Originally published in Utah Business.
Call it a Mormon summer. Utah’s predominant religion has been the recipient of a mammoth amount of publicity this summer. In what commentators are calling the “Mormon moment,” news stories flood the airwaves with reports—some accurate, some not—about Mormonism. Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman Jr., Harry Reid, Twilight vampire novels, Glenn Beck, HBO’s Big Love and a Tony Award-winning Broadway play have placed a bright spotlight on the Mormon faith. It’s a spotlight that illuminates the economic reach of a global religion and the local economic impact of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Economists love numbers, but few numbers are available about the economics of the LDS Church. I’m OK with that; LDS Church finances are similar to other nonprofit religious organizations. There is no government requirement to disclose financial records and since payments (or tithes) to the church are voluntary, it’s really not the public’s business. The LDS Church maintains an internal audit department and reports are made to its members at their annual general conference.
Over the years, many have estimated the finances of the LDS Church. In 1996, a Time magazine cover story called “Mormon Inc.” said that if the LDS Church were a corporation, its annual gross income would tally around $5.9 billion and rank it above Nike and Gap in the Fortune 500 listing. The story claimed LDS Church assets exceeded $30 billion. The Mormon prophet at the time commented that many of the financial reports about the church were “grossly exaggerated.”
A more recent PBS report on the LDS Church reported that it had become “the wealthiest church per capita in America.” Given that the LDS Church and many others do not disclose their finances, it makes me wonder how they know. Others have suggested that the LDS Church has not used debt to fund operations or capital since 1907. Just imagine … a chapel a day, several temples a year and City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City all paid with cash!
While LDS financial numbers are a mystery, we can identify the components. The largest category of assets is buildings: chapels, temples, administration buildings, mission homes and so on. Then there are educational facilities: BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, LDS Business College, Institutes of Religion and seminaries. Then there are media companies: newspaper, radio, television and internet properties. You’ll also hear about extensive real estate and for-profit business holdings: a huge beef ranch in Florida, food companies (nuts and sugar), book companies and residential communities.
LDS leaders will be quick to point out that most church assets are “money-consuming assets” not “money-producing assets.” The Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley spoke on this point by saying, “The combined income from all of these interests is relatively small and would not keep the work going for longer than a brief period.” The cash cow of the Mormon empire is not its for-profit holdings, but the tithes of members.
From an economic perspective, we are fortunate in Utah to have a major world religion headquartered in our fine city. If you need a second opinion, just ask Delta Airlines, downtown hotels and restaurants, construction companies, Visit Salt Lake (formerly known as the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau), engineering firms or one of the several thousand church employees. While serving a far more important moral purpose, make no mistake about it, the LDS Church in Utah is big business. And what a great business to have.