In May of this year, the news program 60 Minutes aired a segment exploring the finances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. David Nielsen, a former portfolio manager at Ensign Peak, the investment arm of the Church, alleged that the Church had been operating improperly as a tax-exempt organization and called for that tax-exempt status to be revoked. 60 Minutes also interviewed W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, who denied Nielsen’s claims. Near the end of June, the Wall Street Journal published an article of its own, again emphasizing the size of the Church’s assets and the opulence of its temples.
This is an issue with an extraordinary amount of complexity, and significant moral weight. Though the Church hasn’t publicly disclosed the value of its assets, estimates place it at over $100 billion — put in context, that’s about double the size of Harvard’s endowment, making the Church one of the wealthiest religious institutions, or non-governmental organizations of any kind, in the world.
The questions this raises are clear: how did the Church acquire this much wealth? Is it reasonable to see assets of this size as a “rainy-day fund,” even for a religion with a name attesting that we live in the last days? Is tithing simply “God’s money” and a matter of faith alone, or should members have insight and transparency into Church finances, and how their donations are used? And of course — what good could be done in the world with $100B or more?
We felt like it was the right time to explore these questions on Faith Matters, and we brought on Aaron Miller to help us sort through some of them. Aaron is a Teaching Professor in BYU’s George Romney Institute for Public Service and Ethics, where he teaches classes on business ethics and nonprofit structure and finance. Though he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t have privileged insight into Church finances, he was able to walk through these issues in a really detailed but understandable way, and to us, he represented extraordinarily clear, objective, and open-hearted thinking on this subject. Aaron also hosts a really cool podcast called “How to Help” that presents conversations and ideas about living a life of positive impact on the world and the people around us. You can check it out wherever you listen to podcasts.
We’re really grateful that Aaron would come on and discuss this tough but important issue. As is the case with all sensitive topics, we’re sure we got something wrong here. Our goal is always to explore tough issues with as expansive a lens as possible, and explore arguments on both sides charitably. No doubt we did that imperfectly, but we hope you know that is our intention.