Influence in all the wrong places…

October 26, 2005 | 30 comments
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From time to time Mormons face various forms of legal and political harassment. Sometimes this happens in the United States, but as events in Venezuela dramatically illustrate the legal challenges that the Church faces abroad are generally much more extreme than those that it faces in the U.S. One result is that there is a real mismatch between the Church’s challenges and its resources.

Within the United States, the Church has a fair amount of influence. If anything, Mormons are over-represented in Congress. When faced with a serious legal or political problem, the Brethren have only to call Harry Reid or Bob Bennett to get the attention of the most powerful institutions in the country. In addition, the Church can draw on a very deep reservoir of LDS attorneys who can help it work through thorny issues. Having Rex Lee to argue a case anytime that it asked was a big asset to the Church. Finally, if all else fails, there are lots of very good law firms and lobbying firms that the Church can hire to solve its problems. Furthermore, American political culture and especially its legal culture are very open. Because American law allows one to recast most disputes in the form of a lawsuit, the Church can draw upon the legal expertise of its members — or hire legal expertise — to great effect.

The problem is that the Church’s reservoir of legal and political talents abroad is not nearly as deep. Perhaps more tellingly, the legal and political cultures where the Church is most likely to face official hostility are not nearly as open as analogous American institutions. Consider, for example, the problems that the Church faces from time to time with anti-cult activity in Western Europe. In the United States these laws could be subject to powerful constitutional challenges in court, and access to such courts is fairly easy for the Church to get. However, in a system in which technocrats wield more power than courts and where administration dominates law, it is far, far more difficult to recast problems in terms of lawsuits that can easily be brought before powerful neutral tribunals. Indeed, in many of these areas, I suspect that elite access matters considerably more than it does in the United States. The trick is not to have smart lawyers ready to file expensive legal challenges to hostile regulations but rather to have access to the elite bureaucrats who promulgate the regulations.

Hence, the Church finds itself in the unenviable position of having lots of elite access in a society where elite access is probably less important, and having very little elite access in societies where it is more important. Of course one response is to transform elite access in the United States into elite access abroad. Sometimes this will work. In 1999 several missionaries were kidnapped in central Russia by the local mafia. The Church immediately contacted Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, a member of the Church. Smith, who at the time was — if I recall correctly — chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee personally contacted Madeleine Albright, then-Secretary of State. The State Department then specifically contacted its Russian counterpart, which immediately siced the federal security police — essentially the successor organization to the KGB — on the mafioso. Having grabbed some foreigners on the assumption that they would face nothing more than the corrupt and malleable local police, the kidnappers found themselves facing a much more serious response. The missionaries were released. However, it is easy to imagine other situations in which using elite American access to influence events overseas would backfire and simply align anti-Mormon sentiment with anti-American sentiment or more likely cement an alignment that already existed.

It is a very thorny set of issues.

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30 Responses to Influence in all the wrong places…

  1. Eric Chambers on October 26, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    It is definitely a thorny set of issues. Having said that, I do believe the Church is attempting in a vigorous manner to cultivate relationships with the “elites” that you mention, which may prove beneficial in the future.

    I know that the Europe West Area has a number of PAMs (Public Affairs Missionaries) situated in key cities throughout western Europe. The Church also recently decided to move that Area’s Public Affairs office from Southern England to the city of London so that they would have easier access to key political decision makers and media figures. It is my understanding that they are making headway in cultivating relationships with a number of MP’s as well as Mayors throughout the country.

    I am unsure as to how fruitful these efforts have been in other European nations.

  2. Nate Oman on October 26, 2005 at 4:55 pm

    Eric: This is good to hear. My sense, however, is that for a number of reasons the Church faces comparatively few legal problems in Britian. In Western Europe my understanding is that the big problems are in France, Benelux countries, and to a lesser extent Germany.

  3. Randy B. on October 26, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    The church often faces this same type of problem (mismatched resources) when it comes to internal challenges. It is often the case, for example, that the largest wards, both in terms of geography and demographics, and those wards facing the greatest social problems (poverty, drug abuse, crime, illiteracy, etc.), struggle with finding enough qualified leaders to make things run, while some of the “smallest” wards in the most “tame” neighborhoods have difficulty giving everyone a meaningful calling.

