Beliefnet News

Jun. 29–At first glance, it seems logical to assume Utah’s high bankruptcy rate is connected to the large number of Mormons living in the state.
After all, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages members to pay 10 percent of their incomes in tithing, to marry young and to have a lot of kids — factors that suggest LDS families face extra challenges to make ends meet.
Yet a new study by two recent Harvard Law School graduates — both LDS Church members — indicates that theory may need to be abandoned.
Ezekial Johnson, who wrote the study “Are Mormons Bankrupting Utah? Evidence From the Bankruptcy Courts” with co-researcher James Wright, said the authors found that non-Mormons were slightly more likely than LDS Church members to go bankrupt.
“Frankly, we were stunned when we first ran the data and saw the results,” Johnson said. “To be honest, those results went against all our initial thoughts.”
The study was based on 281 surveys Johnson and Wright collected in Utah in August 2004, when the state led the nation in bankruptcies per household. Utahns filing for bankruptcy were asked to fill out voluntary questionnaires after their mandatory first meeting of creditors. The survey included questions about debtors’ religious affiliations and charitable donations.
Wright and Johnson became interested in the topic studying under Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor and authority on consumer bankruptcies.
“We had seen accounts that suggested a tie between the LDS Church and the rate of bankruptcies in Utah and this gave us the opportunity to ask some questions,” said Wright, now a Salt Lake City real estate attorney.
One question they wrestled with was how to determine if those who pay tithing to the LDS Church are filing bankruptcy in a greater percentages than those who don’t.
A 2005 bankruptcy study by The Salt Lake Tribune found that about 13 percent of Utah bankruptcy filers reported tithing in the year prior to going broke, with 12 percent paying tithes to the LDS Church.
Wright and Johnson approached the numbers from a different angle. Their methodology concluded that if the overall percentage of Mormons in Utah who paid tithing exceeded 35.5 percent, then Mormon tithe payers are actually less likely to file for bankruptcy than non-tithe payers. When the data came in, it showed 36.2 percent of Mormons paid tithing of $1,000 or more a year.
Still, they conceded, determining the rate of bankruptcies filed by tithe payers is difficult since the LDS Church doesn’t publish its data. Also, it is difficult to know what tithe payers would have contributed if they were not under economic distress, Wright said.
Another finding: While children typically increase the likelihood of families filing bankruptcy, in Utah that pressure was less severe. Johnson and Wright knew from Warren’s studies that, nationally, households with children are 300 percent more likely to file for bankruptcy than households without children. But in Utah, that percentage dropped to 191 percent.
The Salt Lake Tribune’s analysis found nearly two-thirds of bankruptcy filers in Utah had one or more dependent children, making them twice as likely to be supporting children under 18 as the average household nationally.
Jeff Thredgold, president of Salt Lake City-based Thredgold Economic Associations and a consultant to Zions Bank, said large families invariably will put Utah among the top 15 states in bankruptcy filings.
“When you have 50 percent more children per adult in a household there is going to be increased financial pressure. But the fact that there are more children per household [in Utah than nationally] is probably more of a cultural issue than a religious one,” he said, contending other faiths in the state also have larger families, recognizing Utah is a good place to raise children.
Although Thredgold would have liked to see a larger survey sample, he said the study will be worthwhile if it helps counter some myths about why bankruptcies are higher in Utah.
Utah State University Professor Jean Lown, who has done extensive research on Utah bankruptcy rates, said the Harvard study’s findings that slightly fewer Mormons file for bankruptcy in Utah than non-Mormons is in line with her own research.
“It is a fascinating study and a good start,” she said. “And it does address some issues that need to be considered.”
Johnson and Wright conceded their study doesn’t answer the question of why Utah’s bankruptcies-per-household rates is higher than the national average, but speculated that the reasons were the same as The Salt Lake Tribune’s study.
It painted a picture of families living paycheck to paycheck when they were suddenly stymied financially by unexpected job loss, a medical crisis, business failure or divorce — forces or events that typically contribute to bankruptcy everywhere.

