Monday, December 16, 2019

Power and Corruption

Corruption is in the news almost constantly these days. Of course, we’re all aware of the old saw that power corrupts, but perhaps we are not aware of the context. Lord Acton was writing to Bishop Creighton in 1887 about the problem of writing history about the Inquisition: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
As I’ve watched the impeachment proceedings unfold, I can’t help but think that Acton could very well have been writing about our day. Half of the country, it appears, is disposed to judge Donald Trump differently than they would just about anyone else and to presume that he does no wrong. And the heresy appears to be prevalent, especially among Evangelicals and many Mormons, that the office of president has sanctified the holder of it. But these people are playing with moral fire.
Science fiction writer David Brin made an astute observation in his novel The Postman (1985), which Frank Herbert echoed in Chapterhouse: Dune, published the same year: “It’s said that ‘power corrupts,’ but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power. When they do act, they think of it as service, which has limits. The tyrant, though, seeks mastery, for which he is insatiable, implacable.” Brin also describes Donald Trump with eerie prescience. But I would modify his observation somewhat. Power doesn’t just attract the corruptible; it attracts the already corrupted. No one could claim that Donald Trump has been corrupted by the power of the presidency. He was fully corrupt long before he surprised himself by winning the electoral college vote.
And now another highly corrupt politician, “Moscow Mitch” McConnell, is prepared to do Trump’s bidding and hold a sham trial in the Senate. Where will it end? Hopefully at the ballot box next November.
I am tremendously saddened by another news story that broke just today. The Washington Post is reporting that a whistleblower who worked for the LDS Church’s investment corporation, Ensign Peak Advisors, filed a complaint with the IRS on November 21 that the Church has misused tithing funds and broken federal tax law by stockpiling surplus donations (to the tune of a reported $100 billion) instead of using them for charitable purposes, and also using donations to rescue a couple of floundering Church-owned businesses.
I am not going to rush to judgment. This is a very preliminary report, and the Church is making no statements yet. It may be that everything has been done according to the law. But the numbers alone raise significant questions. “According to the complaint,” the Post reports, “Ensign’s president, Roger Clarke, has told others that the amassed funds would be used in the event of the second coming of Christ.” If this is true, I have two questions. Why, at the Savior’s coming, would the Church need tens of billions of dollars in cash?  We generally understand that the Savior will come during a time of terrible upheaval. I suspect that this would involve a global economic collapse. In such an event, wouldn’t money be worthless? And I keep thinking how much good could be done in the present for the poor, the sick, and the elderly of the world with $100 billion or even some fraction of that amount.
The Post article closes with a quote from President Hinckley. Asked by a German reporter why the Church does not publish its financial records, President Hinckley answered, “We simply think that information belongs to those who made the contributions, and not the world.” I find this a rather bizarre statement. I don’t know of any ordinary member of the Church who faithfully pays tithing who has seen a financial report from the Church in the past 50 years. These reports used to be published annually. But that practice ended decades ago. I’ve been concerned about the secrecy regarding Church finances. Usually the reasons for keeping secrets (see Donald Trump’s tax returns) are not very compelling. Secrecy usually indicates that a person or an organization has something to hide. I hope this is not the case with the Church and this complaint.
Time will tell.