    The potential risks that can arise in attempting to compensate for this internal mismatch are also similar to the type of problems Nate describes. For example, sending in “reinforcements” to wards with challenges can be viewed by resident members as welcome relief, or as a patronizing sign of no confidence.

  4. Wilfried on October 26, 2005 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for an important post, Nate. Within the context of what happened in Venezuela, the complexity of the matter is obvious. Each country has its own peculiar set of lobby traditions, balances, relations. How the (majority in the) country views America on the one hand, and minority religions or cults on the other hand, makes the right approach even more delicate. It is clear e.g. there are major differences between Britain and other European countries and between European countries themselves. African countries often represent another set of (bribe-based) traditions. Take as example the permission to build a temple. In some countries each procedure to get permission must have been preceded by multiple probings on various levels and the overcoming of many obstacles. In the former East-Germany it succeeded against all odds thanks to quiet diplomacy. In France permission to build a temple had not yet succeeded, in spite of many attempts for years. One of the reasons I heard is that French law is very strict on the permission for officials to enter a religious building at any time.

    Locals may be a great help to overcome obstacles and build a network, but often the Church is still weak and local members do not have enough clout nor experience. Also, shifting leadership at stake and mission level sometimes wipes out the efforts (and documentation) of predecessors and we can start anew. For (American) outsiders, it is not only difficult, but also tricky to get involved. From my experience I must admit honestly that I have not been impressed by the results of the (no doubt well meaning) Public Affairs Missionaries when it comes to working on higher political levels. I think we fail there, precisely because, as you mention, the key in most cases is “to have access to the elite bureaucrats who promulgate the regulations”, rather than legal action. On the other hand, if the “regulations” are temporary arrangements of good-will, instead of real rules, officially adopted and implemented, the Church remains dependent on individuals who may like us or not.

  5. Nate Oman on October 26, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Wilfried, implicitly raises an interesting question: Should the Church pay bribes to government officials where such a practice is common?

    It seems to me that we have three inter-related issues here:

    1. Is it ethically permissible for the Church to do so?
    2. Would it backfire politically or administrively in the countries where it was done, eg expose the Church to increasingly extortionate demands, create the perception that it was a rich American throwing its weight around, etc.?
    3. Would doing so subject the church to legal liability in the United States and elsewhere, say under the Corrupt Foreign Practice Act or analogous statutes?

    I assume that the Church does not pay bribes in order to get building permits in places where it is common do do so. What about subcontractors? How closely does the Church monitor its subcontractors to see to it that they are not paying bribes?

    There is, however, some precedent for Mormon bribery. During the final throws of the anti-polygamy crusade and up through the push for Utah statehood, the Church laid out a fair amount of cash either directly or through owned and controlled corporations in order to purchase favorable press coverage. There was nothing illegal about this and it was a fairly common political practice at the time, so the analogy isn’t perfect, but still…

  6. RoastedTomatoes on October 26, 2005 at 6:29 pm

    In actual practice, in many parts of Latin America (one presumes also in Africa and Asia), the church routinely pays bribes. I say this as a person who has first-hand experience, having acted a number of times as a bribe-paying agent for the church.

  7. sunbeam on October 26, 2005 at 6:32 pm

    American coorporations are not allowed to pay bribes, but it is my impression that many such coorporations get the requisite bribes paid through in-country sub-contracters.

    I have also heard of cases in which the Church has assisted missionaries in leaving countries rather than face trials for crimes, such as fatal traffic accidents. This seems highly questionable to me, but perhaps some would see it as “working the system.” I think the church needs to have a higher standard than the system, even if it means that we don’t get buildings built or a missionary does face trial.

  8. Nate Oman on October 26, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    RT: Let me put on my lawyer hat (actually I seldom take it off). When you say “the Church” to what are you referring? Local members? Local leaders? Regional leaders? Where do the funds come from? Local budgets? Personal funds? Regional accounts?

  9. RoastedTomatoes on October 26, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    I’ve done this in different capacities, actually. Funding sources for the bribes by the church that I’ve facilitated have included stake budgets, mission budgets, and and funds provided by local church employees — which presumably originate in some kind of official line item. These bribes have, in all occasions but one, been originated by local and regional leaders. In one case, a bribe was necessitated and initiated by a Seventy who was being hassled by a corrupt traffic cop.

