Bear with me. This post is not about what you think it is about. My beef is not with Republican Mormons, social Mormons, Utah Mormons, Jello salad, or any of the other sins that Wasatch Front Mormonism is generally accused of. Rather, I am interested in power.
It seems that Wasatch Front Mormons often times fall into the trap of thinking of the Church as a powerful institution. This mistake shows itself in a variety of contexts. For example, many conservative Wasatch Front Mormons are hostile to a strong conception of the separation of church and state, viewing it as a kind of cheap rhetorical ploy designed to keep Mormonism from exercising its rightful and beneficent influence on government. The implicit assumption of this stance is that the Church is a powerful institution in the community and that separationist arguments are primarily about limiting Church power. The fallacy of this argument is that in most places, Mormons are a decided minority and that we by and large benefit from separationism, especially since those most opposed to separationism in the United States are also those who are the most religiously hostile toward Mormons.
Another manifestation of this fallacy is Wasatch Front criticism that sees the Church as a vast, omni-competent institution, able to exert huge influence at will. At a very parochial level there is probably at least some truth to this. The Church can exert a great deal of political influence in Utah if it chooses to do so. However, its influence off of the Wasatch Front is extremely limited – high profile involvement in California, Hawaii, or Alaska notwithstanding. For example, the Church has almost no political power in Virginia, Massachusetts, or Arkansas (to name the three states that I have lived in during the last five years.) Furthermore, even its political power in Utah seems to be at least in part a product of political restraint. One or two generations ago, Church leaders were less reticent about intervening in Utah politics than they are today. One result was that their interventions tended to be much less successful.
Both Wasatch Front critics and Wasatch Front triumphalists tend to see the Church as an hugely wealthy institution, possessed of limitless assets and resources. However, if one looks at the sources of Church income and its areas of growth, it becomes obvious that the Church faces incredibly daunting financial challenges. Simply put, the Church is acquiring fiscal liabilities faster than it is acquiring fiscal assets. Since tithing is a more or less fixed percentage of members’ income, we can safely assume that most tithing will come from members who earn more money. Globally, this primarily means members in the United States, Canada, and Europe. However, most of Church growth is happening in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and among poor populations (e.g. inner-cities or immigrant communities) in the developed world. Growth among high- or middle-income North Americans and Europeans – that is among those able to provide significant financial resources – is much slower and in some areas is essentially non-existent. As it stands, the Church transfers resources from wealthy Saints to poor Saints by paying for the cost of Church programs in areas that cannot sustain those costs, and aggressively limiting the costs of the Church in areas that could economically sustain much more elaborate programs. The two sides of this redistributive equation, however, are growing at very different rates. Given this reality, goggling at the zeros in estimates of Church wealth simply misses the perilous economic reality of the situation.