Thursday, January 16, 2020

D&C 10: Evil Schemes

God is still kind of bent out of shape about the missing 116 pages.  


Foreknowledge 
The section header reveals the ingenious plotting of the nameless, faceless men who supposedly stole the manuscript from Martin Harris:
The evil design was to await the expected retranslation of the matter covered by the stolen pages and then to discredit the translator by showing discrepancies created by the alterations.  That this wicked purpose had been conceived by the evil one and was known to the Lord even while Mormon, the ancient Nephite historian, was making his abridgment of the accumulated plates, is shown in the Book of Mormon.
Jesus, someone's editorializing a bit.  I mean, obviously this is Mormon scripture, so the Mormon publisher has every right to editorialize within its pages, but as I'm going through the Doctrine and Covenants, I'm noticing more and more that these headers are designed to get the reader in the "right" mindset to interpret the subsequent chapters the way the church would prefer.  But the assurance here that this was all foreseen by God creates a few doctrinal sticky wickets.

First, what an asshole.  God knew this was going to happen and made Mormon add an extra section of his abridgment to cover a period of history that had already been addressed.  That can't have been easy, considering Mormon was etching this into metal and then lugging the somewhat-larger-than-necessary plates around.

Second, God could have made all of this, y'know, not happen.  Remember, this isn't something Martin Harris did on his own.  He asked Joseph Smith if he could take the pages home with him three times and Joseph asked God three times.  Eventually, God gave permission for the course of action that led to our heroes' current predicament.  So God made Mormon's life that much more difficult just to teach Joseph and Martin a lesson about taking no for an answer fourteen hundred years later?

Third, this opens the free agency can of worms.  I'm not sure how much I buy into the reasoning that God's foreknowledge means free will is an illusion.  There have been times when I've known exactly how someone would react to something I've done or said, but that didn't mean they didn't have a choice to react differently.  Of course, two key differences between me and God (among many, obviously), are that God created us and that he has perfect knowledge.  But, considering the Mormon doctrine that we're the result of celestial sex, I'm not sure how finely tuned God's control over our nascent identities was.  It's a very different concept than God molding our spirits, minds, and bodies from the primordial clay of creation.  Based on LDS doctrine, I think God's omniscience is more a matter of predicting a behavior than of having predetermined any behavior.

But if he can predict that behavior, especially millennia in advance, then why for the love of Pete didn't he see Lucifer's rebellion—the thing that the whole Plan of Salvation kind of hinges on—coming a mile away?  And why would he agree to Jesus's plan for us when he should have been able to foresee that such a paltry few of his beloved children would have mortal access to his gospel and that so many millions or billions of those same beloved children would ultimately fail to obtain the eternal life he desired for them?

So this means God is either utterly incompetent or a traitor to his own cause.  Or maybe he's just lying through his servant here when he claims he saw this missing manuscript problem coming eons in advance.


O That Cunning Plan of the Evil One
In the 11th and 12th verses of the revelation itself, God shares some details about the brilliant plot against him:
And behold, I say unto you, that because they have altered the words, they read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written; 
And, on this wise, the devil has sought to lay a cunning plan, that he may destroy this work;
Okay, first of all, the plan is not that cunning.  It's not a bad plan, but it's probably what a lot of mere mortals could have come up with.  Discredit the translation process from the very beginning?  Seems like a good way to go.  But what kind of cracks me up is that God's brilliant solution is for Joseph to translate the same material from a different point of view.  He assures us in this section that there's more doctrinal richness in Nephi's version than in Lehi's but that it covers the same narrative time frame.

Except that the lost 116 pages are still lost today.  Nobody ever came forward with them.  See, if wicked men under the tutelage of the cunning devil had really stolen these pages, God's solution should not have solved anything.  What should have happened was, once the Book of Mormon had been published, the wicked men would have come forward with the doctored manuscript, presented it as unaltered, and pointed to the fact that, in the Book of Lehi, the Jews traveled to the Americas by riding dragons instead of by sailing in boats—and therefore this shipbuilding business in the Book of Nephi is a significant change to the story and Joseph Smith is making all this up.

Obviously, this is an exaggerated example, but that's the kind of thing these wicked men would have done if they were as wicked as God describes them.  But nobody ever came forward.  God didn't even bother to, I dunno, give his prophet a revelation about how to get the manuscript back, which would have come in handy—and I'm sure that Mormon and Moroni would have preferred that solution.