  10. Nate Oman on October 26, 2005 at 6:49 pm

    Ok. Under 15 USC 78dd-1 it looks as though the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act applies only to companies that have issued securities. As long as the Church doesn’t do an IPO it looks as though they are not covered by the statute. In any case, there is an exception for:

    …any facilitating or expediting payment to a foreign official, political party, or party official the purpose of which is to expedite or to secure the performance of a routine governmental action by a foreign official, political party, or party official.

    Hence, it looks like you can bribe someone to get a building permit, but not to change the law.

    [NOTE: The foregoing is Nate’s BS reading of the statute based on the fact that he is a little bored at work. It is not legal advice to anyone, and no one should regard it as such or rely on it in any way.]

  11. RoastedTomatoes on October 26, 2005 at 6:49 pm

    Let me note also that I do not in any way consider bribe paying in Latin America to be a stain on the church’s honor. This isn’t, in my view, a scandal or an accusation. Rather, it’s a necessary fact of existence in much of the world. If we want the church to exist in countries where bribery is woven into the fabric of society, we have to accept that the church pays bribes.

  12. Nate Oman on October 26, 2005 at 6:53 pm

    RT: Thanks for the bribery comments! It reminds me of the question of whether or not bribery undermined the Soviet economy or not. The argument was that bribery actually helped as it introduced a (very imperfect) price mechanism that facilitated the efficient allocation of goods.

    My own sense is that ethically there are different sorts of bribes. Some are shameless and routine. Some could be more troubling.

    A follow-up question: To what extent (if any) does the payment of bribes by the Church create an incentive for local officials to try to extort money from it.

  13. RoastedTomatoes on October 26, 2005 at 7:12 pm

    Nate: being American creates the incentive for local officials to try to extort money from the church. Bribery is, I think, the consequence, unfortunately, and not the cause in this relationship. The only solution I can see would be for the church to shed its American image. Hasn’t happened yet…

  14. Adam Greenwood on October 26, 2005 at 7:44 pm

    Same argument is made about Italy in the here-in-now, Nate O.

  15. Nate Oman on October 26, 2005 at 8:04 pm

    …and China.

  16. Wilfried on October 26, 2005 at 8:48 pm

    My experience is also (cf. RT 11) that a “bribe” has different connotations and values according to the country, its social make-up and its traditions. Anecdote: when I arrived for the first time in Central Africa, I was immediately confronted with that peculiar reality: to obtain your luggage at the airport, you had to stand at a counter and point at your suitcases. An employee would then hand them over. I had already pointed several times, but the employee ignored me. I was getting angry… Until an experienced white local, standing next to me, said: “But, show him and give your matabish”, i.e. the money or “bribe” to get what you want. Unethical? The experienced local was so kind to explain to the greenie that the employee’s real income was the matabish and that he was no doubt responsible for the feeding and housing of scores of relatives. It was simply part of the economic system, with almost fixed rates. I learned quickly how it worked… These side-payments were the only way to get a driver’s license, a travel permit, whatever that was “official”. Of course, there is a huge difference between those relative low-level matabish and the substantial bribes given to higher-ups who do not need it. But people who grow up in the system see it only as income promotion.

    The real quandary comes when as an organization or as a Church you cannot obtain anything without participating in the system. No doubt the Church struggles with this at times.

  17. Chance on October 26, 2005 at 10:51 pm

    It will be a curious thing to measure how great of an impact the PEF makes upon this deficit within the next 40 to 60 years.

    Nate, that act only applies to corporations doing business within the US, correct?

    RT, was bribery against the law of the land in any of those areas?

  18. Christian Y. Cardall on October 26, 2005 at 10:55 pm

    The Perpetual Education Fund is a great development (I need to say so more enthusiastically with my pocketbook). I don’t know if any lawyers or technocrats are being trained because of it yet—the initial focus seemed to be on basic marketable skills—but hopefully as sights are raised towards education in general the Church will begin having more “elites” worldwide.

  19. Nate Oman on October 26, 2005 at 11:23 pm

    Chance: The Act applies to American companies bribing officials in other countries.

  20. RoastedTomatoes on October 27, 2005 at 10:45 am

    Chance, my guess is that bribery is against the law of the land in all Latin American countries. But to think about Latin America in practical terms, a more ample concept of law is needed than is needed in the US. There’s the law on the books, as it were, and the law on the ground. While the law on the books most likely makes the routine bribery that the church and everybody else engages in illegal, the law on the ground makes it necessary. This distinction between law on the books and on the ground is helpful more generally throughout the continent: aside from learning how to manage the expected bribery, this also helps you deal with the partiality and unpredictability of many of the continent’s legal systems, of government bureaucracies, of courts, etc. It also helps you come to appreciate the importance of cultivating good relationships with powerful individuals who may not have any official position.

