August 18, 2016

9: Selling Salvation

I studied accounting at Brigham Young University, the Mormon-run college in Provo, UT. In one of my introductory accounting classes, we were shown a financial statement mock up as it would look if it were filled out the way the US government would fill it out. We made notes on all of the financial trouble the government would be in if it were a business and discussed strategies that could improve the government's financial situation. It was an interesting exercise using a real-world example to show that accounting could help us better understand an organization.

I was surprised that we didn't look at the financial statements of our church. Professors at BYU tend to bring Mormonism into the classroom as often as they can, and this seemed like a missed opportunity to dig into the workings of our own religion.

In my marketing class, we had talked about the church's "I'm a Mormon" video campaign. The idea came up that the videos were an advertising campaign for the church, which struck me as odd. An advertising campaign? For the church? Why would the church need to make commercials unless it was selling something?

But it actually made sense. The missionaries are the sales force. They go out to find converts, who could be considered customers. The "I'm a Mormon" commercials were meant to create a positive brand image of Mormonism in the minds of potential converts the way all businesses use commercials to create positive brand images of their products in the minds of potential customers. All of that was easy for me to swallow.

But if missionaries are the sales force of the church, doesn't that imply selling something?

That's when the thoughts started getting uncomfortable.

I once attended a youth church activity, a Q&A with the bishopric, where someone asked the question, "Isn't paying tithing the same as buying blessings?" At the time everyone laughed it off and skipped to the next question. But now that I was thinking of the church as a business, that question popped back into my head. 

The idea of buying blessings reminded me of what I had read in history books about the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. There had been a time when the Catholic priests sold "indulgences" to the lay people. Selling "indulgences" was essentially selling salvation because these indulgences represented the forgiveness of sins. The outrage over misuse of the indulgence system helped lead to Martin Luther's 95-Thesis and eventually the Protestant Reformation, which protested corruption in the Catholic Church.

Selling salvation was an old-fashioned deception used by clergy to get money from the members back in the Middle Ages. It was obviously immoral. But if the objective of missionaries is to sell blessing, were they really any different from the medieval Catholic priests who sold indulgences? This was a problem.

"Missionaries aren't selling blessings," said my Mormon brain. "They aren't trying to get people's money. They are just trying to convert people to the Gospel!"

But there's no denying the church receives money from its converts. Lots of money.

Everything in Mormonism revolves around going to the temple. It is the only place in the plan of salvation where ordinances are performed that allow members to live at the highest levels of the celestial kingdom and to be with their family. Paying 10% of your income as tithing is a requirement to get a temple recommend, which means that if you want to reach the highest levels of heaven you regularly make payments to the church. If you don't make those payments, your leaders will find out when they check up on you in annual tithing settlements or during your temple recommend interviews.

For the church, this system virtually guarantees that they will receive 10% of millions of paychecks for decades, or as long as people are willing to pay tithing. And why wouldn't members be willing to pay? Getting into the temple to perform saving ordinances for only 10% of your income for life? What a bargain! 

So why didn't we learn more about church finances in my accounting classes? Financial statements are all about assets and debts, revenues and expenses, and cash flow. The Mormon church certainly has all of these things. In addition to the tithing revenue, they also own lots and lots of real estate. Members are told:

"Tithing funds are always used for the Lord’s purposes—to build and maintain temples and meetinghouses, to sustain missionary work, to educate Church members, and to carry on the work of the Lord throughout the world." -

But members just have to trust that that's where their tithing money is going. There's no a way of verifying it. This interview with President Hinckley is from 2002:

Reporter: "In my country, we say the people's churches, the Protestants, the Catholics, they publish all their budgets, to all the public."
Hinckley: "Yeah, Yeah."
Reporter: "Why is it impossible for your church?"
Hinckley: "We simply think that information belongs to those who made the contribution, and not to the world." [1]

This seems like a perfectly reasonable statement. It seems fair to say that only members need access to what happens to tithing funds. But members don't have access to that information in the US today, and they haven't since 1959 when the church got into a lot of debt and didn't want to report anymore. [2] In an interview where it was important to sound as open as other churches, Hinckley hinted that the church does give tithe-paying members special access their financial data, but in reality, that information (the information about where tithing funds are spent) is not available to anyone outside of the church office buildings. That's why we didn't study it in the accounting classes. It wasn't available to us or to anyone else who might have questions.

