Monday sometime, news reports made it clear that (at least for the opponents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Christmas had come a little early. In a post from the, um, Post, we read that, “In a declaration signed under penalty of perjury, Nielsen [a former employee and current whistleblower] urges the IRS to strip the nonprofit of its tax-exempt status and alleges that Ensign could owe billions in taxes. He is seeking a reward from the IRS, which offers whistleblowers a cut of unpaid taxes that it recovers.”
Though at first glance this might seem like a story about someone speaking truth to power, closer examination suggests it is an attempt by someone who doesn’t like the Church of Jesus Christ to tar its reputation. Accusations have been filed with the IRS, but that says nothing of the merit of those accusations. Due process is one of the wonderful ideas embodied in the American system. In news reporting, however, no such standard prevails, and there is often an advantage to be gained by making an accusation and tarring your opponent with it. A substantial first mover advantage exists when attacking an opponent through the news, because reporting accusations and scandal is much more exciting and consequently reaches a larger audience than reporting the resolution of those charges or their refutation.
So why do I think that this story reflects an attempt to attack the Church’s reputation rather than a more narrow desire to right wrongs with regard to the provisions of tax law and the Church’s compliance? One goes to the media when one wants the effect that the media will predictably produce, in this case frenzy leading to reputational damage. Now it’s plausible that the whistleblower is motivated by the prospect of money. As a whistleblower, he has essentially written himself a lottery ticket. In the (frankly improbable) event that the IRS finds that someone managing an investment erred in complying with tax regulations, he stands to receive a percentage of any taxes recovered. Nice work if you can get it. On the motivational end of things, however, there appears to be more to unpack. First of all, I don’t think this is going to pan out very well for him. I’m always open to being corrected by reality, but most of what he has actually claimed amounts to the Church operating frugally, living within their means and saving for a rainy day, consistent with their published statement. Though I can’t rule it out, I would actually be inclined to largely dismiss his financial motivation for doing this, and won’t cover it more in this post. Others have dealt with the claims about the actual financial transactions very capably, notably KSL, and made the case that this is, in essence, a nothing-burger. Beyond the improbable financial outcome, however, several aspects of what was actually published cause me to call into question whether this stunt had any real intent to do anything more than tar the Church for the duration of a news cycle.
The first reason to think this is fundamentally a stunt designed to enlist negative press is the title chosen for the exposé document that has apparently been dumped on Scribd. “Letter to an IRS Director.” Let’s just say that when your title differs by only two characters (three if you count the grammatically required shift from “a” to “an”) from the year’s most popular anti-Church tract, it can only reasonably be interpreted as signaling to the Church’s opponents that you are engaged in something they should take an interest in and help to promote. E.g., it’s this year’s stunt.
In support of the stunt hypothesis, let’s look at several claims from the document. The first was brought to my attention by Jana Riess’s recent Salt Lake Tribune article. The money quote is “One would think that Jesus (in the sky!) wouldn’t need to work very hard to convince investors of his creditworthiness should he return and need money. How much does “Scientology’s EPA” get to stow away for when Xenu, dictator of the Galactic Confederacy, might return?” As Riess points out, this reflects the sort of anti-religious (and I would add specifically anti-Christian) animus that really does have the effect of undermining ones credibility in a document laying out what should be some fairly mundane arguments about taxes and the finer points of the law.
The document’s tone also lapses into vindictiveness, “That’s right. The COP built a wall around its money bin—a big, beautiful wall made of the finest fine print, and they made you pay for it.” One can almost see Scrooge McDuck, a metallic gleam in his eye, diving off the board in the Duck Tales opener just reading this stuff, but this isn’t usually the tone one adopts (I assume, maybe I haven’t written enough exposés to know) when addressing the IRS about serious tax infractions. It’s the tone one adopts when addressing a crowd that already agrees with you in their ideological biases against the Church of Jesus Christ.
The author further appears to recognize that some of his claims are patently ridiculous (“The straightforward model is a little ridiculous, but are we not already there?” pg. 19). My personal favorite is on page 20, where the author uses this “straightforward model” to show that, at their present rate of growth, the Church’s assets will, in 100 years or so, include some 2.67 quadrillion dollars. The current GDP of earth is estimated (thank you Google) at 80.68 trillion dollars, but never mind that. As much as some of our opponents have mocked us with manufactured tales of planets to be handed out to the faithful, it seems the Washington Post should have exercised more caution toward a document that claimed the Church while still a mortal entity should soon own the equivalent of the annual produce of some 33 such blessed blue orbs. Saints inheriting the earth indeed!
Frankly, in a universe in which such curious claims can gain purchase at a major news outlet, it is no wonder that the Church of Jesus Christ sets aside considerable reserves. At the very least, it has to prepare for the possibility that in an environment increasingly hostile in some quarters toward religion, it will incur substantial expenses that are difficult to predict far in advance of the emergency. These could range from loss of tax exempt status (which, honestly, should be a concern for all people of faith who see this news report for what it is), to frivolous law suits, to attacks on property, to attacks on the civil liberties of believers, to other costs incurred as a result of ideologically motivated attacks. With a past (19th century) history of being driven in various forms from three U.S. states, being denied due process, the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and being dispossessed of Church property by an act of Congress, one can hopefully appreciate that if there is one article of faith that can be learned from the Latter-day Saints as a people, it is faith in rainy days and the wisdom of appropriately preparing for them.