    With respect to the Perpetual Education Fund, it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, so far, its rules prohibit it from funding college education. So no lawyers, no technocrats, no white-collar employees. Indeed, the PEF has so far focused on small improvements in people’s standards of living, rather than on major transformations that would lift people out of poverty. There has been little explanation of this decision available on the PEF website, in public statements, or via private inquiry. One comment that Serenity Valley found by President Hinckley implied that the PEF wanted to fund higher education but that it didn’t yet have enough money to do so. So perhaps we need to take care of that… Bank robbery, anyone?

  21. Tatiana on October 27, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    What exactly happened in Venezuela? I understand our missionaries were pulled out because of difficulty obtaining visas? Can anyone give more information?

    It does seem to me that the church ought to be better than the system in countries where corruption is standard procedure. Is there any sense in which bribery is morally okay? Isn’t this practice one of the things that destroys the foundations of society? What happens when it becomes standard in the US as well? Do we just go along?

    There’s something deeply disturbing to me in the idea that we must be corrupt in order to do business in some places. And I find it particularly shocking that nobody else seems to find it shocking.

  22. Wilfried on October 27, 2005 at 1:26 pm

    It’s a complex story, Tatiana. The visa-problem is of course only the surface reason. For more background see here. There are more links under the article. Google with Venezuela + mormon missionaries, and maybe you’ll find more.

  23. jjf on October 29, 2005 at 12:29 am

    This is an interesting and important topic. It’s too bad it has been overlooked, along with some others, due to the BoH imbroglio.

    I think the bribery issue is interesting. Judging from my experience working in Latin America, I completely agree with RT’s distinction between law as written and law as practiced in some Latin American legal systems. Given such a society, matabish is often considered business as usual despite facial illegality, and to some extent, must be adhered to and accepted by organizations desiring to play a role within that society. Under those circumstances, I find it hard to classify low-level bribery as immoral or unethical insofar as the briber is concerned.

    Legally speaking, it appears that the FCPA stretches beyond companies that issue securities. It also applies to “domestic concerns” as defined under 78dd-2 and “persons” as defined under 78dd-3. Despite the possibility that the Church or someone acting on behalf of the Church may fall into one of these two categories, I think Nate is correct in implying that the “routine governmental action” exception would apply to any bribes conceivably made by the Church. Either way, the DOJ has more relevant, statutorily and practically speaking, fish to fry.

    I think the issue of influence abroad is important. Influence has a profound impact on the public image of the Church. Even in the United States, there still exists a certain stigma (too harsh a term) associated with Mormonism. That has faded over time, in large part I believe, due to members of influence. Association with well-known and respected figures has helped dispel negative impressions of Mormonism among those in power and the country as a whole. Such figures are sorely lacking abroad. Often considered a cult, the Church’s public image is also lacking in many countries, perhaps in part due to the lack of influential members. Some members take pride in this outsider image. Right or wrong, it does not improve the Church’s standing in their country.

    So why does the U.S. have the monopoly on influential members? After all, the Church has an almost equally lengthy history in certain areas of Europe as it does in the U.S. and the exodus of European Mormons during the 19th Century has never been characterized as a brain drain. Is it numbers? Is it a question of greater opportunity? Is it geography i.e. a greater proximity to Church headquarters?

    Thoughts?

  24. sam b on October 31, 2005 at 9:19 am

    I still have a vague memory of being stuck in a Russian airport with a crooked attendant demanding a bribe to let me on the plane. I got angry and then succumbed after swearing at him a bit. The wrinkle was that I happened to be flying (accidentally) with an entourage of church general authorities, which made the issue seem more moral than nuisance. As I recall, the reception when I confessed was understanding of the complexity of operating in those environments and some sadness that the system was as corrupt as it was. At least in America, we have a nice name for bribery on a broader scale: lobbying.

  25. Wilfried on October 31, 2005 at 10:34 am

    jjf: “So why does the U.S. have the monopoly on influential members? After all, the Church has an almost equally lengthy history in certain areas of Europe as it does in the U.S. and the exodus of European Mormons during the 19th Century has never been characterized as a brain drain. Is it numbers? Is it a question of greater opportunity? Is it geography i.e. a greater proximity to Church headquarters?”