It's also interesting that God kind of...overexplains.  He lays out the basic plan in verses 10-13, but then comes back to it again in verses 15-19, and rehashes it in verses 31 and 32.  These three versions are all slightly different and each contains nuances not covered in the others, but if a real live person were doing this, it would not feel genuine.  It would seem like panicked babbling.  It would make the listener wonder whether the speaker was trying to convince the audience or himself.

Unlike in the Book of Mormon, verbosity in the Doctrine and Covenants is not necessarily an absurdity.  Nobody had to carve these words into metal and schlep across a continent with them.  But the Doctrine and Covenants has already been a colossal disappointment as far as textual efficiency goes.  All flowery scriptural poeticisms aside, I would expect a perfected being to be much more frugal with his words instead of talking in circles for seventy verses.


I Bless the Lands Down in Zarahemla
Interestingly enough, verse 50 reveals a discrepancy with the forthcoming Book of Mormon:
And thus they did leave a blessing upon this land in their prayers, that whosoever should believe in this gospel in this land might have eternal life;
"They" refers to the Nephites here, but the prayers of the Nephites were not responsible for the blessing on America.  That was a covenant God made with Nephi and his family.  Maybe this is a subtle change made between the Book of Lehi and the Book of Nephi.  Maybe this is exactly the kind of thing Joseph was hoping no one would notice.  Maybe this is why Joseph didn't re-translate the lost pages.

And, actually, while we're talking about blessings and eternal life, what kind of sense does it make to bless people who live in a specific geographical area with a higher likelihood of exaltation?  Does this mean that members of the church in, say, the Philippines are less likely to gain eternal life because, in spite all their faith, they don't live in the land God blessed in the Book of Mormon?  Because that's some nonsense.


Light is the Best Disinfectant
In verse 61, God reveals that he wasn't really paying attention while the gold plates were being compiled:
And I will bring to light their marvelous works, which they did in my name;
Sure, on some occasions, yeah.  But lengthy portions of the Book of Mormon are devoted to heinous works, some of which were also done in God's name.  Remember Nephi vs. Laban, Ammon vs. The Flock Thieves, and Captain Moroni versus Basically Everybody?  These are awful, awful things that God is about to bring to light.

Although, to be fair, I suppose these works may still satisfy the definition of "marvelous."  Because I can't help but marvel at the staggeringly amoral authoritarian brutality of Captain Moroni, for example.


Keep It Simple, Stupid
In this section, Jesus-God or whichever convoluted iteration of the doctrinal godhead is speaking at the moment oversimplifies the gospel in a very confusing way (verses 67 and 68):
Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.
Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.
Okay, so less than "this" could be something like "whosoever repenteth, the same is my church." I guess I can see how that's an incomplete doctrine. But more than "this" could be something like "whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me and endureth to the end, the same is my church."

But is someone who teaches that you must repent, come unto Christ and endure to the end really against Christ? I get that perhaps this is supposed to be less literal and more illustrative—as in, don't make up your own shit—but God sure picked some weird literal phrasing for his figurative warning against false doctrine.  Especially since, in verse 69, God himself added enduring to the end into the mix. He just broke his own rule.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Undertow

Since my commute is considerably longer than it once was, I've recently spent a lot of time in my car rediscovering music on my iPod that I haven't listened to in a while. Last week, a particular song cropped up in my shuffle that took me back to the tumultuous days when my departure from Mormonism was still fresh. 

Pain of Salvation's "Undertow" was my favorite song for many years because it spoke to the conflicted, melancholic, self-loathing, self-flagellating, resigned state of mind that I inhabited before I was able to find some peace and some independence.  It was reassuring to hear this song and realize that its content brought back memories but didn't stir much in me as far as my current feelings are concerned.

I still enjoy the music itself and I still hold that Daniel Gildenlöw's performance on this track is an excellent example of why he deserves to go down in history as one of rock music's all-time greatest vocalists, but listening to this piece no longer entails the same raw emotional ravaging for me that it once did. 

Here's Pain of Salvation playing an arrangement of the song live:


And for anyone not particularly interested in the music, these are the lyrics:
Let me go
Let me go
Let me seek the answer that I need to know
Let me find a way
Let me walk away
Through the Undertow
Please let me go

Let me fly
Let me fly
Let me rise against that blood-red velvet sky
Let me chase it all
Break my wings and fall
Probably survive
So let me fly
Let me fly

Let me run
Let me run
Let me ride the crest of chance into the sun
You were always there
But you may lose me here
Now love me if you dare
And let me run

I'm alive and I am true to my heart now, I am I
But why must truth always make me die?

