A Stingy God

by Johnny Townsend

On the surface, Mormons are generous. They give a full ten percent of their income to their church. They donate countless hours every week to various “callings,” as Sunday School teachers, Nursery leaders, temple workers, and janitors. The bishop of every congregation may volunteer 20 hours each week tending to the members of his congregation, juggling that commitment with his secular job and whatever he can spare for family life. Many young adults volunteer an entire eighteen months or two years as full-time volunteer missionaries, as do many retired couples, often voluntarily becoming fluent in other languages as well. They not only donate their time, but they also pay for all the expenses such endeavors demand.

Mormons give and give and give. Blood Atonement for Mormon leaders seems to mean bleeding their members dry, but so much of their giving is only to serve the Church, not their fellow man. In reality, Mormons are stingy philanthropists. Mormons, at least in the U.S., withhold every tax dollar possible that might help the sick and suffering, anyone with real, documented needs. Baking a casserole for a member of the congregation who’s just given birth, or baking funeral potatoes for the family of another who’s just died, are insufficient efforts, to say the least, in addressing the depth of suffering in our communities.

As a member of the Church, I sometimes heard non-members say admiringly, “Mormons take care of their own.” But that’s not quite true.

Some members of the Church on occasion do get some assistance, a single month’s rent payment here or an electric bill there. But it’s a minority of members, and the number of non-members assisted is barely even measurable. Making this occasional assistance still less helpful are the arbitrary decisions on just who gets the help and who doesn’t.

A longtime friend of mine was essentially abandoned by her congregation, despite thirty years of Church membership. No one in her congregation tried to help as her life spiraled out of control and she lost her ability to hold down a job. Only after being reduced to homelessness and attempting suicide did non-members come to her aid. Finally diagnosed with schizophrenia, she was prescribed medication, paid for by the government, which allowed her some degree of control over her life. Government assistance also allowed her a small apartment and just enough money to pay for utilities. She still ended up without food the last week of every month, but she had a fighting chance at life.

The Mormons in her congregation then insisted she pay tithing on her disability check.

Wanting to be “worthy” to visit the temple for the first time, she eventually submitted to the pressure. And her Mormon leaders were then kind enough to permit her to enter the House of the Lord.

Some of her Mormon friends, however, even pressured her to stop taking government assistance altogether because accepting “handouts” showed moral weakness. Many members of the Church want elected officials to cut off what little government assistance does exist for the most vulnerable members of our society. Not only will they not fully help “their own,” but they also deny the public as a whole to help those who church members won’t even attempt to help.

Gianni, an old man I baptized in Naples, lived in a one-room hovel in the worst ghetto of the city. He didn’t even have a toilet, only a bucket behind a curtain. Local leaders refused to assist him financially, instead insisting that if Gianni wanted God’s blessings, he had to pay a full tithing. If God chose not to help him, that was up to God. None of us was obliged to help.

God chose not to help.

Mormons boast of their Bishop’s Storehouses and Church welfare system, but even at their best, they could never begin to address the needs of the 330 million people in the U.S. alone who aren’t members of their church. And since they forbid legislation allowing non-Mormon taxpayers to pay for universal healthcare, everyone else is left to struggle with medical debt on their own, if they can access it at all. Leaving tens of thousands to die every year from lack of medical care, and even more to go bankrupt because of it, is called “tough love.” And Mormons are generous with their love.

Much could be said about the many other ways Mormons refuse philanthropic efforts toward the general public, but it’s important to note that they often refuse to demonstrate it even in religious matters.

I didn’t start dating till I came out as gay and left the Church at 26. My first boyfriend was appalled when I told him about lay leadership in the Mormon Church. I still believed it was a positive feature of the religion, having everyone pitch in to lead and teach. Untrained participation was a virtue.

“Every Sunday School teacher in my church has a degree in religious education,” Don told me. “We were taught serious history. We were taught theology and comparative religion. Our teachers didn’t read superficial lessons out of a manual.”

The revelation shocked me. It never occurred to me one might attend a congregation where teachers—and leaders—knew more than the minimum, where leaders actually had pastoral training. My last bishop was trained in pest control after starting out as a manager at McDonald’s following a stint in the military. A good man, no doubt, but untrained to deal with marital infidelity and child abuse and young gay men dealing with their homosexuality. He did refer me to LDS Social Services, where I had the opportunity to pay a Mormon counselor to tell me I was going to hell if I didn’t repent.

