Praise and Profit: How Religion Pays Off
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Among the controversies that have emerged during the GOP primary was the matter of Mitt Romney's tax returns.
The billionaire -- a former governor of Massachusetts and principal at the private equity firm Bain Capital -- had resisted the release of those forms and the insight they would provide to his personal wealth. When he finally relented, it was learned that Romney earned a total of $42.5 million in income between 2010 and 2011.
The initial reluctance surely had to be political, especially amid rhetoric of the 1% vs. the 99%. But Romney may have also been taking a cue from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion he is a proud adherent to.
Like many organized religions, the LDS goes out of its way to shield the nature and scope of its assets. Any estimate compiled by media or researchers is dismissed as "exaggerated," even when that guesswork is intentionally conservative.
In the book, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, authors Richard and Joan Ostling, based on years of research, estimated that the church holds $25 billion to 30 billion in assets, with at least $5 billion to 6 billion in annual revenue derived from member tithing.
"What makes the LDS Church distinctive is not just the amount of money coursing through its congregations each week ... but the church's heavy investments in corporate enterprises," they write, estimating that its holdings in stocks, bonds and church-controlled businesses were worth approximately $6 billion in 1997. By their tally, U.S. meetinghouses and temples were worth $12 billion and overseas structures another $6 billion; schools add another billion. Tithing, they estimate, brings in between $4 billion and $5 billion a year.
Their research draws upon the few financial peeks that have been allowed since 1959, the last time the LDS officially released detailed financial information. Among the sources cited are the 1985 book The Mormon Corporate Empire by John Heinerman (a Mormon at the time) and Anson Shupe, credited by many as the best resource on the matter that has thus far been assembled.
In the 1990s, The Arizona Republic newspaper deployed six reporters for more than six months in an effort to get a view of church finances. Despite some interesting tidbits about real estate holdings, that team failed to pull together the comprehensive view of the church's inner workings it desired.