Let me break!
Let me bleed!
Let me tear myself apart I need to breathe!
Let me lose my way!
Let me walk astray!
Maybe to proceed...
Just let me bleed!

Let me drain!
Let me die!
Let me break the things I love I need to cry!
Let me burn it all!
Let me take my fall!
Through the cleansing fire!
Now let me die!
Let me die

Let me out
Let me fade into that pitch-black velvet night
There is so much about this song that felt like a perfect representation of what I felt.  The concept of an undertow, of course, illustrates the feeling that a strong negative influence beyond my control was carrying me to an undesirable destination.  But this song also expresses the sentiment that maybe I deserved what was happening to me.  Maybe I'd be okay, but it probably wouldn't matter if I wasn't.  Perhaps the suffering I was going to experience was my penance for whatever I'd done to put me in this position (a key line in this song is why I named a fictional death metal band "Cleansing Fire" in my book Their Works Shall Be in the Dark).

But all of this anguish and self-devaluation encapsulates a theme of optimistic searching that, notably, doesn't have the chance to become fully fleshed out in the song.  Though in the opening stanzas the narrator sings about seeking answers and flying and riding the crest of chance, the desires for punishment and abandonment and even death are what dominate the song through its climax.  And that was very much the headspace I was in during that year or so when I still lived with my parents, didn't attend church with them, and barely spoke to them.  As much as I wanted to frame my new life as a search for my own answers and an exciting foray into a fresh philosophical frontier, my daily existence was so depressing that I kept coming back to thoughts of worthlessness and of a desire to break, bleed, drain, and fade—especially since I thought I was being true to my heart but the truth I was discovering felt like (to again blatantly reference the lyrics) it was making me die.

Pain of Salvation has, as far as I know, zero connection to Mormonism whatsoever.  So of course these kinds of emotions are not unique to people who have had their faith in the Mormon god come crashing down around them.  It's both tragic and absurd that any human being ever experiences feelings like these.  I don't know who or what may have prompted Daniel Gildenlöw to write this song, but any person or organization that elicits these kinds of sentiments should have some serious explaining to do.

And I hope I make this point as often as I think I do, but I didn't actually have it as bad as others have.  LGBTQ members or other stigmatized demographics within the church can suffer to the point of suicide.  Victims of abuse can be retraumatized by teachings that shift blame onto them or by policies that demonstrate a deafness to the realities they've endured.  Other members  confronting new truths they've learned have the added strain of possible separation from spouses or children if they follow where they believe their consciences guide them.  This song may speak to the bleakness and complexity of my emotional state circa 2007, but there may be plenty for whom the concepts conveyed in these lyrics are of a lower magnitude or a lesser intensity than what their personal stories contain.

When an organization can so often put its members into these kinds of crushing, devastating emotional conditions, it's wise to scrutinize that organization.  It won't always mean that the organization is inherently flawed (although that's precisely what I'd argue in the case of Mormonism), but it will likely mean that there are critical aspects that need to be improved, removed, or corrected.  The LDS church's black-and-white, uncompromising doctrinal dogmatism and its stifling, pharisaical culture are both in dire need of revision when the emotional content of a song like this one is far from the worst that can be inflicted on those who struggle to survive in the church and on those who struggle to survive an exit from it.

The undertow may be metaphorical, but that doesn't mean its effects aren't real to the people caught in it.  A church that hails its prophets as watchmen on the towers should really do a better job of posting lifeguards in the towers too.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

D&C 9: Cowing Cowdery

So apparently Oliver can't let go of his desire to translate because God has to give another revelation on the subject.  This one is a less subtle, less confusing smackdown.


Expediency's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Translate
It starts out gently, informing Oliver that it's "not expedient" for him to translate now, but that there will be "other records" that he can translate later.

This seems like God is lying.  I say that because God is omniscient—even in the unusual Mormon tradition—and because God is a long-term planner, so it's not like he's making things up as he goes.  So why would he give Oliver Cowdery hope of translating future scriptures when he knows damn well it's never gonna happen?  That seems intentionally misleading and kind of cruel, like he's just stringing the poor guy along.

Cowdery doesn't translate shit.  He leaves the church.  Even if he hadn't left the church, what would he have translated?  The Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith started working on years before Cowdery's excommunication?  So much for that prophetic promise.


