The Problem with Wasatch Front Mormons

December 1, 2003 | 24 comments
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Bear with me. This post is not about what you think it is about. My beef is not with Republican Mormons, social Mormons, Utah Mormons, Jello salad, or any of the other sins that Wasatch Front Mormonism is generally accused of. Rather, I am interested in power.

It seems that Wasatch Front Mormons often times fall into the trap of thinking of the Church as a powerful institution. This mistake shows itself in a variety of contexts. For example, many conservative Wasatch Front Mormons are hostile to a strong conception of the separation of church and state, viewing it as a kind of cheap rhetorical ploy designed to keep Mormonism from exercising its rightful and beneficent influence on government. The implicit assumption of this stance is that the Church is a powerful institution in the community and that separationist arguments are primarily about limiting Church power. The fallacy of this argument is that in most places, Mormons are a decided minority and that we by and large benefit from separationism, especially since those most opposed to separationism in the United States are also those who are the most religiously hostile toward Mormons.

Another manifestation of this fallacy is Wasatch Front criticism that sees the Church as a vast, omni-competent institution, able to exert huge influence at will. At a very parochial level there is probably at least some truth to this. The Church can exert a great deal of political influence in Utah if it chooses to do so. However, its influence off of the Wasatch Front is extremely limited – high profile involvement in California, Hawaii, or Alaska notwithstanding. For example, the Church has almost no political power in Virginia, Massachusetts, or Arkansas (to name the three states that I have lived in during the last five years.) Furthermore, even its political power in Utah seems to be at least in part a product of political restraint. One or two generations ago, Church leaders were less reticent about intervening in Utah politics than they are today. One result was that their interventions tended to be much less successful.

Both Wasatch Front critics and Wasatch Front triumphalists tend to see the Church as an hugely wealthy institution, possessed of limitless assets and resources. However, if one looks at the sources of Church income and its areas of growth, it becomes obvious that the Church faces incredibly daunting financial challenges. Simply put, the Church is acquiring fiscal liabilities faster than it is acquiring fiscal assets. Since tithing is a more or less fixed percentage of members’ income, we can safely assume that most tithing will come from members who earn more money. Globally, this primarily means members in the United States, Canada, and Europe. However, most of Church growth is happening in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and among poor populations (e.g. inner-cities or immigrant communities) in the developed world. Growth among high- or middle-income North Americans and Europeans – that is among those able to provide significant financial resources – is much slower and in some areas is essentially non-existent. As it stands, the Church transfers resources from wealthy Saints to poor Saints by paying for the cost of Church programs in areas that cannot sustain those costs, and aggressively limiting the costs of the Church in areas that could economically sustain much more elaborate programs. The two sides of this redistributive equation, however, are growing at very different rates. Given this reality, goggling at the zeros in estimates of Church wealth simply misses the perilous economic reality of the situation.

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24 Responses to The Problem with Wasatch Front Mormons

  1. Russell Arben Fox on December 1, 2003 at 11:15 pm

    Interesting post. However…

    “Mormons are a decided minority and…by and large benefit from separationism, especially since those most opposed to separationism in the United States are also those who are the most religiously hostile toward Mormons.”

    A loaded sentence. We benefit from separationism–in what sense? We benefit in that we are not on the receiving end of formal, state-sanctioned persecution; obviously, an important enough fact that it may, perhaps, overshadow every other consideration. But only “perhaps.” Do we benefit in terms the civic life that we enjoy (or don’t) in the contemporary U.S.? Do we benefit in terms of social morality? Do we benefit in terms of the progress (or lack thereof) of the civilization our tradition cannot avoid sharing?

    I’m not endorsing Constantinianism. But I am suggesting that to uncomplicatedly assert that Mormons, as a minority, should of course be strict separationists, because to be otherwise is to be unaware of how the Baptists are out to get us, is a little simplistic.

