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Moorlach Invests Much Confidence in His Faith

Profile: Orange County's treasurer leans heavily on his Bible to negotiate the turbulent financial waters.

December 19, 1998|WILLIAM LOBDELL | William is editor of the Daily Pilot

It's not something John M.W. Moorlach shouts from the county Hall of Administration rooftop, but he'll tell you if you ask. The Bible is the first book the Orange County treasurer-tax collector turns to for financial advice.

"The Bible is the greatest self-help financial book ever written," says Moorlach, the Costa Mesa accountant who predicted the Orange County bankruptcy six months before it happened. "I added it up once, and I found more than 2,000 pieces of financial advice in the Bible."

Get him started and Moorlach will reel off biblical passages ("1 Timothy 6:9 says don't try get-rich-quick schemes") that he uses as a foundation for all financial planning--whether for his household or the county.

Moorlach knows some of his constituents will blanch at the thought of a devout Christian in control of public finances. But Moorlach points out that Scriptural directives have formed the basis for sound financial planning for thousands of years--and their secular cousins are easily recognized.

"The Bible tells us to be content, to save, to avoid get-rich schemes, to diversify, to be honest, to be consistent, to exercise fidelity and stewardship," says Moorlach, a 43-year-old married father of three who attends church at Costa Mesa's Newport-Mesa Christian Center. "The Scriptural principles work, even if you're not a Christian."

But Moorlach has found these simple ideals are tough to execute in affluent Orange County, a land of leveraged lifestyles.

Eight years ago, he was so frustrated with his clients' inability to faithfully follow financial standards outlined in the Bible that he decided to write a self-help book titled "Living Financially Free."

"My frustration was that Christians were pretty flaky with how they handled their money," says Moorlach, whose financial insights have put him on the pages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. "It doesn't make sense that there's such a great guidebook in the Bible, but no one followed it.

"We know the biggest cause of divorce is stress over finances. That's why the Scriptures have so much to say about finances--it's a common element with everybody. It resonates."

Moorlach argues that proper budgeting will shake loose about 20% more money. And he suggests putting half of the newly found money away for retirement and giving half to the church.

"Most of my clients would complain that I chew them out about not tithing enough," Moorlach says. "It's not something they expect to hear from their CPA."

From his accounting practice, a ministry sprang. Moorlach would help people square away their finances, creating happier marriages and more church giving.

He began by growing a beard.

The idea was to leave the whiskers on until the book was finished. So every day when he looked in the mirror, he had a reminder that there was more to be written.

Today the beard remains. Moorlach's book project got sidetracked when he decided to run in 1994 for a sleepy little county post: the treasurer-tax collector seat held by Robert L. Citron.

The rest is Orange County financial history: Moorlach ran a losing race but predicted--with uncanny precision--the county's nearly $2-billion financial collapse, the largest municipal bankruptcy in history. He was appointed treasurer-tax collector after Citron's forced exit in 1995 and has ran unopposed twice since, most recently in June.

"Citron was violating the basic biblical principle of watching how you borrow," says Moorlach, citing Proverbs 22:7 (". . . the borrower is servant to the lender"). "When I started looking at Citron's portfolio, there was a conflict with the Bible--and he was using my tax dollars!"

When the county went belly up, Moorlach instantly became a reluctant national newsmaker. He wept the night the county filed for bankruptcy--"I tried so hard to tell people a train wreck was coming"--and has been busy straightening out the county's finances ever since.

Even though his dream of writing a book has been delayed, Moorlach figures the detour into public life will help his ministry.

"My biggest problem with the book was not that it wasn't well written, but that I needed credibility," Moorlach says. "I'm now the treasurer of the sixth-largest--and maybe the wealthiest--county in the nation."

Moorlach's financial experience certainly will give him celebrity status in the world of Christian publishing. But he's not sure about how his Christian views will go over in the secular society.

"It's easy to bash Christians," Moorlach says. "They're sort of fair game. People get bent out of shape about Christians in society and especially in politics. I always find it amusing, people worried about Christians. They are the guys you want living next door to you."

Moorlach believes part of the problem has been caused by politically inspired liberals, who have been able to get Christians stereotyped as right-wing Republicans.

"That's just not true," Moorlach argues. "If you take a cross-section of a congregation and a cross-section of society, they match up pretty well."

Because of the anti-Christian bias, Moorlach struggles with whether to take a more evangelical approach, given his high-profile position.

"I think about it a lot. Should I be blurting out my testimony everywhere or can I get away with a 'God bless you'?" says Moorlach, who at 19 had a conversion experience so profound that he spent the night throwing away any possession that didn't fit with his new Christian life. "I personally feel more comfortable trying to lead by example. I try to be a strong, steady person who people can look at and say, 'I guess it's OK to be a Christian.' "

William Lobdell, editor of the Daily Pilot, will look at faith in Orange County as a regular contributor to The Times Orange County religion page. He can be reached at

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