Reproving Betimes with Sharpness
Next, continuing in his cruelty, God starts explaining to poor Oliver that his inability to translate is all his own fault.  Verse 5 vaguely chastens him because he "did not continue as [he] commenced," a reprimand that nobody today really seems sure of the impetus for.  And, even worse, in verse 7, it's revealed that Oliver assumed the power to translate would be given to him merely by asking God for it.  "Behold, ye have not understood," God informs him.

Wait...how many times so far in the D&C has God said, "ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you"?  God is basically a stereotypical sitcom wife punishing her clueless partner for paying attention to the words she said instead of paying attention to what she really meant.

But it's better to understand late than never, right?  So God explains the part that he hasn't previously stated but that Oliver was supposed to have known (verses 8-9):
But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. 
But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
Oh, that's handy to know now, after I've been rebuked for not knowing it. 


But it's interesting to me that the "stupor of thought," which is referenced now and then in the church, has some detail to it that's either deemphasized or isn't commonly discussed.  My understanding was that the stupor of thought meant that you'd feel uncomfortable and confused if your request was wrong—as opposed to warm and confident if it was right.  But the scriptures say that you'll actually forget what you were asking about if you were asking "amiss."  You'll actually forget.

I guess this means the fact that I remember praying so hard about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon indicates that it's true.  If I had been asking amiss, I'd have forgotten all about it, therefore the Book of Mormon is true and my butt will be in a pew on Sunday.

When has an apostle ever talked about this method of making choices?  Not sure if you should take that job and move your family across the country?  Pray about it with your spouse—if neither of you remembers what you were praying about once you stand up, then you'll know not to put your house on the market!  Ingenious!


You Can't Always Get What You Want
God twists the knife a little bit (verse 10):
Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.
What a jerk.  If you had known this thing I didn't tell you and kind of implied something dissimilar to, you could have translated.  But since you didn't know the thing I didn't tell you and kind of implied something dissimilar to, you're out of luck.  Window of opportunity closed.

And then God leaves one final bruise on Oliver's ego before saying some nicer stuff at the end of the section (verse 11):
Behold, it was expedient when you commenced; but you feared, and the time is past, and it is not expedient now;
Again, this is basically gloating about how Oliver missed out on an opportunity to do something he really wanted to be able to do. Also, it's his fault because he was scared.  I actually feel bad for Oliver Cowdery because of the way God keeps dicking him around.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

D&C 8: Translation Motivation

Oliver Cowdery wants to be able to do what Joseph Smith does.  So Joseph gets a handy divine revelation for him.


God puts the Bland in Blandishment
First God tries to wave him off the notion of translation, explaining that Oliver has the spirit of revelation so that he can, like, know things and evade enemies and stuff.  He butters Oliver up a bit by adding, in verse 3, that this is the same gift that Moses had.  Just to keep Oliver appeased, he also mentions that he has the gift of Aaron too, which I'd normally expect to be a reference to the Aaronic Priesthood but for the fact that it won't be restored for another month or so.  So it could be a reference to Aaron's public speaking ability, which supplemented a weakness of the prophet Moses.  Is God saying that Joseph is a poor orator and that Oliver is destined to be the prophet's press secretary?
  
It's difficult to say, especially since the most likely explanation isn't really supported by the subsequent history in which Joseph addressed the church directly—tons of times—without requiring a sidekick to improve his diction or to elevate his elocution.  This means God is being pretty vague about what makes these two gifts distinct from each other.  Maybe he was hoping Oliver would be so honored to be compared to not one but two great Biblical figures that he wouldn't realize both of these revelatory gifts he supposedly possessed sounded like the same thing.


God Puts the Mess in Mixed Messaging
This weirdness comes through in verse 10:
Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith. Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not.
Without faith you can do nothing?  What a dick comment.  None of this make-weak-things-become-strong pussyfooting—you're basically worthless when you're faithless. 

And the advice not to ask for that which he ought not is even more insidious.  I wonder if Joseph was manipulating Oliver here by giving him vague threats that he has no guarantees of avoiding.  God isn't saying, "Don't ask for A, B, or C, but D is cool."  It's phrased in such a way that you have to wonder if, whenever Oliver got ambitious, he'd stop himself, quaking in his boots, because he didn't want to piss God off for asking the wrong thing based on these nebulous guidelines for inquiries.  After all these wonderful words and grand promises, Joseph is trying to make sure that, now that Oliver is appeased and motivated, he's also going to be restrained and tractable.