    A quick, belated, possible answer to your excellent question, jjf. There are no doubt several aspects to it. First, converts tend to come from lower social classes. There are exceptions (Karl G. Maeser for one in the 19th century). Second, the Church in Europe (and probably also elsewhere) has never (yet) had the opportunity to wax strong enough to produce scores of influential members. There may be exceptions, or a slow start here and there. Third — and this is a little critical — Church activities & programs, including mission, may not always match with the educational system abroad, causing talentful young people to miss opportunities for further study, OR putting them on the U.S.-track as I have explained in my post on immigration.

    Sam b, excellent remark. This is how I have experienced both Africa and Russia (a decade ago). The economic conditions of people, and the survival support they had to give to many, made the matabish part of the system. It had nothing to do with corruption, but with an alternative way of complementing subpaying. And when foreigners invest a little in matabish, they actually sustain the economy in those countries…

  26. jjf on October 31, 2005 at 10:35 pm

    Sam b- Lobbying also crossed my mind while trying to think of an arguably immoral yet widely accepted practice in American society. Like bribery, it seems to betray a highly touted aspiration of our society (transparency) in favor of a practical, yet inferior reality.

    Wilfried- thanks for the link to your immigration post, it addresses well some of the issues I was getting at with my question. I must have overlooked it as my blogging is too sporadic to keep up with all the posts and comments here at T&S.

    You note (I agree) that with a few exceptions, converts tend to come from lower classes. We all descend from converts, the influential included, suggesting that the Mormons who reach the higher echelons of American society did not inherit their place in society. Are these self-made Mormons merely the beneficiaries of American meritocracy? Perhaps the lack of professional mobility equal to that in the U.S. is a major reason why the Church is unable to produce influential members in other societies.

  27. Nate Oman on October 31, 2005 at 11:40 pm

    Ah guys. Another name for lobbying is “petitioning the government for redress of grievance.” It is such a hideosly wide spread practice that it is protected by the first amendment.

    I have been on both sides of lobbying as a lobbyied congressional staffer and as a lawyer putting together a lobbying strategy. In niether case did cash or anything beside information change hands. It sure didn’t look like bribery to me.

  28. jjf on November 1, 2005 at 12:15 am

    Nate- while I agree with you in theory and certainly lack the personal experience you list, I don’t know that I would classify all the interests represented by lobbyists as grievances. And though money may not change hands there are things that can be just as persuasive.

    That said, I think the mention of lobbying was more in passing than an outright condemnation, at least on my part. I recognize its practical value in a society with so many diverse interests, but I don’t know that it fits into what I perceive as the traditional political aspirations of American society. And no I will not list them. It’s too late and I’m going to bed.

  29. Nate Oman on November 1, 2005 at 9:49 am

    jjf: I would be the last to claim that all lobbying is on the side of the angels. However, I think that a lot of people have this stereotype vision of secret deals, quid pro quos, bags of secret campaign cash, and the like. Sorry, it just doesn’t happen that way.

    “The traditional political aspirations of American society”?!? How is people effected by government action trying to influence that action inconsistent with democracy?!? It may produce all sorts of wrong-headed or stupid policies, but it seems to me that the stupidity here is part and parcel to the stupidity inherent in democracy. It is not some sort of foreign accretion to it.

  30. jjf on November 1, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    For me the problem is that lobbying can result in a command of legislative time and attention disproportionate to both the validity of the “grievance” and the number of those who support it. It is no secret that the best lobbyists carry significant influence in Washington (it seems many formerly served in the legislature*) and charge hefty fees for their services. Fees, I would expect, beyond the reach of all but the most financially secure interest groups.

    I am no conspiracy theorist. I do not shout oligarchy. But no, lobbying does not match up with MY perception of the traditional political aspirations of American democracy. I do not lament stupid policy insofar as the stupidity has not received unwarranted influence due to a lobbying system foreign to my personal view of American democracy.

    I did not intend to take the post in this direction and it seems otherwise dead. So… now that I have expressed my perception of the issue, Nate, given your personal experience, I will yield to your reality and call it a day.

    *I intended on liking this above but it’s not immediately apparent how to do so and I’m short on time: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/21/AR2005062101632.html