The latest edition of Newsweek has a story about how the presence of Mormonism has grown in popular culture, business, and politics. Among all that has been said by the article, what stood out most was the comment, “The result is an organization that resembles a sanctified multinational corporation—the General Electric of American religion, with global ambitions and an estimated net worth of $30 billion.” [corrections follow for the rest of the paragraph]This is far from the first time that magazines used that kind of description. Another magazine, Time had a blue evening picture of the Salt Lake Temple on the magazine cover with the words “Mormon Inc.” plastered on top. They aren’t the only ones to describe the Church as some kind of business venture, but it has been a staple for the way to talk about the LDS Church for years. It is also inaccurate and perhaps offensive.
The leading reason for this way of looking at the LDS Church is because of the two concepts of Tithing and Hierarchy. Members are required to pay 10 percent of income as a religious provision. Beyond that, the LDS Church owns various profit making businesses and land holdings. No doubt that brings in a lot of cash making it very rich. It also has a top down leadership that doesn’t give much autonomy to congregations like more loose religious organizations. That makes it suspect to those who see religion as completely personal. They are used to the less controlled Protestant model. Accurate on a superficial level, the “business-like” description of Mormonism ignores the spiritual meaning and purpose of its existence.
Why is Mormonism always described like this, and the Catholic Church, for instance, is not? Granted there are critics who do, but not as consistently and with abandon. It leaves visions of a soulless corporate culture, greedy bosses, tedious rules and regulations, and out of control materialism. The use of the business metaphor strips the LDS Church and its members of spiritual significance. More than likely those who stick to this label don’t appreciate, and even scorn, how believing Mormons approach the religious experience. Arguably, a lot of people believe church organization (not just religion) is an important part of worship. Presbyterianism was formed out of rejecting the single rule of a Bishop, but still has a very structured body politic that controls church governance. Careful observers have noted that the LDS Church is a mixture of centralized authority with a democratized laity involvement.
Finance gathering isn’t very different from one form to another in churches, although how it is used can be a contentious issue. Jesus was reprimanded (see Matthew 26:6-13) for how he allowed a woman to use a very expensive ointment. It might be true that the LDS Church is among very few, if any other, that has payment as a religious obligation. Yet, passing a plate or begging for donations ends up with the same outcomes of earning potential to sustain a large organization. Centralized or at a local level, a degree of materialism is necessary for a church to survive no matter the degree of spirituality.
Charitable donations and less business approaches don’t guarantee lack of corruption and abuse. Televangelists come to mind as scandalous money hungry religious figures, but hardly ever accused of profit motives unless caught. Paid ministers and clergy might earn a lot or not much. The religious organizations they belong to aren’t considered businesses, though the LDS Church is called such even when as a whole it contains a non-paid ministry. The stipend associated with life-time leadership is comparatively little compared to the grand amount of capital supposedly gathered in some bank vault.
Assuming that the LDS Church is a business out to make money, there is nothing more than vague conspiracy theories to explain why it would want the money. I suppose money means power, but their is scant evidence of much influence outside Utah and parts of Idaho. A few political advantages beyond those small Mormon populated areas is an anomaly and not standard. In fact, the number of members is far more important in use of influencing power than how much money is invested. Years ago in the mid 90s, the Arizona Republic did a large story on the finances of the LDS Church in hopes of uncovering its monetary worth and any questionable practices. The findings noted that what it did with its money (large as the estimated wealth) seemed in line with stated goals and purposes. Most surprising to them, and highly unusual for such a large money wielding organization, was the lack of waste and impropriety found in the investigation.
The truth is for those who care to use the term “business-like” in describing the LDS Church, the religious organization is both different and not unusual. Below the surface of the highly organized hierarchy and wealth is a people and leadership who take their religion as a spiritual investment very seriously. It may not have the awe inspiring grandeur of the Catholic Church, or the firebrand preaching of Southern Baptists, or contemplative awareness of Quakers. Still, there is a hint of each within the doctrines, practices, and worship services that can be too subtle for outsiders to notice. To be sure, there are believing members who can get caught up in the mundane and material aspects and lose sight of the spiritual. Ultimately, the hoped for end product is the age old making of Saints out of sinners. No amount of money or board meetings can create that. It takes faith. The preaching and living by example of the top LDS leadership is evidence they know this.