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Yet the Latter-day Saints remain sensitive about their "otherness"--more so, in fact, than most outsiders can imagine. Most church members laughed off Dennis Rodman's crack about "f_____ Mormons" during the N.B.A. championships. But the subsequent quasi apology by Rodman's coach Phil Jackson that his player hadn't known they were "some kind of a cult or sect" deeply upset both hierarchy and membership. Perhaps, however, they should learn to relax. Historian Leonard J. Arrington says the church, along with the values it represents, "has played a role, and continues to play a role, in the economic and social development of the West--and indeed, because of the spread of Mormons everywhere, of the nation as a whole." And in a country where religious unanimity is ever less important but material achievement remains the earthly manifestation of virtue, their creed may never face rejection again.
The top beef ranch in the world is not the King Ranch in Texas. It is the Deseret Cattle & Citrus Ranch outside Orlando, Fla. It covers 312,000 acres; its value as real estate alone is estimated at $858 million. It is owned entirely by the Mormons. The largest producer of nuts in America, AgReserves, Inc., in Salt Lake City, is Mormon-owned. So are the Bonneville International Corp., the country's 14th largest radio chain, and the Beneficial Life Insurance Co., with assets of $1.6 billion. There are richer churches than the one based in Salt Lake City: Roman Catholic holdings dwarf Mormon wealth. But the Catholic Church has 45 times as many members. There is no major church in the U.S. as active as the Latter-day Saints in economic life, nor, per capita, as successful at it.
The first divergence between Mormon economics and that of other denominations is the tithe. Most churches take in the greater part of their income through donations. Very few, however, impose a compulsory 10% income tax on their members. Tithes are collected locally, with much of the money passed on informally to local lay leaders at Sunday services. "By Monday," says Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone, an independent Mormon magazine, the church authorities in Salt Lake City "know every cent that's been collected and have made sure the money is deposited in banks." There is a lot to deposit. Last year $5.2 billion in tithes flowed into Salt Lake City, $4.9 billion of which came from American Mormons. By contrast, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with a comparable U.S. membership, receives $1.7 billion a year in contributions. So great is the tithe flow that scholars have suggested it constitutes practically the intermountain states' only local counterbalance in an economy otherwise dominated by capital from the East and West coasts.
The true Mormon difference, however, lies in what the LDS church does with that money. Most denominations spend on staff, charity and the building and maintenance of churches; leaders will invest a certain amount--in the case of the Evangelical Lutherans, $152 million--as a pension fund, usually through mutual funds or a conservative stock portfolio. The philosophy is minimalist, as Lutheran pastor Mark Moller-Gunderson explains: "Our stewardship is not such that we grow the church through business ventures."