And then perhaps to end on a positive note of appeasement and motivation, God tells Oliver in verse 11 that he'll be able to translate ancient records according to his faith.  God is sending some really mixed signals here, and it sure seems manipulative.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Billion-Dollar Boondoggle

Anybody who's seen anything about Mormonism online recently is probably aware of the Washington Post article about a recent whistleblower's IRS complaint, which challenges the church's tax exempt status by pointing to investment holdings of roughly one hundred billion dollars.

Many of you may have seen an op-ed in the Deseret News that tries to spin this revelation as a positive thing.  Perhaps the details of the allegations themselves are best discussed by those with greater investment knowledge than mine, so I'd like to focus on this baffling pro-church response.  It begins:
Monday’s Washington Post story about the finances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has already gotten a lot of attention. We think it deserves more.
Not because the topic of church holdings is somehow new — it’s not (Time magazine once ran a cover story titled, “MORMONS, INC.”) — but because the renewed focus on the church’s extensive holdings once again proves that, well, the church actually practices what it preaches regarding provident living and self-reliance.
Dismissing challenging information as "not new" is kind of my pet peeve of Mormon aplogetics.  Sure, it's not new in its basic subject matter, but it's wholly new in its scope and in its evidence of dishonesty.  Yes, Time Magazine estimated church assets at 30 billion in 1997 and MormonLeaks outlined investments of 32 billion in 2018, but if these more recent accusations are accurate, the numbers dwarf previous figures and indicate outright lies by the prophets and apostles as to how church funds and tithes are used.  Newness isn't the issue.

As far as the "provident living" assertion goes, there's a difference between provident living and Scrooge McDuck living.  Just for kicks, let's take the hundred billion dollar figure and divide it by the US median income from 2018 of $61,937.  Using that obviously rough number, that means that if the church liquidated its fortune right now, they could support 1.6 million American households at a moderate level of comfort for a full year.

How many Mormons who followed the prophetic directive to prepare long-term food storage have accumulated enough to feed 1.6 million families for twelve months?  If you're hoarding food (or money) to such an extreme degree despite the obvious presence of hunger (or poverty) in the world, you're not being prepared—you're just hoarding.  Which, incidentally, is not practicing something the church preaches.  You know, that whole "sell all that thou hast, and distribute to the poor" thing?  That thing that was famously said by the person the church is named after?  The name that the church repeatedly urges news organizations to use?

100 billion dollars is the kind of money that can actually solve one of the world's serious issues.  100 billion dollars can provide fresh water to every corner of Africa.  It can produce huge amounts of lifesaving vaccines and medicines.  It can accomplish crucial research toward carbon capture technologies, water desalination, or high-yield genetically modified crops.  When you truly care about the well-being of the human species, you don't keep this kind of wealth to yourself.  Besides, Jesus Christ would certainly understand if you had a few billion less saved for his second coming because of all the homeless shelters and refugee housing and hospitals and aqueducts you'd built.  When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, after all, ye are only in the service of your God.  

Saving money is good.  Saving this much money is immoral, especially for an institution that claims to be an authority on morality.

In an age of ballooning federal deficits, massive student debt and failed pension promises, we should perhaps be a bit slower to blow whistles when an organization — once on the brink of financial ruin — actually stays out of debt and saves for a rainy day.
So we started the article by saying we want more light shed on this because it's such a good thing, but now we're criticizing the whistleblower for making this data public?  The moral of the story is that we should perhaps be a bit slower to share positive information?  I think we're trying to have this both ways and that doesn't make a lot of sense.  

As a nation, and especially as individuals, we would all do well to try harder to model this behavior.
No, actually, we need more people who exhibit selfless generosity.  I would never reach the point of having 100 billion dollars saved up, even if I did somehow have an income that made accumulating that sum possible.  Sure, I'd probably buy myself a house and some expensive toys.  I'd probably bestow some similar opulent indulgences on my friends and family.  But even at my greediest, how much could I really spend?  I've led a relatively privileged life, but even I know that there are people and places with crucial needs that easily supersede the importance of my materialistic desires.  My 100 billion dollars could fund replacement of lead pipes in Michigan or provide health services to refugees from Yemen or Myanmar or Syria.

The behavior of the church here—squirreling away money and not using it to help—is selfish.  This is not admirable behavior to be emulated.  When your neighbor's house is on fire, you don't hide your hose to save it for a time when your own house might be on fire. 