I later joined a Reform Jewish congregation in my hometown. In addition to a rabbinical degree, our rabbi had a PhD in Medieval Jewish Cultural History and Philosophy with an emphasis on the Golden Age of Spanish Judaism. The cantor had rabbinical training as well, in addition to a Master’s degree in Sacred Music. Like those in my first boyfriend’s church, every single teacher in my synagogue had a degree in religious education.

I grew weary, though, of the constant requests for donations to the synagogue. Congregants couldn’t even attend services for Rosh Hashanah or Kol Nidre or Yom Kippur without buying expensive tickets.

Then I realized most Jews still paid less than ten percent of their income toward religion.

And they used the money for a well-trained staff that wasn’t just winging it. We actually got something beneficial for our money, not just the opportunity to miss countless hours with our families every week because we had to volunteer as the ward financial secretary or membership clerk.

My Mormon friends and family were still donating one year, two years, three years of their time, and the accompanying funds to support themselves for that entire period, to “serve the Lord” around the world. But the depth of theological knowledge shared with others was so superficial that even after decades in the Church, these friends and family still didn’t know anything as basic as the source of the Tree of Life dream in the Book of Mormon. And their benevolence—quite real benevolence, mind you—rarely fed or clothed or housed anyone, didn’t access medical care for the sick.

Mormons do willingly give priesthood blessings, of course. If God chooses not to heal someone, that’s up to God.

Israel, for all its many, many faults, does provide universal healthcare to its citizens. So does Catholic Italy. So does Shinto and Buddhist Japan. And Lutheran Norway. And a dozen other countries whatever their religious makeup.

Even when the Mormon Church boasts of donating millions of dollars in the aftermath of natural disasters, it isn’t actually the Church doing most of the donating. The members donate their time and effort. Thousands and thousands of volunteer hours are the Church’s “donation,” and even then, the members are often required to wear special shirts advertising the name of the Church. While the Church gets to list the volunteer hours—and the cost of the shirts—as a donation, the generosity feels more like PR work than philanthropy.

Most of the vast number of volunteer hours active Mormons donate in all these capacities year after year aren’t truly even volunteered. Youth are under enormous pressure to go on full-time missions, often shunned or cast out if they refuse. Missionary colleagues of mine confessed they were “serving” because their father promised them a car if they’d go on a mission, confessed that their parents refused to help them through college unless they completed “successful” missions.

And as missionaries, we didn’t provide much genuine service. We didn’t take the sick to medical appointments. We didn’t clean the homes of the disabled. We didn’t carry groceries for those too ill or old or weak to do it on their own. Our service consisted of telling people they needed to convert to Mormonism if they wanted to see their dead parents or spouse or children again. Nowadays, thankfully, missionaries do donate a small fraction of their time to public service, definitely a step forward.

But it’s only a baby step, and the Church needs to grow up.

With family as the centerpiece of Mormonism, it’s still true that if one’s children or grandchildren leave the Church, or even just stop attending “faithfully” (i.e., at least once a month—the Mormon god takes attendance), parents are sometimes encouraged to rewrite their wills and leave their money and other assets to the Church instead. We’re not talking drug- addicted, alcoholic children in and out of jail but simply children who no longer attend church or who, God forbid, occasionally drink coffee.

But perhaps this analysis is unfair. Why would Mormons feel any need to be truly generous to their fellow man since their version of god is one of the stingiest in all of Christendom? Only the best of the very best make it to the real heaven. All the rest of even the good people go to inferior kingdoms, denied God’s presence throughout eternity. They also never get to see their friends or family who do make the cut, despite the promises of the missionaries, unless those from the upper-class neighborhoods of heaven deign to venture on occasional day trips across the border. Slumming it to show they are generous even after Judgment Day when it no longer counts on their scorecard.

No religion in today’s world is wealthy enough to tackle the cost of assisting everyone who needs help. But a dozen countries around the world already show that the people themselves can do it, if allowed to dedicate their taxes to healthcare and education and housing and food instead of the largest prison system in the world, as we do in the U.S., and a military industrial complex larger than that of China, Russia, and the next eight or nine countries with the most well-funded militaries combined.

Mormons believe that using taxes to alleviate suffering is stealing.

As irritating as I find this attitude, I try to remember that Mormons honestly can’t take the full blame for their anti-social behavior. They are just doing what their anti-social god tells them to. And we know that child abuse is passed on generation after generation, until someone is finally strong enough, brave enough, to break the cycle.

I’d love for today’s Mormons to break that cycle, but accomplishing such a thing often requires counseling, therapy, and a social support system funded by taxpayer money. The irony of Mormon generosity.

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