At this point, I had decided that it was important for me to be skeptical of claims made by the church and to be willing to question. My business classes left me with very skeptical questions. The church has a sales force and marketing campaigns. Doesn't this mean the church is selling salvation? How was the concept of tithing any different from the idea of indulgences? If the church is using tithing for "the work of the Lord" then why hide that information?

Needless to say, I stopped paying tithing as soon as possible. I feel really uncomfortable with the idea of "buying blessings," and specifically in Mormonism the idea of "buying" a temple recommend. I don't think money should be a part of spirituality at all and I think that the Mormon church needs to remove the requirement to pay tithing from the temple recommend interview. I don't think anyone should donate to an organization because they are under threat of losing their temple recommend if they don't donate. And if I chose to donate money to an organization, I want it to be an organization that doesn't feel the need to hide its finances, which means the church doesn't qualify.

2. "During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the church greatly increased spending on buildings under the leadership of Henry Moyle. Moyle's reasoning was that by building larger meetinghouses the church would attract more converts. The accelerated building program led to a $32 million deficit in 1962. It was Moyle who convinced David O. McKay to discontinue publishing an annual financial statement in order to hide the extent of the spending."

August 10, 2016

8: Fallible Prophets

Even though Joseph Smith ordained a number of black people to the priesthood, Brigham Young, who replaced Joseph Smith as the prophet, initiated a ban on ordinations for black men in 1852 that would last until 1978. I learned about this priesthood ban from the perspective of the rural Idaho community I grew up in. The explanations for the ban were "it was all God's timing", "it was the culture of their day", or even the occasional theory that the blood of Cain hadn't been thinned out enough through inter-breeding.

I just went with it.

If God tells the prophet to ban black people from the priesthood, then that's the way it's going to be. In primary, I was taught the song "Follow the Prophet", an ominous melody in a minor key with lyrics like, "Don't go astray/He knows the way!" I grew up hearing that the prophet will never lead us astray. Ironically, this isn't taught by the prophets, but Mormons still believe it. According to Mormons, without a prophet, we would all be as lost and as miserable as the people in the Middle Ages were when they had no living prophet on the earth to guide them.  Prophets in Mormonism are meant to lead and guide, to offer direction in times of confusion, to speak for God. Everything the prophet says is understood to be doctrine. Because he's the prophet. He will never lead us astray.

Well, except for the times when he does:
"We will never get a man into space. This earth is man's sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen. " - Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith

The phrase Mormons use at times like this is "speaking as a man." Of course, prophets make mistakes, Mormons say. They are human after all. Isn't it miraculous how God can do such great works through imperfect men?

But situations like this bring up a tension in Mormonism. If the prophet sometimes "speaks as a man" instead of speaking for God, that means he sometimes leads people astray.  On the other hand, he can never lead us astray.

So which is it? Sometimes or never?

This tension was something I kept neatly tucked away on my handy Mormon mental shelf, the way most Mormons do. If you just don't think about it, then it goes away. That worked quite nicely for a while. Until early in 2014, when I read the church essay titled "Race and the Priesthood." In that essay the church says:

"Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents [prophets] restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.""Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form." - "Race and the Priesthood"

Phew. On one hand, this was an official disavowal of all the weird theories I had heard growing up and it meant that I didn't have to worry about the blood of Cain stuff. On the other hand, it also meant that the only explanation for why blacks were banned from the priesthood was because the prophets were, in Mormon lingo, "products of their time." In other words, the prophets were just plain racist.

Here's a quote showing just how racist a prophet could be:

"The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God children stand in equal positions before Him in all things....Indeed, some of God's children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed. We are aware that some Higher Critics do not accept this, but the Church does. From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel." - Prophet George Albert Smith in a letter to Lowry Nelson

It makes me cringe to think that I once revered these men. I thought they were a guiding light to turn to at times when the "philosophies of men" create social and moral confusion. I thought they were supposed to lead social progress, not reluctantly comply with it, but the Civil Rights movement had been going on for decades before the church finally got with the program. And on top of that, the prophets were obviously racist! They were actively opposing the progress. Not leading it.