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal ranked church-owned Brigham Young University the No. 1 school in the nation in terms of value for the price. Thanks to church assets — and specifically the financial investments highlighted by The Washington Post’s article — tuition for BYU students remains astonishingly low ($2,895 a semester for church members). Even more recently, the Journal has applauded Utah for having the best economy in the country (with a state government that runs a surplus and also saves for a rainy day). Meanwhile, researchers such as Raj Chetty have highlighted how Utah communities sustain some of the highest rates of upward mobility in the country.
The billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why Brigham Young University has low tuition.  The billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why Utah has a strong economy. The billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why Utah communities have high rates of upward mobility.  Of course, that's not actually the point the opiner is trying to make here.  Here's why he's citing that data: 
Much of this success is influenced by the prudent financial and charitable principles taught (and evidently exemplified) by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hopefully, by underscoring the church’s holdings, the Post article and the story’s whistleblower will draw some attention to an institutional model that’s actually working.
Okay, this is silly.  The failing financial models these authors previously identified are government budgets, student loans, and corporate pensions.  These are not financial models that can necessarily become viable by emulating the church.  

The church's institutional model requires a minimum of ten percent of the income of everyone who wants its divine services (such as baptisms endowments, and sealings).  It also convinces its adherents that these divine services are not optional, making the required ten percent payment essentially a mandatory act of self-interest.  The model then relies on the church's position of authority to assure those providing the funds that their money is being used to further the availability of these services even as the church stockpiles what it's not using and repeatedly eschews transparency and accountability.

Let's apply that model to the US Government.  The government does require payments of varying rates from those who benefit from its services (such as infrastructure, police and military protection, and social security).  It also convinces its citizens that these services are not optional, requiring these payments by law and penalizing those who do not satisfy the requirements.  So far, this seems pretty analogous, but here's where it starts to break down—secrecy is not a generally well-received concept when it comes to public funds.  Were the government to follow the institutional model embodied by the LDS church, it would be keeping all of its finances private, sending out its own accountant once a year to assure us that everything is being done according to approved procedures, and then stockpiling the taxes that could be going toward building schools, landing on Mars, and buying body armor for Marines.  Imagine the public outcry if this were to happen.  This is not an institutional model that's going to work for that particular institution.  This is an institutional model that is more likely to show up in a dystopian film.

Similarly, the institutional model of secrecy and stockpiling and unaccountability is not viable for student loan programs and pension programs.  So basically, telling the world it should look to the Mormon church as a paragon of fiscal responsibility is like telling an aspiring soccer player to use Simone Biles's workout routine.  Even though these are both athletic endeavors, what makes a gymnast good at gymnastics is not the same thing that makes a soccer player good at soccer.  What may work for one does not necessarily translate to all.

The Post’s whistleblower puts the church’s financial holdings at $100 billion, but more substantiated financial leaks from last year put the numbers closer to $32 billion.
We're trying to have it both ways again.  It's a good thing that the church has so much money!  But also it's not as much money as you think!

It's also bizarre to characterize the MormonLeaks data as "more substantiated," considering that it wasn't presented as an exhaustive list of holdings, just a group of thirteen companies.  MormonLeaks did not come out with this saying, "here is exactly how much money the church has."  It was more of a "we've found some of the money the church has, and it sure looks like a buttload."  It could have been anywhere from the tip of the iceberg to everything but the tip of the iceberg, and one hundred billion dollars falls pretty easily within that range.  While it's arguable that the MormonLeaks data is more substantiated as accurate information than the Nielsen data is, we really don't know much about whether it's more substantiated as complete information.

It's also weird that the MormonLeaks numbers are "more substantiated" considering that one of the authors of this article was sharply critical of that organization's tactics back in 2017.  This was prior to the reveal of the 32 billion stock holdings, of course.  And it's certainly possible that the author can hold disdain for MormonLeaks' methods while accepting the validity of their information.  But it does sorta feel like maybe we're saying nice things about last year's leak now because it makes us look less bad than the latest leak.  I don't know the author.  This supposition could be completely off-base. 

But it does fit the Mormon pattern. We now accept the narrative of the seer stone because it makes us look less like deniers of history than insisting on the traditional Book of Mormon translation narrative.  We now accept that the Book of Abraham papyrus is a funerary text and we developed the catalyst theory because it makes us look less ignorant than flat-out disagreeing with scholarly Egyptology.  We now claim that the Book of Mormon people are merely among the ancestors of Native Americans because it makes us look less anti-science than insisting against DNA evidence that the Lamanites are the primary ancestors of Native Americans.  So do we also now accept the substance of the MormonLeaks valuation because it makes us feel less embarrassed than accepting the substance of the Ensign Peak Advisors valuation?

