Go and Do Likewise?

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Rusty Clifton is a longtime friend of BCC.

A couple months ago I came home from work to my wife in the front yard chatting with a lady who, by all visible measures, appeared to be homeless. I had never seen this woman before, but my wife later assured me that she was known by many people in our upper-middle-class Salt Lake City neighborhood. While my natural inclination is to avoid situations that have the potential to unnecessarily add complications to my life, my wife overflows with compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden. So that evening, after determining she was clean from drugs and not dangerous, we agreed to let her stay in our basement (it’s a mother-in-law apartment we use for guests or the occasional AirBNB) until we could help her secure more permanent housing and employment. Over the course of the next week or so we did what we could to accommodate her: secure privacy, food, shower, soft bed with fresh linens, rides to housing offices/employment interviews, and a friendly home base while she worked to get herself back on her feet. [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…]

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…]

Mormonism and the Prosperity Gospel

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Mette Ivie Harrison is a well-known mystery and young-adult novelist and frequent guest here. She is the author of The Book of Laman, published by BCC Press.

Most Mormons have no idea what the “prosperity gospel” is, and if you point them to typical TV evangelicals, they insist that Mormonism is nothing like that. Yet, there are far too frequent occasions when I find myself biting my tongue about something a fellow Mormon says, either casually, at a wedding or other social event, or on the stand during a talk, that translates into precisely that: prosperity gospel.

For the sake of clarity, let me give a useful definition of “prosperity gospel:” a modern version of the gospel in which those who follow God in strict obedience are given blessings of wealth, health, and power. [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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

Book Review: The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth and Corporate Power

D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth and Corporate Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2017).

When I heard that the third volume of Quinn’s Mormon Hierarchy trilogy would deal with the Mormon church and money, I was totally excited. I love exploring how religions deal with money (and, for that matter, how money deals with religions). And I figured that Quinn would have encyclopedic knowledge of Mormonism and money; he has, after all, written about it in the past. And when I saw that the Kindle version was selling for just $9, what could I do? So I downloaded it and read it.

First the good: Quinn has assembled an impressive amount of information related to the LDS church and money. Nearly 200 years’ worth. Some of his history I was familiar with; a good portion (especially dealing with early-20th-century Utah) I wasn’t. For instance, he has a fascinating snippet of discussion about the church and property tax exemption (both in Utah and throughout the world).[fn1] It’s too brief, and seems at some points to conflate property and income tax exemptions, but I’m entirely sure I’ll return to this part of the book in future projects that I look at. [Read more…]

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…]

Erasing Race

We’ve had some outstanding Relief Society lessons in my ward this year, owing to the great teachers we have. Recently, we were talking about how to talk with people not of our faith or culture, basically how to get along with everyone without being a jerk. Something like that. I was in and out a little bit. [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…]

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…]

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…]

And There Was No Sick Among Them

“And remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple.”  D&C 52:40

I remember the day – 10 years ago this month –  I first realized that government-sponsored healthcare might not be inherently evil.

A British friend and I were engaged in an impromptu debate on social policy.  I started lecturing him on the defects of British healthcare compared to true red-state and Mormon principles of self-reliance.  Any form of welfare, especially government-sponsored healthcare, perpetuated a cycle of dependence.  If an individual legitimately needed help, family, friends, and nonprofits should step in.  Government involvement was wasteful, anti-capitalistic, and coercive –  it could never heal society.

He offered a pithy response: “I can think of nothing more barbaric about America than that you let people die because they can’t afford healthcare.”

“Barbaric” hit me with a jolt. What an absurd word!  And yet, one with truth. [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…]

We Should REALLY Argue More at Church

Image resultI hope I will be forgiven for co-opting Sam Brunson’s excellent post and title (found here), but I wanted to investigate the WHY a little bit more. Ardis points out that debate used to be a staple at church (at least for the men of the YMMIA) during the early part of the 20th century. We also know that in the earliest days of the church, the School of the Prophets was known for hearty discussion and debate (as well as tobacco spitting and smoking). Based on my own memories, growing up in the church in the 70s and 80s, church classes used to involve more debate than they have in my advancing years. That could be the nature of the ward I grew up in, but I suspect that it’s a byproduct of the calcification of correlation that has continued since its introduction. The church–like every organization–becomes more bureaucratic with growth, not less. I’ll explain what I mean. [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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

Happy Tax Day! (Unless You Live in MA or ME)

Brigham Young, c. 1870

Brigham Young, c. 1870

Most years (at least when I remember), I like to do a Tax Day post.[fn1] (And yes, I get that Tax Day statutorily falls on April 15 for calendar year taxpayers, and I get that April 15 was Friday. But Friday was also the observation of Emancipation Day in D.C., which pushed Tax Day to today. Except in Massachusetts and Maine, where today is apparently Patriots’ Day, which means Tax Day is tomorrow.)

For this year’s Mormon-y Tax Day celebration, we’re going back to the Civil War-era income tax. It only lasted a decade, from 1861-1871, but, in that time, it managed to ensnare itself with the Mormons out in Utah.  [Read more…]