Praise and Profit: How Religion Pays Off
BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Ask the devoted and they might say that their religion is priceless. Ledger sheets might say a different story.
Comparing organized religion to a corporation is a bit disingenuous. After all, a company isn't on a mission to give away most of what it takes in to promote good works throughout the world.
Companies also have far more public oversight than organized religion. In the U.S., investors demand transparency of firms, the SEC enforces and oversees their actions and independent auditors -- at least in theory -- ensure that each line item is on the up and up.
Churches? Not so much.
Once a religion earns federal (as in IRS) recognition, it is freed from nearly all reporting requirements, even the rigorous standards most nonprofits must comply with.
The typical company also has a clear seat of power. Religions, scattered around the globe with myriad power structures, lack a clear equivalent to the corporate headquarters.
Despite both secrecy and fragmentation, there are still insights to be had into the wealth of organized religion. We looked at some of the ways money adds up for various denominations:
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.