This post was submitted by Just Another Apostate, who believes that it’s ok to ask questions.
A few days ago, I posted the following on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and my blog.
Temple Statistics: 148 Operating, 5 Under Renovation, 14 Under Construction, 11 Announced. [source] (as of 10 December 2015)
SCRIPTURE: “Yea, they have all gone out of the way; they have become corrupted. Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up. They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up. They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.” –2 Nephi 28:11-14. [source]
COMMENTARY: I’m pretty sure I remember reading that Jesus said to take care of the poor. I don’t remember reading anything about him wanting a ton of fancy buildings. But what do I know? I’m just another apostate.
It wasn’t the first time I’d posted about the church, and the reaction to it was pretty typical for my posts. A few random “likes,” a few comments, some agreeing with me, some disagreeing. But nothing out of the ordinary. Except on Facebook. My post kept getting shared. And each day brought a few more comments. And then a few days later it seemed to explode. I guess the Internet is like that.
I ended up getting a lot of exposure on the post and quite a few comments. Some were very supportive of my questions. Others called me ignorant (and worse) and tried to defend the church from what they saw as an attack. I would recommend you go read the comments, but Internet discussions being what they are, reading through some of the lengthy and often meandering discussion can be confusing, disheartening, and at times a little bit offensive, so I thought I’d take a moment to respond here to some of the criticism I received.
First, a common misconception seemed to be that I was stating that the church does not contribute to humanitarian causes. Let me clear that up. I normally work in very short format media, and I spend a lot of effort condensing what I want to say into what can be included in a single tweet. Though I usually include longer quotes on my Facebook page, and a bit more extended commentary, I don’t often go into extensive detail. This approach doesn’t lend itself to a lot of nuance, and so I can understand people who complain that my post wasn’t as comprehensive as they would have liked. So just for clarification: I did not claim, and I did not intend for people to jump to the conclusion that I had claimed, that the church does not have any welfare programs. My apologies to those who honestly thought I was saying that.
Many of the comments I received in defense of the church highlighted the church’s disaster relief program, its network of Bishop’s Storehouses, the forward-thinking efforts in Welfare Square, the local fast offering funds used at the discretion of local leadership, the Mormon Helping Hands projects, its donations of cash to other organizations that are also engaged in worthy causes, and its international humanitarian aid efforts which include such diverse projects as providing clean drinking water, immunizations, or wheelchairs to those in need. In addition, I recognize that individual stake and ward units, individual families, and individual members are also quick to help out their community, their neighbors, and even complete strangers.
My post was not about that.
Second, many of the people who “corrected” me on these programs and initiatives—and often told me that I should have done a little bit of research before I made false claims—often understood the church’s efforts to be far greater than reality. Some had not done the research themselves and therefore made preposterous statements about the church’s magnanimity. I was told that the church’s welfare program was the “largest in the world” (untrue; the US government spends a trillion dollars per year on its welfare programs; while we don’t have access to the church’s total welfare spending, I doubt anyone would claim it exceeds that of the US government) and that the homeless rate in Utah was “lower than almost any other state” (also untrue; I found statistics that placed Utah 15th out of 50, or in the 30th percentile; certainly not bad, but not necessarily stellar, either). There is a huge misconception among average church members about exactly how much aid the church contributes to those in need.
And it’s no wonder. The church does not disclose its finances. How can any of us talk, pro or con, about the church’s welfare system, when we don’t have any way of talking knowledgeably about it? This probably works in the church’s favor among its members, because the leaders can count on the average member assuming that Christ’s one true church would be heavily involved in assisting those in need, especially since the church stresses so heavily the need to contribute tithing (it’s a requirement to enter the temple and is often defined to members by erstwhile bishops to be 10% of gross earnings) and urges its members to contribute a “generous fast offering” on a monthly basis. With that kind of money flowing into the church, how could it not be a huge force for good in the world?
But since it doesn’t publish any financial reports, neither the members nor the critics of the church have any more than a guess about its income or its spending. Interestingly, the one financial number the church did publish ($1.4 billion dollars in humanitarian aid over a 26-year period, as of 2011) feels on its face to be a huge contribution. But when you do the math, you realize that it represents only about $50 million per year. That still feels pretty big. Until you do the math again and realize that it represents just over $5 per member per year. When you think back to how much money you donated in contributions that you thought were being used to help those in need, hearing that only $5 of that was actually used for humanitarian aid is extremely disheartening.
The church’s 26-year humanitarian aid spending equated to about $5 per member per year.
Again, though, that isn’t the full number. That number is only the church’s efforts in international humanitarian aid and disaster relief. The other programs of the church, such as local fast offerings, the cannery, the Bishop’s Storehouses, its cash donations to third party charitable organizations, etc., is not included in that $1.4 billion number. But the point is this: until the church discloses its finances, you can’t argue with facts on either side of this question.
And that is why my post was not about that.
Third, some commenters suggested that religion was a personal issue, that although the church, due to its size and reach, could create some programs more efficiently than individuals, other tasks, perhaps such as taking care of the homeless in local communities, were best left to individual members because it was a problem the church as an institution could not effectively address.
My concern with this is that the church advises its members not only to pay tithing and fast offerings but also to serve in a calling that takes a not-insignificant number of hours per week. It then encourages them to attend a temple ritual “regularly,” and oftentimes asks them to participate in mid-week activities as well. I don’t know how much extra time, money, and energy the church realistically expects its members to have left over to donate to a charity or to engage in self-directed relief of the hungry or the homeless. Yet “pure religion and undefiled before God” is to participate in selfless charity to people who need it.