The church, by contrast, serves 16 million members with the scope of its work often spilling beyond its own membership. The church supports international humanitarian and welfare efforts, extensive education services, food banks, addiction recovery and employment programs, family therapy and counseling services, genealogical and self-reliance initiatives, and, of course, its broad ecclesiastical functions, which include more than 30,000 congregations worldwide.
Okay, until last year, I was one of those 16 million members and I hadn't received any services from the church since 2008—not that I was asking for any, of course.  But my point is that the church in no way serves 16 million members.  Any ward clerk should be able to see that this argument is inflated.  Estimates vary, and of course the church isn't going to share the information if they have it, but activity rates could be in the neighborhood of 25%—insert disclaimer that obviously this is speculation on my part here—which means that it's only 4 million members.  I mean, that's still a lot, and it could be much higher than that for all we know, but it's still pretty disingenuous, I think, to claim that one hundred billion dollars that the church isn't spending is relevant to their efforts to support an exaggerated number of members.

In education alone, the church runs a university system with total enrollments — both online and through four brick-and-mortar campuses — of nearly 90,000 students. And the church’s high-school-level church education program provides daily religious instruction and other services to more than 400,000 students each year.
Okay, but those 90,000 students pay tuition.  Crazy-low tuition, yes, but BYU does generate some income even if it operates at a loss based on tuition alone.  And again, the billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why Brigham Young University has low tuition.  The billions of unspent LDS dollars are not why seminary students have access to manuals and multimedia presentations.  These are reasons why the church has expenses.  These are things that are already being paid for without dipping into the multi-billion-dollar investments.  These things do not explain why it isn't problematic for the church to have so much tax-exempt money that is not being used for charitable, educational, or religious purposes.

I'm honestly not sure if these authors are missing the point on purpose.  I have no idea if this is sophistry or delusion.

Though this renewed focus on church finances will undoubtedly draw attention to the buzzier elements of its asset portfolio (hey, look, the church invests in a mall), it’s unlikely to change attitudes among those in its congregations who see how the money from investments and tithes funnels back to carrying out a global-sized mission. Their kids go to BYU or church seminary classes. They serve missions in foreign lands or receive financial assistance through unpaid clergy when they fall on hard times. They participate in disaster relief efforts, helping throngs of co-religionists in delivering food and other essentials.
Okay, first of all, the church has not invested in a singular mall.  It's more than one, although the one in downtown Salt Lake is easily the most extravagant.  But the reason the City Creek Center is "buzzier" than other things is because it's a hugely expensive for-profit endeavor by the one true church of God.  

Additionally, "invest" seems like a misleading verb that downplays the depth of the church's involvement in it.  I'd prefer verbs like bought, built, or operates.  If the LDS church merely invested in a 1.5-billion-dollar mall, then I suppose John Hammond merely invested in a theme park full of reconstituted dinosaurs. But let's focus on the cited ways by which these funds are funneled back toward the church's global mission:
  • Mormon kids go to BYU, where they pay tuition, so I guess that means these unspent billions have somehow allowed access to significantly cheaper—but still not free—institutions of higher learning
  • Mormon kids attend seminary classes, so I guess that means these unspent billions have somehow produced cringey "And My Soul Hungered" music videos and handy little laminated Book of Mormon timeline reference cards
  • Mormon kids visit foreign lands on their missions, which they also pay for, so I guess that means these unspent billions have somehow allowed people to be taken away from their families to serve the multi-billion-dollar organization continuously for two years while doing very little to enjoy these foreign lands
  • Mormons who have fallen on hard times receive financial assistance, so I guess that means that these unspent billions, with a local leader's careful approval, have somehow satisfied the electric bills and mortgage payments of families who have been taught to pay tithing to a multi-billion-dollar organization before they buy food for their children
  • Mormon clergy is unpaid, so I guess that means these unspent billions have somehow not been used to compensate the local leadership whose dedication often makes them work long hours on top of the time they commit to their own professions and to their own familial obligations
  • Mormons participate in disaster relief efforts, so I guess that means that these unspent billions are somehow responsible for the volunteer work of local wards and local members
  • Mormons deliver food and other essentials, so I guess that means that these unspent billions have somehow paid for the supplies that come from the bishop's storehouses and are usually only available to church members at a bishop's discretion
Even the link this op-ed provides about helping during disaster relief is an article about a Mormon guy who was working at a flood shelter and personally housing two displaced families.  Sure, what that guy did was awesome.  But it has nothing to do with church funds if it's the individual guy taking it upon himself to provide Christlike service with his own resources.  Please explain to me how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sitting on one hundred billion dollars made Brent Magnum's extraordinary acts of kindness possible.