  2. Paul Smith on December 4, 2003 at 11:46 am

    Here’s a simple comment to your post Nate. I’m from Orange County California where the church is building a new temple. They have asked the families there to do something unprecedented, maybe because they have some of the concerns you have, although your post doesn’t convince me that the church faces potential economic troubles. They’ve asked the corresponding stakes to pay for the entire cost of the temple. The Bishops are going house to house, much like they did to support the same sex initiative, and asking for money for the temple. Just something to think about, for me it’s further testimony that nothing will stop the Lord’s work.

  3. Adam Greenwood on December 4, 2003 at 1:42 pm

    Good point, Paul.

    Maybe the solution to increasing Church poverty that Nate points out is for those of us who are well off to step up and contribute more. 10% isn’t all that much to give to the Kingdom.

  4. Nate on December 4, 2003 at 1:55 pm

    De facto I think that this happens more than we realize. For example, I don’t think that the Chruch was out any tithing money to rebuild the Nauvoo temple. At the very least, much of the construction costs were from supra-tithing donations. In addition, I know that many elements of the interiors of recent temples — e.g. stain glass, original art, etc. — were donated.

    I should clarify that I don’t think there is some impending bankruptcy filing in the offing for the Church. I have faith that the Lord will provide and the Council on the Disposition of Tithes will be wise. My basic point is that the Church is financially strapped and becoming more so, a point that most discussions of supposed Mormon wealth miss. It also means that most discussions of Church money and finances miss most of the real issues.

    I hadn’t heard about the Orange County Temple. In the old days, local units used to pay most of the construction costs of their own buildings. This is why some of the old chapels are really beautiful, see, e.g., the building in the Harvard/Yale neighborhood in SLC, the Arlington Chapel in Virginia, the Hollywood Chapel in California, The Old Fourth Ward Building in central city SLC, the building in SLC on 3rd Ave and D Street (I think that is right) etc. Congregations in wealthier neighborhoods could produce really quite beautiful buildings because they had the money and the consequently the control to do so. I think that the move to having Salt Lake fully fund buildings and build them on a mass produced model was at least in part about taking the money that wealthier congregations were pouring into their own buildings and redistributing it to poorer congregations. A commendable move, I suppose, but the quality of the architecture suffered dramatically.

  5. Nate on December 4, 2003 at 2:00 pm

    On the Nauvoo temple, I should point out that even if it constituted a multi-million dollar donation to the Church, it is functionally a liability rather than an asset, since the Church cannot easily access the wealth tied up in the building and must now pay the not inconsequential costs of operation and upkeep.

  6. Jeremiah John on December 4, 2003 at 2:35 pm

    The most illuminating avdenture of political research in my young life was serving in the Utah state legislature for a session (I’m not from Utah, but Virginia–I picked by research area very carefully). I worked with two Mormon Republican members of the House, one from Taylorsville the other from Roy. We would frequently get angry letters about how we need to “get the church out of politics”. You may or may not find it surprising that most of these letters were from conservative, older non-Mormons, not young secular humanist liberals.

    A second thing that I found interesting was the Mormon legislators’ dedication to the University of Utah. Conservative, active Mormon–it didn’t matter, if you lived north of the point of the mountain you gave the U. whatever it wanted. Never mind things like the fact that the U.’s law school doesn’t have one active Mormon on it’s faculty, last I heard.

    Third–I occasionally had talks with my legislators about my career plans, my family, etc. But at least with these two legislators, any time I brought up my mission, getting married in the Manti temple, or anything else to do with the church, the conversation came to a screeching halt. And more generally: I sat in on pretty private meetings with party leaders in the House and never were goals or strategies framed in a remotely religious context. If I were to compare the language of politics in Salt Lake as I experienced it with that of Washington DC, the former seems much more secular. Of course political judgement involves more than just the terms of the debate, but also dispositions and orientations towards issues, among other things. But the kind of language that is used in Utah politics is remarkably secular in my opinion.

