The hundred billion dollar question

The stakes in the 2024 election couldn’t be higher. On the one side, there is Your Candidate, trying to preserve all that is good about America and help this nation fulfill its potential. His opponent, most likely the willing dupe of a hostile foreign power, whose incompetence, corruption and authoritarian instincts are a matter of public record, represents a dramatic threat to democracy.

Now imagine that Your Political Party announces that, through thrift and prudent investing and donations both large and small from dedicated supporters, it has built up a reserve of $100 billion, not just for 2024, but for 2024 and beyond so that Your Political Party can consistently promote its vision over the long term instead of desperately rebuilding its election infrastructure every two or four years.

You’d be ecstatic. With such long-term strategizing and far-sighted thinking, maybe this country won’t go completely to hell in 2024. You would perceptively recognize that anyone who was aghast and outraged at Your Political Party’s wealth, even people claiming to argue objectively that $100 billion was far more than any political party should be allowed to have, were clearly just supporters of The Other Guy, shiftless types who support a fraud and traitor and can’t manage their own money anyway.

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So let me say that I think it’s fantastic that the church has $100 billion. The church teaches the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, offers saving ordinances to the living and dead and is building the kingdom of God. It’s much better for the church to have all the resources it needs to further its mission than not to have them. Let’s make it $200 billion, or, heck, why not a trillion? The more the church is able to carry out its missions, the better.

Beyond a general inclination to want people I like or institutions I support to enjoy material plenitude, there are other things that make me think that the church having $100 billion is a good thing.

  • No one’s getting rich. The figures that are tossed around for general authority stipends are chump change compared to compatible compensation in the nonprofit sector for an organization with millions of members. The figures suggest that the general authorities aren’t even the highest-earning church employees. What the apostles receive is within shouting distance of what I earned as a CES employee in a temporary junior faculty position, not an order of magnitude greater. The signs of the apostles’ wealth bandied about at one time or another by commenters here—like drivers for 80+-year-old apostles, a house in the foothills of Salt Lake, and, I kid you not, the wearing of business suits—are laughable compared to actual wealth. People should take a look at what it takes to create a real scandal these days. If the general authorities don’t have to worry about their personal finances so they can focus their attention on the needs of the church, then the stipends are accomplishing their purpose.
  • I’ve seen how the church’s resources help people. As a financial clerk several years ago, nearly every week I would sign multiple checks that would help people instantly and unbureaucratically. There was never a question of whether the ward or stake welfare fund would run dry. Funds that went toward helping with rent, utilities, urgent maintenance, medical care, counseling and other needs for people in difficult financial situations were replenished instantly. That too is a byproduct of the church having all the resources it needs.
  • It’s scriptural. Both the support for individuals in full-time church service (D&C 42:71-73) and the long-term accumulation of funds are supported by modern revelation. D&C 45:65-67: “And with one heart and with one mind, gather up your riches that ye may purchase an inheritance which shall hereafter be appointed unto you. And it shall be called the New Jerusalem, a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints of the Most High God; And the glory of the Lord shall be there, and the terror of the Lord also shall be there, insomuch that the wicked will not come unto it, and it shall be called Zion.” This isn’t some nebulous event to be accomplished in some far-off End Time. It’s something that the church has been doing in specific and concrete ways since the early 1830s. I don’t know if the next iteration of building Zion will take place in the tropical forests of Alberta or the asteroid belt, but when it does, the church has been commanded to have the funding available.
  • External pressure to donate is low: you can enjoy all the (earthly) benefits of a full tithe payer by responding “yes” to one question twice every two years, with no verification or follow-up beyond your own conscience. You can say “yes” an extra time each year if you want to attend tithing settlement. You will be pressured to donate more by Wikipedia than you will by the church.
  • Thrift, careful stewardship and long-term investment is both prudent and consistent with what the church teaches its members. The church isn’t teaching one thing and doing another. It’s doing exactly what it’s been telling us to do for a long time.
  • There are many good things that could be done in the world with $100 billion, and there’s nothing stopping any other nonprofit organization from following the church’s strategy: ask people to donate; set aside some of the money for long-term investment; and wait. You should recommend the same strategy to your favorite charitable cause.

If you like the church, you’ll like the fact that it has lots of money (yay us); if you despise the church, you’ll despise the fact that it has lots of money (ha ha burn); if you have a conflicted relationship with the church, you’ll probably have a highly nuanced take. If my positive reaction sounds like motivated reasoning to you, what I’m trying to tell you is: on this topic, unless you’re a legal academic specializing in tax law (a tribe among whom news of the church’s billions provoked intense chin-stroking and fervent pondering of some interesting issues involving church and state, nonprofit taxation, and organizational structure), there’s nothing but motivated reasoning all the way down.

16 comments for “The hundred billion dollar question

  1. If my favorite political party was found by a whistleblower to have a stash of 100B that it does not publicly acknowledge and that it was only using miniscule amounts toward getting the right people elected, I would be bothered by that.

  2. How big a number is one hundred billion in this context? There is a well known Feynmann quote: “There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.” And that was 40 or so years ago.

