LDS General Conference

Utahns split on desire for more church transparency, but most active Mormons say it isn’t needed, poll shows

This article originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune and can be viewed here in it’s original form. 

Utahns overwhelmingly want government and businesses to be more open, but they are less sure about whether churches need to lift veils of secrecy.

While 93 percent of the state’s registered voters desire more transparency from government and 63 percent wish the same from businesses, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, fewer than half (49 percent) believe faith groups need to reveal more about their dealings.

In fact, most devout Mormons, who make up the largest chunk of the survey sample, oppose the idea.

Overall, 42 percent of Utah voters say churches don’t need to be more transparent. Nine percent are unsure.

The survey question did not ask or prompt respondents on what they thought churches should be more open about — whether religious teachings, practices, politics, finances, missteps, membership information or leadership decisions.

It also did not identify a specific denomination, although Utah remains predominantly Mormon. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the culture emanating from it are seen as wielding significant influence in the Beehive State — from legislative hallways to corporate boardrooms, school classrooms to individual living rooms.

As such, 408 of the survey’s 605 total respondents self-identified as Latter-day Saints of some stripe. The 338 “very active” Mormons were the least likely to call for more transparency from churches, with only 36 percent favoring such action. More than half (54 percent) said no to the notion.

Those results virtually flipped for “somewhat active” and “inactive” members, with 54 percent and 51 percent, respectively, urging more openness from faith groups.

“There’s something about the Mormon culture that sort of fosters this idea that information is not inherently meant to be consumed by the masses, that such things are sacred,” says Ryan McKnight, a former Latter-day Saint who founded MormonLeaks as an online repository for internal LDS documents in hopes of boosting transparency in the church.

“What goes on in the temple is considered sacred,” he says, “and a lot of Mormons also see their financial records as sacred, in that it is nobody’s business to know what the Lord is bringing in from tithing.”

Still, McKnight, who lives in Las Vegas, sees cause for optimism in the poll results, given that more than a third of faithful Latter-day Saints support more transparency.

“That’s still a pretty good number,” he says. “Very rarely have I encountered [active Mormons] who [admit to] wanting that.”

Patrick Mason, chairman of Mormon studies at Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University, notes that the LDS response seems inexorably linked to how seriously those members practice their religion.

“I’m not surprised that only a minority of ‘very active’ Latter-day Saints feel the need for more [transparency],” he says, “and a solid majority feel otherwise … an indication that they have tremendous confidence in their leaders and the institution.”

Mason concedes that the swing toward greater transparency by somewhat active and inactive Mormons is “statistically a pretty striking difference,” but says that phenomenon sparks additional questions.

“As people become less active in the church, we see less confidence in the leadership,” Mason explains. “What these numbers don’t tell us is if that increased lack of trust is the cause for them being less active, less socialized within the organization, or whether that contributes [directly] to their desire for more transparency.”

The LDS Church, which declined to comment for this story, has been taking strides toward greater openness, publishing essays with the stated purpose of providing “accurate and transparent information on church history and doctrine.”

Among other Utah believers, there is more agreement on church transparency. More than half of Catholics (52 percent), Protestants (56 percent) and followers of other faiths (60 percent) want more disclosures from religion.

Meanwhile, 82 percent of the state’s so-called “nones,” who profess no religious affiliation and represent a fast-growing segment on the national landscape, want more church transparency.

Unsurprisingly, more than nine in 10 Utah voters back more transparency from government, which already is the most open of the three groups the survey named.

Chase Thomas, policy and advocacy counsel for the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, sees those results as a resounding condemnation of the “status quo.”

“The headlines have not been great as of late,” he says, citing “mismanagement at the Utah Transit Authority and the subsequent closing of their meetings to the public, [Utah] Attorney General [Sean] Reyes and Gov. [Gary] Herbert refusing to issue their election-related legal opinion, and multiple government agencies fighting against [open records] requests.”

Thomas also points to closed Republican caucuses on Capitol Hill, allowing GOP lawmakers to “kill Medicaid expansion . . . without their constituents knowing who voted yea or nay.”

As for most voters supporting more business transparency, Utah Better Business Bureau President and CEO Jane Riggs views that sentiment as confirmation for her organization’s role as a conduit for consumer complaints and business responses.

“Being transparent doesn’t mean a business has to give away how they make a product or how much profit they make on a service,” she says. “It does mean that a business is upfront with a consumer about where the business is located, costs, policies and provides any written documentation necessary.”

The poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates from Oct. 10 to 13, has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percentage points. The margin is higher for subcategories.

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