  7. Paul Smith on December 4, 2003 at 3:59 pm

    I agree with Jeremy. I’m from California, so I too have something to compare it with. In my opinion, it’s almost sad that legislators and other politicians are so hesitant and almost embarrased (if I dare use the word) to bring up the church. The fact is, the church is a huge part of Utah (perhaps the understatement of the century), and one would think/hope that the church would be a frequent topic of conversation. For example, there are cities all over the nation where one industry/institution dominates the culture. I would be willing to bet those politicians aren’t hesitant to bring up their association with that “industry” come election time. On the contrary, I’ll be they’re proud.

  8. Paul Smith on December 4, 2003 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks for the clarification Nate. Although I’ll be honest it worries me to hear the words “financially strapped” being associated with the church. I just find that hard to believe. But for the sake of argument I’ll take your word for it. You used the Nauvoo temple as an example of being a liability. Looking at it strictly from a financial aspect. There were 1000′s of visitors to the Nauvoo temple (unfortunately I don’t have the numbers). Granted many of these visitors were already members, but how many baptisms do you think may have come from the temple itself? How many current less active members rededicated themselves to the gospel? I know in Colombia where I served my mission, the area where the temple was dedicated went from an area with two Elders to an entire zone. Again, financially speaking, that’s a lot of tithing. I would argue, therefore, that the Nauvoo temple might not be as big of a liability as one might think.

  9. Adam Greenwood on December 4, 2003 at 4:39 pm

    I interned in the executive half of the Utah state government for a while and noticed the same thing. The only people who ever tried to talk religion (even without relation to politics) were a couple of interns and a Catholic woman who worked in the office. Everyone else tried to keep the subject as private as possible. People looked vaguely embarassed when I brought up the faith, like I were talking about the temple in McDonald’s.

    My grand dreams of a revived federalism allowing LDS experimentation in Utah keep dissipating away in the realization that no one in Utah wants it. The American Mormon mind is a colonized mind. The church is assimilating as a means, while the members of the church see it as an end.

  10. Frank on January 18, 2004 at 11:12 am

    Thanks for sharing this post!

  11. Anonymous on February 6, 2005 at 2:04 pm
  12. annegb on February 6, 2005 at 3:15 pm

    I didn’t know we were going broke. I thought we were rich.

    We always used to pitch in to pay for the chapels, but they told us we didn’t have to anymore.

    But I’m thinking, 10% is a lot to me. I guess it’s all relative, but if we’re going broke, then the other churches( faiths, I mean) must be going broke a lot faster because they don’t tithe that much. Although, doesn’t tithe mean tenth?

  13. Kelly Knight on February 6, 2005 at 6:15 pm

    I lived in Utah only 6 years, all of that in Provo, and quite frankly wasn’t as involved in political issues as I now seem to be. Now, living in Arizona, I know that the church seems to weild a fair sized stick in politics. A former governor, several congressmen, a future governor (hopefully).

    You will noticed that I used a small “c” in church, rather than the customary “C”. I did this for a reason. Yes, I believe that there are occasions when the Church involves itself in politics, especially in the business arena like downtown SLC. Interestingly, when the Church asked the current gov. of AZ to help revitalize downtown Mesa, she said “no thanks”. Instead, the Church will be pumping in who knows how much to help bring back that area to a thriving business sector.

    On the other hand, the “c”hurch probably weilds a bigger stick. That is to say that when people decide to serve in government, they bring with them who they are, their personal moral code, their business background, etc. If one is a true blue, died in the wool Mormon, they bring with them a certain perspective of how things should be. Hopefully, when they begin “legislatin” they will do so from that perspective, which is what I think we see in states like UT, CA, HI, AZ. Large numbers of politicos are members, and the way they vote, or legislation they introduce will reflect their “mormonism”.

  14. Jim F. on February 7, 2005 at 1:07 am

    Kelly’s point is an important one: the Church doesn’t have to be involved, nor do people have to talk about religion in order for the culture of the Church to have influence.

  15. Bryan Robert on March 23, 2005 at 2:12 pm

    This is my first time posting here. I know this thread is old, but I ran across it and felt like I had to post. The comment that the Church is going broke, finacially strapped, or even to suggest hurting even a little for money is one of the funniest comments ive ever read in my life. No offence to those who said it, but nothing could be futher from the truth.