    With my motivated reasoning, I would expect in equilibrium that the assets of the church would be about one ninth of the aggregate wealth of those who have a tithing relationship with the church. The Federal Reserve reports the average wealth of American families was $747,000 in 2019, so $900 billion would be the total wealth of 1.2 million American families on average. 1.2 million families ought to total 3.3 million individual people.. The church counts 6.7 million members in the United States, 16.5 million worldwide. It feels safe to say that the total personal wealth of those who tithe to the church is over a trillion dollars. One wrinkle in this comparison, though, is that the church’s managed financial assets are just one part of the church’s total assets.

  3. I have been employed by the Church for over 20 years. It has treated me very well financially and made it possible for me to have a secure retirement. I’ll never be “wealthy,” but I have no complaints. I have been personally blessed by the tithing I have paid and by the tithing others have paid. I have a feeling this world is going to experience some major crises with increasing frequency over the next several years. The Church has been very generous in these times of crisis by providing humanitarian aid. Personally, I would trust the 15 incredibly underpaid Apostles to manage the Church’s wealth than any hedge-fund manager or venture capitalist you could name. The critics can complain, but maybe they don’t see the entire picture.

  4. I don’t want my political party to amass a fortune to last a hundred years. In that time, they could change to support things I disagree with. If I donate to a political party I expect them to use that money to fix things now. If I want them to have money 100 years from now, I’ll save it and donate it later. FWIW.

  5. I feel the same as you do, Jonathan, with one exception. I think there are many faithful people who like the church but are bothered by the money.

  6. I don’t mind the money, per se, assuming it’s invested wisely and ultimately used for the intended purpose (i.e., building up the kingdom). What I’m less comfortable with is the way the development and management of that wealth creates and grows a class of supporting bureaucrats and professionals–essentially an ecclesiastical “deep state”–that’s concentrated almost entirely in Utah. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it is unseemly to see so many Utahns feeding at the trough of Church funds.

  7. I’d go a step farther and say that the Church’s reserve funds may not be big enough. At $100 billion and an assumption of 16 million members, the reserve funds equate to $6,250 per member. That doesn’t strike me as a large sum, especially if the funds are designed to provide for future generations in a more secular age where Church revenue from tithing is scarcer. By comparison, Harvard’s endowment is $40 billion for a total student population of 23,000, which equates to $1.7 million per student. While there may be plenty to say about the appropriateness of Universities hoarding large endowments, I do think that the comparison is interesting.

  8. Two completely separate things equated together to rationalize the churches egregious behavior and help the author sleep at night knowing “all is well in Zion”. My political party has never REQUIRED my donation to be counted as a full-fledged member, or to vote. If your response to that is that the church has never REQUIRED tithing, I invite you to talk to the countless family members who have had to sit in the waiting room of the temple while their loved one was getting married. The church REQUIRED me to pay 10% (net or gross depending on if I wanted “net blessings” or “gross blessings”) while giving less than .04% of its annual tithing revenue to charity, according to Dallin Oaks (average $40 million per year for the last 30 years). Math. Not only fun, but fundamental.

  9. Mo Po, Is the churchs money in ethical investments, and by whose judgement of ethical. For example ethical investments in most of the first world now avoid fossil fuels.

    Putting the first couple of paragraphs about election funding together with church funds, makes me wonder what political causes the church might quietly fund. I suspect that I would not agree with most of them, but the 80% would.

  10. The post is high-grade boosterism, subtly inflected with not a little arch snark. Yes, there are reasons to boast–strong portfolio performance, honorable fudiciary conduct, etc. What’s not to like about that? And yet the post feels a mile wide despite the uncontestable points made.

  11. The practical effect of all that money is that it makes The Brethren even more inaccessible. Not only are they Holy Men, they are also fabulously rich Holy Men. That’s some serious insulation.

  12. We live in a world of tremendous need and opportunity. For example, only 2 percent of Africa has been vaccinated. Think what $1B could do to help Africans. And Africa is a continent where the Church is growing.

    The Church does a lot of good by providing assistance to members and non-members alike. What people are questioning is the magnitude of those donations. The Church has the manpower and financial resources to do so much more than they are currently doing.

  13. Fabulously rich holy men? They give it all away…the law of consecration has no limit to the number of zeros on that blank check…

  14. They are stashing it away for the time when the US Church membership has been reduced to a small number compared to membership in Africa and South America. That $130,000,000,000 investment will come in handy.

  15. This is a post that could only be written by someone who starts with the conclusion and works backwards rather than engaging in analysis.

    I would note that the $100b figure is only the sum of the church’s investments in managed securities. The additional value of real estate, water rights and non-managed securities portfolios could double that figure. Also, it’s likely that the figure has increased by 10-20% in the year since the disclosure was made, in line with the general increase in the value of public securities over the past year. Such an increase in the last 12 months – at least $10 billion – would be approximately equal to the entire asset base of the church a generation ago.

    What we do know is that the church continues to ask for donations from people all over the world, many of whom are housing and food insecure, to increase the stockpile of America’s wealthiest nonprofit organization under threat of removing material membership privileges.

    For those who think that we are saving this money for a time when the church is mostly made up of poor members in poor countries – well, that day is actually already here. It’s not like the church is using this money to advance the interests of poor members now, so why would we think it would do so in the future?

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