I’ve often said that the church has a twofold mission: growth and income. It’s really a big corporation disguised as a religion, and the disguise is so good that it has become a rather oppressive and reactionary religion. But I digress.
One of the most common responses I get from believers is, “If it’s a big business, who’s getting rich from the church? Certainly not our leaders, who live off modest stipends. And it’s not the members at large (obviously).”
But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. The church, as a corporation, is essentially a large wad of cash and assets controlled by a small and tightly interconnected oligarchy of friends and relatives. The church functions by spreading wealth and power among this small group and its allies.
Think, for example, of congressmen and senators and how they operate. Very few of them are brazen enough to openly profit from their term in government (Lyndon Johnson being an obvious exception), but they spread the wealth around through “earmarks” for special projects, “favors” for friends and supporters, and other wealth-spreading maneuvers.
In the church, billions of dollars a year are spent on maintaining buildings, paying salaries, publishing materials, and massive construction projects (can you say “mall”?).
Let’s look, for example, at the underused yet enormous Conference Center. The reason it was constructed was simple: the old Tabernacle was too small to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend general conference. But was this really an issue? Broadcast capabilities had long ago made it easy for church members around the world to view conference live, thus making it unnecessary to have a meetinghouse at all for conference (notice that the new stake conference broadcasts originate in a small room, not a large chapel).
So, what was the purpose of the Conference Center? I’ve heard some cynics say it was a monument to Gordon Hinckley’s ego, but I don’t think so. The church spent $240 million on this project, and local firms Jacobsen, Layton, and Okland jointly bid on the project. Looking at the completed projects for Jacobsen and Okland, we see 39 temples, 7 Temple Square/COB projects, 7 BYU projects, and 4 BYU-Idaho projects. And of course, Okland (with Big-D Construction) got the $1.6 billion bid for the church’s City Creek Center project.
The church has connected firms, such as the legal firm of Kirton McConkie (yes, that McConkie), which handles its legal affairs. It uses local suppliers for all the materials it uses, from lightbulbs on Temple Square to the uniforms for the staff at the Lion House.
Now, I’m not suggesting that there is any overt corruption going on here (although David Knowlton has an article in Dialogue about endemic corruption in the church in Latin America). Bribery isn’t necessary; connection is. Otherwise, it makes no sense that a Utah construction firm would be chosen to do work in far-flung places like Tuxtla-Gutierrez, Mexico, and Washington, DC. Does anyone think that there are no local firms in either place that could have underbid Okland and still have done the job?
I’ve said before that the church consists of two kinds of people: the users and the used. Most members are the used. They believe in the church and its mission and give their all in money and time and labor to build the kingdom of God on the earth. The users, whether they believe or not, are the recipients of that dedication. And frankly, it’s the users who motivate the growth of the church.
The Hinckley-era construction explosion shows graphically that the church does not build based on members’ needs; otherwise, these temples dotting the land would actually be used by excited members. These temples were built to meet the needs of the connected.
And that’s how it works.