[D. Michael Quinn] said that if people understood “the larger picture” on church finances they would “see the church is not a profit-making business.” Yes, the church saves and invests its surplus pennies, but it also helps vastly reduce the debt of college students, gives to the poor regardless of background and supports one of the largest non-governmental welfare programs in the country. Most importantly, it does all this without enriching those at the top.
Okay, sure, that's a nice thing for Quinn to say, but there are some problems here.  First of all, yes, it is a profit-making business. It literally makes profit by owning malls and real estate developments.  And you don't wind up with one hundred billion dollars anywhere without making a profit.  If a hundred billion dollars doesn't count as profit, pretty much every business in history has been a complete failure. 

And perhaps the most outrageous thing in this entire article is the comment that the church saves and invests its surplus pennies.  Just in case I haven't thrown this number around enough times, let me remind you that this line is included in an op-ed about a one hundred billion dollar investment structure.  Even going by the authors' claim that the 32-billion-dollar leak from last year is "more substantiated," that's 3.2 trillion pennies.  That's like saying Saudi Arabia represents Rhode Island's surplus sand.

The college debt comment is, by my count, the fourth reference to BYU in this article (though still not as many times as I've mentioned one hundred billion dollars in mine).  Is the church really reducing the debt of college students?  Because that wording makes it sound like it's paying off people's loans.  What it's actually doing is offering really low tuition when people attend its own universities.  This may prevent higher student debt for some people, but it's not exactly an altruistic largesse that the church is magnanimously bestowing upon the world.  It's a discount on its own educational programs for people whose families have generally already donated huge sums of money to the church on a yearly basis.  I'm not complaining about the cheap BYU tuition—I'm just saying it isn't an indicator that the church is leading the charge to alleviate the student debt crisis the way this article's phrasing seems to imply.

"Gives to the poor regardless of background" is something I'd like a citation for.  I'm perfectly willing to believe that Mormons do this.  I'm skeptical that the organization of Mormonism does this.  If you're Mormon and you become destitute, your access to church welfare may become contingent upon your worthiness in the eyes of the bishop.  So it's not like the church is turning away people of specific racial groups who request assistance, but it does mean that aid isn't freely dispensed.  I'm conjecturing that if the author had provided some kind of link for the church giving to the poor, it would have been something similar to the $25,000 the church donated for LGBT suicide prevention last year—a donation made mostly for public relations purposes and a paltry sum considering its full resources.

The best evidence I can find for the church helping the poor is too easily explained away by the organization's obsession with appearances.  While the ten million they donated toward housing for the homeless in 2017 is an impressive sum, I consider it likely that the leadership wanted to increase the appeal of their tourist draws in Salt Lake City.  And the amount they donated was roughly one hundredth of one percent of the wealth the whistleblower's report claims they had at the time.  Meanwhile, in this past October's conference, President Nelson bragged about the church's generosity in giving the residents of a Congalese village without running water the "materials and training to pipe water to the city."  Ten million dollars to help less than 3000 people in your backyard but only "materials and training" to help 100,000 people on a different continent?  I think that's suspiciously incongruent.

Obviously, donating ten million dollars to help the homeless is a great thing to do.  The impact that housing made on any of those affected Utahns was likely life-changing in a very literal sense.  But with these immense resources and with an estimated seven-billion-dollar annual return on the investments outlined in the report sent to the IRS, the church could put a huge dent in, say, world hunger—which we once thought would take $30 billion a year.  My point is not to deride the church for helping the needy.  My point is that, as good old Uncle Ben advised the world, with great power comes great responsibility.  A hundred billion dollars and a worldwide network represents great power.  Staggering power.  By accumulating so much wealth and endeavoring to hide the magnitude of that wealth, the church is trying to give the impression that it is acting on that responsibility while secretly abdicating as much of it as possible.

That's immoral.

That's not Christlike.

That's not something we should be defending.

And if you still think that the church's sound fiscal practices spread philanthropy around the world without enriching those at the top, well...just remember that the church is a corporation sole.  Theoretically, Russell M. Nelson could be worth a hundred billion dollars right now.