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LDS Keeps Charity in Neutral

Funding: Through tithing and donations, the Mormon church funnels millions of dollars to helping the needy. Officials reject government help.

June 17, 2001|CHRISTY KARRAS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SALT LAKE CITY — It is a compassionate conservative's dream: a community made up of religious people who promote clean living, self-reliance and responsibility.

The Mormon church runs one of the tightest ships in the charity business, funneling millions of dollars worth of goods and services to the needy worldwide.

But when it comes to President Bush's offer to channel government funds through religious charities, the Mormons' unwavering answer is thanks, but no thanks.

"We're neutral. That's not saying we think it's wrong for every organization, but we just don't need it," said Dale Bills, spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"There's nothing the government can provide that the church doesn't already have," said Garth Mangum, economics professor emeritus at the University of Utah and author of the book "The Mormons' War on Poverty."

Dependence on Government Avoided

There's another reason for rejecting the offer: the accountability to and dependence on the government in exchange for the money.

"The church doesn't want the government telling it how to do what the church sees as the church's job," Mangum said.

So while the Mormon example may be the model of a successful religious charity, it is also a model for those who say Bush's plan just won't work.

The White House, for its part, agrees that government funding isn't right for every religious charity.

"Charitable choice ought to be open to all qualified community-serving groups, but not all groups ought to participate. Faith leaders, organizations and communities that perceive the slope as secularizing and slippery ought simply to opt out," said John DiIulio, who directs the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The Mormon welfare system's services are funded through donations from the church's 12 million members, who fast one day a month and donate the money they would have spent on food to the church to support welfare. The church also requires its members to tithe 10% of their income to support church infrastructure.

The church has always placed an emphasis on self-sufficiency. In its early years in the 19th century, members set up mutual aid systems to help one another make the trek across the Plains and through the mountains to Utah. Once settled in the West, Mormons set up community farms and storehouses.

The system's modern incarnation began in the Great Depression. Today, assistance ranges from help with rent to employment assistance to food and clothing donations.

Local congregational leaders, called bishops, determine recipients' needs. Non-Mormons can ask bishops for help, but few do.

Salt Lake City's "Welfare Square" includes a "Bishops Storehouse." It's like a grocery store, with shelves lined with everything from diapers to peanut butter. Most items bear the church's beehive logo, meaning that they were produced by church-owned enterprises.

The church owns farms, ranches and orchards, canneries, bakeries, milk plants, a soap factory and a flour mill.

"The bishop knows his congregation's needs and tailors what they receive based on that knowledge," said Kent Hinckley, director of Bishops Storehouse services. "There's an intimate relationship between the giver and the receiver."

The program's emphasis is squarely on work and responsibility. Recipients are expected to contribute to the system as they get help. Many of the volunteers working at the canneries and distribution centers are church welfare recipients who work to repay the charity.

"We try to help people gain self-reliance so they, in turn, can help someone else," Hinckley said. "We didn't want a dole system. That would be detrimental to the people who receive. It doesn't help them to improve themselves."

Other organizations do it differently.

Programs Serve All Backgrounds

Catholic Community Services, the nation's largest faith-based charity, "works hand in hand with the government every day," said Ron Pierre, director of Catholic Family Services of Utah.

Staffers come from all faiths, and the programs serve people of all backgrounds.

Catholic Services operations are determined by government contracts, Pierre said. The services must show results or the organization loses funding.

As for the president's proposal, the Catholic church is taking a wait-and-see attitude, hoping none of its current funding is in jeopardy.

"We are in constant need of funding, so we are driven by the need to go out and obtain funding just like any nonprofit," Pierre said.

Working with the government requires some flexibility, Pierre said. "The political situation does make a difference, and we have to adjust to that."

Mangum believes one of the reasons for the Mormon welfare program's success is the fact that Mormon charity is based wholly on religious beliefs--something he thinks might be lost if the government stepped in.

Mormons believe that they have an obligation to care for one another in both spiritual and material terms, he said. "People who have that kind of conviction can say, 'Go help them,' and it will happen. It works because it's motivated by that conviction."

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