, and an old high school friend was kind enough to let us stay with her and her family. My friend is a Presbyterian pastor, so that Sunday we went to her church. She wasn’t preaching that particular day, but she still participated in the service.

Part of the services involved standing and greeting the people around you. My friend introduced this part and said that, in light of coronavirus[fn1] and flu season[2], instead of shaking hands, we could fist bump, tap elbows, or give the peace sign. Everybody laughed, then stood and gave fist bumps or the peace sign.

As the coronavirus shows signs of become a pandemic, it seems like we should start thinking about changes we need to make in our worship service. And it seems to me that the sacrament is a big place where we should seriously consider change. And I’m not talking just those who break the bread. The new handbook explicitly tells “[t]hose who prepare, bless, or pass the sacrament first wash their hands with soap or other cleanser.”

Even assuming they do it, the people preparing, administering, and passing the sacrament aren’t the only (and probably aren’t the primary) germ vector we deal with. I mean, while my kids are getting older, they were little once. Even if you’re fully awake and fully aware, there’s almost no way to prevent little fingers from touching several chunks of bread before choosing the one they take. The most careful adult fingers can still brush other chunks of bread. And there’s no concomitant requirement that those of us in the congregation wash our hands before participating in the Sacrament. [Read more…]

Traditions of Their [Mothers]: Girls Should Be Passing the Sacrament

A little over two years ago, I wrote a post explaining that our current rule that only priesthood holders can pass the sacrament has no basis in scripture. D&C 20:58 explicitly says that teachers and deacons lack the authority to “administer the sacrament”; ergo, if we allow teachers and deacons to prepare and pass the sacrament, those things must not be part of the administration of the sacrament.

And if they’re not, then the Handbook’s requirement that only “[d]eacons, teachers, priests, and Melchizedek Priesthood holders may pass the sacrament” is based, not on scripture, but on tradition. Now, tradition is certainly not always a bad thing, but the Book of Mormon warns us that tradition can potentially impede our ability to know and understand God. I think that’s doubly true when the tradition actively harms a person or group of people by, for example, not allowing them to participate and serve fully in our religious community. [Read more…]

I’m terrified about having kids.

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I just spent the holidays with family. I’ve been married a year. I’m approaching my mid-30s. And due to an unrelenting year at work, I’ve gained some weight. So perhaps unsurprisingly, the last few weeks have featured a conversational dance of hinted “are-you-pregnant” questions.

I’ve ignored the hints and laughed off the passing comments about future grandchildren. What I haven’t responded with is my honest answer: I’m terrified about having kids. [Read more…]

So You Have $100 Billion.

There has been a lot of talk over the last couple weeks (interrupted, of course, for impeachment and Christmas) about the church’s $100 billion endowment. And I want to add to that discussion. Specifically, I want to think about the question of how the church could change with a $100 billion endowment.

I’ll note that in the earliest iterations of this post, I thought about freaking this as some sort of (unsatiric) modest proposal.

But that has a couple significant problems. What I’m going to lay out here is not at all modest; it would represent a sea change in church finances. Moreover, it’s not a proposal so much as it is brainstorming. But a $100 billion endowment absolutely requires brainstorming. And my brainstorm?

[Read more…]

Sunday Dress

In our most recent General Conference, there has been a push for members to dress up for church. It’s long been a hobby horse of E. Oaks, and that hasn’t changed. Generally speaking, current Mormon dress standards at church are a little more dressed up than most other sects, but maybe less than Easter at a historically black church–we don’t like hats and fans.

Several years ago, we had a French boy staying with us on an exchange program. I asked if he wanted to come along with us to church or if he preferred to stay home. He said he would like to come along, for curiosity sake. I had mentioned that people in our church tended to dress up for church. He was Catholic, an occasional church-goer, but not from a super devout family. When he came down in nice jeans, sneakers, and a tee shirt with a slogan on it, I was worried he’d feel awkward when he saw all the other kids in dress pants and button down shirts. He borrowed a button down shirt from my son and off we went. He was further surprised to see our son administering the sacrament, a rite he was used to seeing a priest in vestments conduct. [Read more…]