    It is interesting logic to say that because the church is converting mostly poor people, then it must somehow be losing money. Or because they asked to help out in the building of the temple that they must be going broke. Im sorry to tell you that is false. Tithing is just 1 way that the church gets money. Tithing alone brings is billions and billions yearly. Not to mention the fact that the church owns multi billion dollar buisnesses,has billions invested and probably 1 of the only instutions in the world where their is no fraude when dealing with money. I think we can safely say that you can believe the hype, the church is extremely wealthy and contunies to become more wealthy every year.

    Why then did they ask to help in the building of the temple? Seems pretty logical to me. As members we are required to give %10. This however is all we are required to do. Very few people cannot afford to do much much more. When we understand the plan of salvation, and we are “truely converted” then we know that material wealth means nothing. Everything we have should be given to God if he asks. The Church is frugal, it is an incredible well run buisness in a way, because God is at its head. If a wealthy community can pay for its temple by itself, then that is 1 more temple that can be put up in a poor community. Does it mean that the church is in financial trouble because it does this? Absolutely not. The Church does not waste money, it does not assume that because it is great finacial shape now, that it will always be. The Church is always prepared for a crisis.

    I hope this does not come off like im talking down to anyone, because im not. I just wanted ya’ll to rethink some of this logic that im hearing. The truth is, if the Church had 20 trillion dollars in the bank, they would still be very tight with their money, they would still ask members to pay extra for things now and then. It is as much for your benifit as the Church when they do this. Money is the hardest thing to part with, and many members can follow everything that the church asks except for that.

    Everyone should give thanks every day that the Church does not call the law of Consecration. How much faith would that take to pay.

  16. Nate Oman on March 23, 2005 at 2:22 pm

    Bryan: I don’t think that my claim was that the Church is going to go broke. Rather, my claim is that when one compares the financial challenges that the Church faces with the financial resources that it has at its disposal, it looks much less wealthy than much of the press hype suggests. Converting poor people does cost money. Congregations of poor people cannot pay for the buildings and programs that they consume. This is in no way a value judgement about converting poor people or about the righteousness of poorer wards and congregations. It is simply a financial reality that the Church must deal with it. I’ve no doubt that the Church’s funds will be used prayerfully and wisely. I don’t expect the Church to suffer a dramatic financial crisis or a bankruptcy. On the other hand, I am very glad that I am not a decision maker. It strikes me that the Church faces some daunting challenges. No doubt things will work themselves out, but it fills me with fear and trembling rather than triumphalism.

  17. JWL on March 23, 2005 at 3:15 pm

    Nate —

    You are definitely right about the long-term trends whereby the ever-increasing percentage of the Church members in poor countries will present an ever-increasing strain on the Church’s financial resources. These trends will be further exacerbated by two other factors: (1) even in the U.S. a large number of converts come from lower socio-economic groups, and (2) the ongoing debtor status of the U.S. suggests that the current decline in the dollar’s value may be a permanent long-term phenomenon which will negatively impact the Church since most of its assets and income are in US dollars.

    However, I am curious about your observation that Wasatch Front Mormons are myopically triumphalist in their assumptions about the Church’s wealth and influence. While I have certainly seen the provincial attitude you are describing in some individual Church members, do you think it manifests itself in any significant way on a macro-scale? Can you cite examples of how it affects Church policies, the behavior of large groups of LDS, serious LDS scholarship, or global LDS society? Or are you just commenting on the narrow perspectives of some local yokels who don’t realize that there is a world beyond the tops of the everlasting mountains?

  18. Mark B. on March 23, 2005 at 3:33 pm

    JWL, it’s nice to see that you have awakened from your winter hibernation. Now if only you could get it to stop snowing.

