Making Money, Losing Faith: Mormons in Australia
But when his break with Mormonism came, everything was thrown into question, including the origin stories of this 19th-century American religious movement, institutionalized homophobia, and heavy commitments of time and money.
Each year, the Church reports to the Charities Regulator that it raises nearly $100 million in Australia through a charitable trust fund, with almost all of this revenue considered tithe revenue. That’s a staggering sum for a religion that has only about 60,000 adherents in Australia, according to the census.
Yet, that’s not all it seems. A survey of age and Sydney Morning Herald revealed that the Church may have engaged in tax evasion, allowing its adherents to collect exemptions not legally available to followers of other faiths.
Australia is unusual among English-speaking countries in that it does not allow tax deductions for tithing or church donations. Instead, it allows generous deductibility for charitable donations. The church appears to have structured itself to maximize this tax benefit through payments of $70 million a year through a charity with no paid staff.
This means Mormons have been able to take over $400 million in tax deductions since 2015. There are serious questions about whether this is allowed, although a church spokesperson insists that it complies with Australian tax laws and operates the charity from Australia as required by law.
That $70 million a year in giving is completely out of step with what Mormons give in other countries, including the United States, where they have more than six million followers. It is also in stark contrast to what the Church said it previously gave from Australia, a total of $900,000 between 1985 and 2010.
Given’s experience of the LDS Church — along with other senior ex-Mormons interviewed for this article — was one where charitable giving was limited. “As far as helping people who were really in need, there just isn’t a whole lot going on. The Mormon Church does not provide soup kitchens, homeless shelters and the kind of help that other churches provide,” she says.
A church spokesperson said it had been able to increase charitable spending from Australia because “there was a desire and the ability to significantly increase support”. They did not give further details.
Around the world, the Church has many business interests, including shopping malls and some of the largest farms in the United States. In 2020, it also emerged that the Church ran an investment fund, Ensign Peak Advisors, with more than US$100 billion ($133 billion) in assets, generating substantial tax-free returns.
It has not always been so. In the 19th century, the Church was driven from much of the United States and took up arms against the federal government. He settled, after a great migration, in border Utah, where he supported polygamy.
University of Tampa sociology professor Ryan Cragun, an expert on Mormonism who grew up religiously, said the church was very different then than it is today.
“Nineteenth-century Mormonism has polygamy, they still drink alcohol, they had all kinds of weird practices…which change with the end of polygamy, and then a kind of formalization of the ‘Word of Wisdom,’ which is, you know, no coffee, no alcohol, no tea, no tobacco, all that stuff,” he says.
In the middle of the 20th century – and until today – it represents a kind of all-American salubrity with its fresh-faced, clean-cut, tailored missionaries. “And if you look closely, it looks a lot like a middle-class corporate church in the style of the United States of Salt Lake City.”
Cragun says Church leaders live comfortably, but all that wealth — the $100 billion investment fund, the tax minimization — isn’t about personal enrichment. Rather, he suspects it is long-term business planning.
Many of its current leaders — called Apostles — have backgrounds in corporate leadership positions and run the Church like a business, he says.
“I feel like they know what’s coming. As far as secularization is concerned, they are losing young people en masse. They’re not really getting converts in Australia or New Zealand, or most western European countries at this point. Even Eastern Europe, they don’t have anyone, Africa, OK, they’re doing well there. But even in South America they kind of exploited that,” he says.
“I feel like they’re reading the tea leaves saying…donor members are going to start dwindling. How are we going to maintain all the properties we own, everything we do? »
He surmises the “massive war chest” is designed to allow them to “just live on the income of this indefinitely into the future, that’s my best interpretation”.
Cragun says Mormons were unusual in the amount they paid in tithe. A North American study showed that they paid more than 7% of their income in tithes – a little less than expected, but a “surprisingly high” amount compared to other religions.
There are no comparable figures for the Church in Australia, but its financial accounts indicate that local Mormons pay a high rate of tithing.
There is considerable pressure on Mormons to pay tithing, he said, and once a year they are required to meet with their bishop. This tithing settlement is important, determining, essentially, if they are in good standing and can be recommended to go to the temple, an important step on the way to the hereafter.
Despite the large financial commitment, another characteristic of Mormonism, according to Cragun, is how little the Church spends on charity; less than 1% of its revenue (based on its own previously published figures).
This makes a situation like Australia – where tithing is not tax deductible – tricky for the Church. Without the tax benefit, Mormons here would be significantly worse off financially than Mormons in the United States, Britain, or Canada.
Cragun suggests that the Church can “milk the system for every tax deduction it can, which is why you see that.”
“Getting a spokesperson to admit this is probably impossible…because it makes them appear very ungenerous.”
Mike Perritt was born into the Church and became its National Emergency Response Coordinator, working with the Red Cross and other agencies. He regularly worked 25 hours a week on Church activities.
“To maintain his charitable or religious tax status, he has to give money to charities, but he doesn’t like that,” he says.
Now in his 60s, he left the Church in 2015 because he believed his origin stories were based on “fraudulent claims”. He had paid nearly $400,000 in tithes.
Perritt says he’s seen many low-income people struggle to pay tithing, and tithing dropped when tax deductibility was reduced to 75% for a time. “The Church is very focused on its wealth, it always has been,” he says.
The Church’s tax practices prompted a complaint to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission last year. The regulator is legally barred from providing information on the status of its response – if any – to complaints.
Ex-Mormon senior Simon Southerton alleges the Church is involved in tax evasion through its practices. He is quick to note that it is the Church hierarchy and not ordinary Mormons who are to blame for any claimed tax evasion.
“Mormons are encouraged to be honest and truthful in their relationships. It’s just dishonest to give the impression that the Church is so overwhelmingly charitable when it isn’t,” he says. “I don’t blame ordinary Mormons here…it smacks of US lawyers exploiting legal loopholes to pull the wool over the Australian government’s eyes.”
Attorney Neville Rochow, QC, was until 2018 the Church’s representative to the European Union and has served as a bishop and in stake (archdiocesan-like) and missionary presidencies.
He converted as a teenager and served in missions in Tasmania and later in Germany, where he met his wife. The church had a lot of positives for him: “I came from a pretty dysfunctional childhood and was really looking for a way to have a happy family.”
Rochow says he was “so faithful” and was considered “a repository of all knowledge about doctrine.” “I was their pin-up; I was respectable and had letters after my name. The Church trotted me out when they needed someone respectable who could talk to anyone about anything.
He has spoken in the House of Lords, the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights. “[The Church] opened a lot of doors for us, we got a lot out of it.
Yet when he returned from Europe to Australia in 2018 he lost his faith, after much reading and his wife was diagnosed with cancer.
“For the first time, instead of just continuing ‘in faith’ and accepting the explanations given to us, I extended the principle of following where the evidence led,” he said. “We both quickly realized that this was, to use the vernacular, a load of bullshit. There was hardly a single claim that stood up to objective scrutiny.
He is speaking out now because of what he claims is the financial engineering of the Church. “I have no resentment or anger, but I don’t want any church to profit from tax commissioner fraud of any kind. I don’t think that’s fair.
Sue Given is also angry at the Church’s perceived tax practices. She joined a US class action lawsuit to recover the tithe she paid for decades, which she says was not voluntary.
“My husband is much more positive than me. He sees the positive aspects of Mormonism’s emphasis on the family and I could agree with those positive aspects if indeed they applied to all families, including LGBTQ+,” she says. “As a family, we have never been closer or happier than we are now, outside of the Church.”