My next defense (I say defense because sometimes Mormons view facts as an attack on their faith) against these problems as a Mormon was to say that these were past prophets, and all that really matters is that we follow the current prophet. But that argument didn't work at all! We are supposed to believe in all the prophets, especially Joseph Smith. And making the distinction between the past and current prophets did nothing to refute the fact that the right thing to do as a member in the 1960s would have been to NOT follow the prophet.

What else were the prophets wrong about? Polygamy? It would be easy to see how prophets could be "products of their humanity" and confuse their sexual desires with the will of God, the way prophets had mistaken their own racist inclinations to be the Gospel truth. Couldn't living prophets be wrong too? What about women being banned from the priesthood? Or homosexual marriages being banned from temples? The prophets are probably "products of their time" in these aspects as well and will eventually give in to the pressure to do the right thing as society becomes more loving and Christ-like than the church, the way it happened in the 1970s.

The excuse that prophets were "products of their time" isn't a good excuse. If a prophet confuses his own will with God's will and gets things wrong in matters as important as the ability of black people to go to the temple, then he is no prophet in my mind. The right way to go in the 1960s was the opposite way that the prophet of the Mormon church was leading, and there's no reason to assume that following the prophet is the only correct choice in the present time. Prophets claim to have a special connection with God, but if I can't tell the difference between when the man is speaking and when God is speaking, then I think that's dangerous. It means I am putting the prophet's own thoughts and feelings on the same level as the word of God, even when it's not from God!

After realizing this, I decided that I would think for myself from that point forward. No more depending on the prophet to make my moral decisions for me. No more leaving it up to chance whether the guidance I followed was actually from God or not. If I lived in the 1960s, the right thing would have been to take a step back and ask the question, "Is the prophet wrong?" And if that was the right question to be asking in the 1960s, then it was definitely the right question to be asking in 2014.

August 04, 2016

7: Spiritual Experiences

I was standing at the balcony window. Soft music was playing in the apartment behind me and I was looking out at the night sky. The moon was shining brightly. Looking up at it made me think  of all the humans from around the world and from all different cultures, religions, and continents who have lived under that same moon. From generation to generation -- back and back to when we were just primitive humans and before that to whatever we were before we looked human -- all of us have experienced the feeling of living on this planet and under the moon that was glowing above me. I felt a connection with my ancestors, with humanity, with life, and with the world. I felt peaceful. I felt happy.

Church taught me that the feelings of this experience should have deep meaning. This should be an example of a "spiritual experience." The correct way to interpret these feelings would be to say that the Spirit was testifying to me of the magnificence of God's creations, or of the love God has for everyone, or of some other deep and meaningful doctrine of the church.

But at this point in my life, I didn't need the church interpretation of my feelings. I felt peace. I felt happy. Why would I need any more than that?

I decided then that I wouldn't let the church define experiences for me. It was comforting to know that I COULD find peace without anything remotely related to church. If I wanted to find meaning in my life, I could make it for myself. The church did NOT have a monopoly on "spiritual experiences", good feelings, or happiness. I felt free.

This post was really important for me to write because it captures the moment when I realized that the church has always tried to tell me I would miserable if left. Now I realize that this is like an abusive relationship where the abusive partner pressures the victim into staying by saying things like, "you'll never do any better than me," or "you'll never be happier than you are with me." The truth, though, is that there is plenty of happiness to be found outside of the church. They try to say that happiness outside of the church is just fake, that it's Satan's deception. All I have to say to that is I'm just as happy as I was before and now I don't have anyone threatening me with eternal damnation if I don't do what they want me to do.

If "true" happiness is only available through an organization that is quick to blame their members and make them suffer enormous amounts of guilt while the church as an organization never admits its own mistakes or gives apologies, then I'm fine with my "counterfeit" happiness, thank you very much.