    It would be interesting to see some demographic evidence to show what happens to the poor who are baptized, whether in Bushwick or Buenos Aires. After controlling for activity rates, what is the “effect” of conversion and church activity on economic class? At times it appears that the Lord’s statement about having the poor with us always is surely fulfilled in some parts of the city, but there seem to be two types of out-migration occurring: first, there are those who, though baptized, soon cease to have any meaningful relationship with the church, and second, there are those who remain active but generally don’t remain in the poor neighborhoods where they were baptized. We’ve seen that pattern for a quarter century in Brooklyn. I’d be interested in seeing some data to show whether that is in fact true generally across the church. (Was Pres. Benson right when he said that the Lord removed the slums from people’s hearts, and they they moved themselves out of the slums? [pardon the lousy paraphrase])

    Another bit of anecdotal data: it took four generations in my family to move from abject poverty (probably made worse by emigration from England to the deserts of the Great Basin and later eastern Arizona) to embarrassing wealth. If someone from a poor barrio in Buenos Aires is baptized, can the church not afford to wait four generations for that person’s descendants to hit the upper registers of the economic scale?

  19. David Rodger on March 23, 2005 at 3:35 pm

    I can’t even begin to say how off-base your pessimism is. It is true that the Church is converting far more people in poorer areas of the world, and that there is a long term trend which would appear to be a liability.

    However, the financial situation of the Church has never been better. For example, just last year the Church instituted a program to increase budget funds for Youth and YSA (and Primary) among all wards and stakes in the Church. If you believe for a moment that someone who is as fiscally conservative as President Hinckley would make a committment to increase the funding without being sure that the Church would be able to sustain that funding in the long term, you don’t understand President Hinckley.

    Second, because single major expenditure for the Church is for buildings, I don’t know whether you understand the cash flow implications of a slight slow down in the pace of new buildings. It is enormous.

    Third, the economic advance of Church members in the developing world is proceeding apace. As they serve missions, gain an education and get better jobs, the Church will be blessed with a rising generation of more economically active people.

    I don’t think we need to worry about the Church. The Lord will provide a way for us to accomplish His purposes.

  20. Nate Oman on March 23, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    I have heard that the the rule of thumb used at Church headquarters is that it takes three generations for the Church to become self-supporting in an area, ie you have to have a substial population of members whose grand parents were converts in order to tithing revenue support all local costs. I suspect that church activity does have a positive effect on levels of wealth, but I suspect that it is largely generational. This is just based on my own observations, so give it the slight importance it deserves.

    David: It may be that the shift of funding into YSA programs is based on an shrewd understanding of where the Church is most likely to get the greatest increased activity levels bang for its buck rather than out of a desire to simply spend excess church funds.

  21. David Rodger on March 23, 2005 at 4:04 pm

    While not necessarily disagreeing with your last comment, there have to be excess funds to even be thinking of that.

    By the way, in the past year, the Church purchased a ranch in Nebraska. I don’t know what the price per acre was, but it WAS 88,000 acres.

  22. Shawn Bailey on March 23, 2005 at 4:05 pm

    Nate (no. 20): the influence of the Perpetual Education Fund on future revenues will be interesting to track. I assume we (those of us outside of the church office building) will never see the actual data, but there will likely be anecdotal evidence to follow. I will keep my ears open for missionary stories regarding the emerging Mormon middle class in the Phillipines, etc.

  23. Jonathan Stone on March 23, 2005 at 6:34 pm

    I think it might be off-base to focus too much on the fact that the vast majority of converts today come from the lower economic classes. It is my understanding that it has always been the case that most converts come from the lower economic classes. The members in Utah who form the financial backbone of the church from which tithing funds go out to support expansion and programs all over the world are not converts; they were born into the church, and more will continue to be born into the church. The most effective way God has of raising up a prosperous people is to bless the children of those humble enough to convert.

    I would argue with the fact that we are somehow at the end of the glory days, facing increasing financial pressures in the future. I don’t think anything has changed from pioneer days. The humble convert, and their faithful children, grandchildren, and beyond prosper.

  24. anon on April 21, 2005 at 12:01 pm