Almost everyone has had a religious exploration or two in their lives.
“Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”
~ Joseph Campbell
You may have grown up Catholic, dabbled in Zen Buddhism, and then maybe you decided that you didn’t belong to any religion. Maybe you sympathize with the Lutheran faith. Maybe you’re a total atheist. But I think it is rare to find someone who was born an atheist, grew up an atheist, and decided to cling to atheism throughout his or her entire adult life. Consistent clinging is rare.
I grew up, for the most part, as a jack Mormon.
Jack Mor·mon noun (\ˈjak\ \ˈmȯr-mən\)
Def: A term used to describe someone who attends the LDS church, but not as frequently as they “should” and with less vigor than other church members do. These people might drink coffee and they might not believe in the tenets of the religion.
As a fake Mormon, I obviously questioned some of the beliefs of Mormons. And when I moved from Idaho to Montana, I really started to question the beliefs of the LDS faith. Even further, I questioned their sources of income and use of churchmembers’ tithing–the money that members are obligated to give their church every month.
A lot of people have misconceptions about the things that Latter Day Saints—Mormons—believe in. Even the church members do not generally know what is happening in the upper hierarchy and inner workings of the church’s financial realm.
And it is easy to regard the religion as a whimsical and kind of cheesy group of conservatives who eat green Jello, spend four hours every Sunday in church, believe in a book of fairy tales, and can’t drink coffee.
But you could regard any religion or belief system as something similar. It’s easy to act as an essentialist and laugh at any group of people who are devout in their beliefs and their own personal truths.
You’ve probably seen the South Park that pokes fun at the LDS belief system. While it’s hilarious, it’s actually pretty accurate in its interpretation of the average Mormon family.
Quite frankly, I enjoyed being part of a group of people who respected one another and did their best to make sure that all church members were fed, had wood stacked outside their houses, and felt like they were included in activities and outings. I liked singing songs as a group, and I made friends at church.
But finally, when I was told that children who belonged to divorced parents couldn’t ever reach the highest level of heaven—the Celestial Kingdom—I became angry. How could a representative of church teachings pass a judgment like that? I walked out of the class and never came back.
Soon after that and right after my parents’ divorce, I stopped going to church and so did both my parents and my brother. I felt like an outcast. Naturally, I started exploring other belief systems. I started reading books written by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. I read poems from Mary Oliver and Rumi. I read the Bhagavad Gita from cover to cover, and I loved it.
I am now a Buddhist, and I love all the people I have met along the path to becoming a lover of the dharma.
But I still wonder what the Mormons do with all their money. I started dissecting their business model and their sources of income.
It all starts with the religious sense of obligation…where the church gets its workers.
The church believes that in order to obtain the highest level of heaven, one must be baptized in the church, become married for eternity in an LDS temple, and they must not commit certain sins. If you have premarital sex, you’re supposed to report to your bishop. If you drink or smoke, you’re supposed to report to your bishop. You are supposed to give 10 percent of your income to the church.
If you reach the Celestial Kingdom, you are entitled to populate your own planets with your heavenly family. If someone dies before they can be baptized in the church, other church members can baptize them after they die so they have a chance at receiving heavenly salvation; this is called Baptisms for the Dead.
Young men (and certain women and seniors) are encouraged to serve a two-year mission. During this time, they spread the LDS gospel and have limited contact with their families.
A lot of LDS beliefs come from revelations to Joseph Smith, the church’s founder and first prophet. He wrote the Book of Mormon, which is an amendment to the Bible and contains Mormon beliefs and Articles of Faith.
The church itself operates using the skills of its members. They are not paid, but rather given “callings,” which are specific duties they must uphold in their own churches.
What people don’t know a lot about is that the church makes money not only from church members’ tithing, but from several multimillion dollar holdings and for-profit businesses as well.
According to a 2012 Businessweek article, the LDS empire owns hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Britain, Canada, Australia, South America, Hawaii and Florida. This land houses agricultural and grazing property, from which the church gleans billions of dollars a year. The church also runs a resort in Hawaii (The Polynesian Cultural Center), which brings in millions per year, and Brigham Young University, which is funded primarily by the tithing of church members.
And, the church just built a $2 billion mall in Salt Lake City. They own stock in Burger King and Domino’s Pizza.
The church, like other religious organizations, doesn’t have to pay taxes on anything they make, and they can sell donated stock without paying taxes. And, they do not have to report income; in fact, you would have to go back to the 1970s to find a report on the church’s income.
Less than one percent of the church’s income goes toward humanitarian aid. Nobody knows where the rest of the money goes…not even the church’s leader, Thomas S. Monson, or its chief financial executive, Keith Brigham McMullin.
If you speak out against the church or act against the church’s best interest, you will be excommunicated from all church activities and enterprises. This means that you will be kicked out of your religion, maybe your job, and the church will do its best to keep the information you shared from being disseminated. Several musicians, actors, and even Nobel Peace Prize recipients have been kicked out of the church (members who have left the church, been threatened with excommunication, or have formally been excommunicated include Ryan Gosling, Jewel, Warren Zevon, Butch Cassidy, the editor of GQ Magazine, and the “wily” ex-wives of church leaders).
So without any further ado, I think the church does a lot of good things for a lot of people—outside of its upper echelons. If nothing else, it provides people with something to believe in and something positive to do with their time.
But the capitalistic scheme? The building of empire? It’s not for me, and I refuse to be a part of it.
And finally, I would say that if you feel like exploring a religion, explore its beliefs, its people, and its inner workings, explore alternative religions—don’t blindly follow.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: courtesy of the author