Businessweek Mormon Cover: Church Lashes Out For Portrayal Of Prophets And Profits

(RNS) The Mormon church is lashing back at a business magazine that parodied their prophet's mission and portrayed the church as lucratively rich but miserly with charitable donations.

A lengthy story in Bloomberg Businessweek that hits newsstands on Friday (July 13) details The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' vast financial holdings, from a $2 billion mall in Salt Lake City to a $1 billion ranch in Florida.

Reaction to the magazine's cover has overshadowed the article, however. The illustration satirizes the moment when Mormons believe John the Baptist bestowed the priesthood on Joseph Smith, the faith's founding prophet.

In the parody, John the Baptist tells Smith, "and thou shalt build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King, and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax ..." Smith answers, "Hallelujah."

LDS church spokesman Michael Purdy said the magazine cover is "in such poor taste it is difficult to even find the words to comment on it."

"Sadly, the cover is a reflection of the bias and speculative nature of the article itself," Purdy told the LDS church-owned Deseret News. "It is narrow and incomplete, omitting, for instance, a good deal of information given on how church resources are used."

The "profoundly irreverent" cover belies the serious and straightforward article that it accompanies, said Joanna Brooks, a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.

"Trying to sell a few magazines, Businessweek destroyed an opportunity for a serious discussion," said Brooks, who is Mormon.

Asked for a response, Bloomberg spokeswoman Rachel Nagler said that the cover image comes from an 1898 lithograph "recording a pivotal moment in the birth of Mormonism."

The article itself is not satirical. It states that the LDS church owns media companies, a hospitality business, an insurance firm with assets of $3 billion, an agricultural company with 1 million acres in the U.S., and an ample real estate portfolio.

The church also makes money through an investment fund and trust company, according to the article.

In all, the LDS church is worth about $40 billion, according to a study cited in the article, and takes in $8 billion each year in tithes.

"What is remarkable is how varied the church's business interests are and that so little is known about its financial interests," writes Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Caroline Winter.

Meanwhile, the LDS church donates less than one percent of its annual income to charity, according to a study cited in the article. Other churches donate nearly 30 percent.

Mormon leaders responded with a lengthy statement on Thursday, saying that comparing their church to a business misses the mark, and arguing that the charity study omits their vast non-monetary and welfare assistance programs.

"On occasion someone will try to estimate the Church's income and determine how much of that is used to care for the poor and needy," the LDS church said in a statement. "Again, they rarely capture the whole picture."

Mormons began as a poor and persecuted religion, the church said, isolated in the Utah mountains. They built their own businesses because no others were around.

"Today, the Church's business assets support the Church's mission and principles by serving as a rainy day fund," the church said.

Moreover, Mormon volunteers spend thousands of hours running employment services, thrift stores, food pantries and other welfare programs, according to the church.

The church also insists that tithing is not used in its for-profit business, but rather for building houses of worship, providing educational programs, supporting the church's 50,000 missionaries, operating 140 temples worldwide.

"The key to understanding church finances is to understand that they are a means to an end," the LDS leaders said. "They allow the church to carry out its religious mission across the world."