In my opinion, one of the saddest things about the Mormon church is that it provides very few opportunities for church members to minister to the non-member poor, hungry, naked, or imprisoned, while at the same time its members have learned to use the word “serve” to refer to doing baptisms for the dead, sitting through an endowment ceremony, or volunteering to be an unpaid door-to-door recruiter for the church. It seems the church is promoting the wrong kind of service to others, and if it wants the members to engage in charitable service independently, it certainly does a poor job expressing that desire.
Regardless, though, most defenders of the church would say that the individual actions of members should not reflect on the church as a whole. Some members are poor examples of the church and its mission, and others are great examples. Either way, it is not the members but the church itself, its doctrine and practices, and its approach to following Christ’s teachings that really matter.
That’s why my post wasn’t about the efforts of individual members.
Instead, this is what I was trying to get at. The church builds temples. It does so because of a belief that Jesus commanded it. I support them in their desire to follow their religious conviction to build temples. Either through a mistake of history (Solomon, anyone?) or because Jesus wants it this way, however, the temples are extremely expensive. Big buildings are costly anyway, but these temples use only the finest of materials, the best tradesmen, the latest design techniques for energy efficiency, and the most advanced architectural practices so that the completed temples match the pre-construction renderings to an astonishing fidelity. All of this costs money. A lot of money. All for “the house of the Lord.” Only it’s not just the house of the Lord. It’s over 150 houses. All for the same Jesus who was born in a barn and never worried about getting a house during his lifetime.
And that got me thinking. Didn’t Jesus say that in the last days he would welcome into heaven those who had succored him in his time of need? The righteous would be confused and claim they had never helped him directly. He would then tell them that the many acts of service they did to help others in need he considered to be as though they were performed in service of Jesus himself. In fact, Jesus said that it wasn’t just helping random people, but helping “the least” of people.
I wondered, who are the least among us? Who among us needs the most help, and who is it that we end up helping the very least? That brings me to the fourth type of comment I received. There were a surprising number of people who defended the church’s lack of homeless shelters by saying that the church was more focused on working to help people reduce their need for charity than on simply providing charity to those who need it. People commented that many of the homeless, though certainly not all, were homeless because they were too lazy to work for themselves and just wanted a handout.
I don’t want to go into a lot of detail here, so please forgive the inaccuracies inherent in this summary, but the fact is that the homeless problem is a serious issue that can never be fully solved and yes, many of the homeless are chronically homeless. Giving them charity will not remove their need for additional charity. This is due to mental illness, addiction, disability, and okay, maybe there are even a few who have a poor work ethic. These are truly the least among us. The ones who are the hardest to help, because their need cannot be fixed. They need help today and they will need help tomorrow, and they will need help five years from now, and they will need help twenty years from now.
In addition, it’s so uncomfortable working with the homeless, especially the chronically homeless. I can see what people might think about the prospect of working among them. They are dirty and smelly and maybe mentally unstable. Do we have to personally interact with them? Can’t we just throw money at them or something? How are we supposed to send our affluent teenagers among them? What if something bad happens? I can certainly understand an inclination to want to keep the homeless at arms’ length.
When it does decide to contribute, though, instead of helping the least of these directly, the church has chosen to outsource this charity. It has built and it operates over 150 opulent houses for Jesus. But not one for the thousands of Jesuses who masquerade in our towns and cities as homeless. When Jesus comes to meet the church at the last day, will he say:
Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. –Matthew 25:41-45.
How can we be sure that we aren’t allowing our temples to rob the poor? How can we be sure that we don’t focus so much on building houses for Jesus that we fail to build housing for the “least of these” Jesuses? I would think there would be some Jesus-approved ratio of temples to homeless shelters. I don’t pretend to dictate what that number should be. Perhaps one homeless shelter for every temple. Perhaps one for every ten temples. Maybe even just one for every 100 temples. But I don’t think the number should be zero homeless shelters for every 150 temples. I don’t think Jesus would appreciate us building him houses while ignoring the fact that there are immediate housing needs among the least of these in our midst.
Many of the comments I received in defense of the church seemed to be of the opinion that the church didn’t rob the poor because it engaged in so many other forms of charitable service. But my question to that line of thinking is: can a homeless person sleep warm tonight because the church operates canneries? Or because there is a Bishop’s Storehouse? Or because the church gives wheelchairs to needy disabled people in foreign countries? Even when the church acts to help people with housing, does it act to help the chronically homeless? When it pays the rent for a member of the ward, it may be preventing that family from becoming homeless, but it’s not alleviating pre-existing homelessness for the Jesus that sleeps under the overpass on Twelfth Street.
The church can’t pretend to alleviate chronic homelessness with its approach of helping only those who help themselves. It can’t pretend to alleviate chronic homelessness by providing supplies following natural disasters. It can’t pretend to alleviate chronic homelessness by providing clean drinking water in foreign countries. There will always be homeless among us, and the need for assistance is immediate and often urgent. Without homeless shelters, the church cannot participate in this relief effort.
How many temples would Jesus willingly give up if he knew it would allow the church to build just one homeless shelter? Could he get by with three fewer temples if he knew that the funds could be used to provide housing for, say, 1000 of the least of those in need? Would he want the church to participate in this uncomfortable task? Or is he fine letting the not-quite-true churches and other charitable organizations do the dirty work of taking care of these people, so that his church can focus only on those who can progress out of homelessness or avoid it altogether and use the funding instead for temple work for the dead?
And that’s my point. The church has constructed and operates over 150 houses for the Jesus sitting on his throne in heaven. It constructs and operates no housing for the chronically homeless Jesus among us.
Is that really what Jesus would have us do? I have my opinion, but I don’t claim the authority to speak for him. I am, after all, just another apostate.