San Diego, Jul 2, 2007 (UPI via COMTEX) — A San Diego elementary school is embroiled in controversy over a policy allowing Muslim students to pray during a school break.
Critics told the San Diego Union-Tribune the policy at Carver Elementary either endorses a religion or crosses the line separating church and state. The policy has become a hot topic on conservative talk radio shows, the newspaper reported.
The school district says since Islam requires Muslim students to pray at a specific time, the school isn’t breaking any laws by accommodating them.
“The district’s legal obligation in response to a request that a prayer must be performed at a particular time is to treat that request the same as it would treat a student’s request to receive an insulin shot at a particular time,” lawyer Brent North told the Union-Tribune.
More than 100 Muslim students enrolled at Carver in the fall when a charter school that served mostly Somali Muslims closed.

LAS VEGAS — Television ministry used to be the province of a few prominent preachers like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. But the business — and it is a business — has definitely come of age.
At this year’s National Association of Broadcasters convention, the “technologies for worship” pavilion drew hundreds of religious broadcasters, and they are only part of the picture. Industry leaders say there are some 10,000 TV ministries around the country, both big and small.
“If you turn on basic cable, and a public access channel, in communities all over — not only the United States — you’re going to find churches with a camcorder, a single camera shot, with an on-the-camera microphone, and a pastor who is sincere, who believes the word of God, and has a desire to teach that word and share it with other people,” said Rod Payne, media director at First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas, who attended the NAB convention.
While many ministries start small, lots of others invest big money in television — from high-definition cameras to digital transmitters, not to mention the airtime. Costs vary depending on distribution.
“If you’re going to go … to a network or something like that, you’re going to be really sticker-shocked with the price that’s out there,” said Brent Kenyon of the Total Living Network.
Some churches, like Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Ala., keep their costs down by operating their own low-power stations and selling time to other TV ministries.
“It’s a compact little operation but very effective,” said John Rogers, director of Frazer’s TV ministry, which reaches 100,000 homes 24 hours a day. “It’s outreach we feel we can offer that enables folks to become familiar with what church is all about, serving Jesus Christ and to bring them in and be part of the family here.”
Like many churches, Frazer relies heavily on volunteers for its TV production crew. It started its operation 24 years ago with donations from local businesses and money from the church budget. Now it offers training to churches that are just starting out.
The TV ministry business is getting so big that many churches have full-time media directors. Some hire consultants to help them develop new programs.
“Most Christian television that you see is very low quality, it’s not very good, and a lot of people have issues with it,” said Phil Cooke, a consultant who wrote the book “Successful Christian Television.” “We want to bring the best of the production world and the best of the media world in with it, and help people do it more effectively and make more entertaining shows.”
Many TV ministries get a significant portion of their income from product sales, such as CDs, as opposed to direct appeals for money. They say they have to raise cash to stay on the air, just as public television does.
But that hasn’t always been the case. In the early days of religious broadcasting, stations would donate time for programs. One of the pioneers, Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his “Life Is Worth Living,” eventually attracted a sponsor and drew 10 million viewers.
In the 1960s, under pressure from evangelicals who felt they didn’t have equal access, the government ruled that stations could sell time to religious broadcasters. Evangelicals started buying, and now they are the dominant religious presence on television.
The biggest “faith network,” Trinity Broadcasting, has more than 12,000 outlets worldwide and claims an audience of more than 100 million.
TV evangelist Joel Osteen’s program draws more than 7 million viewers a week and his audio podcast made the Top 10 on iTunes earlier this year. “The Hour of Power,” from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., estimates its worldwide audience at 20 million a week and its annual cost for airtime at more than $13 million.
“It’s an expensive proposition to be on television on Sunday morning, and obviously requires a lot of fundraising, a lot of $20 gifts and $30 gifts from people all over the country, to support that and make that happen,” said James Penner, producer of “The Hour of Power.”
Some TV ministries are organized as churches, some as not-for-profit organizations. Either way, they pay no taxes.
Rusty Leonard, who founded the watchdog group Ministry Watch to track the finances of televangelists, rates ministries on financial efficiency and transparency. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, for example, gets an A for transparency and four out of five stars for financial efficiency.
But some of the biggest names in the TV ministry business — including the Trinity Broadcasting Network and Benny Hinn — are on Leonard’s watchlist.
“They won’t tell you how they’re spending the money they’re asking you to give,” he said. “Your hard-earned money, and they’re not going to tell you where it’s going. I just don’t see why I should give to a ministry like that.”

Three mainline Protestant denominations — the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Church of the Brethren — have experienced steady decreases in U.S. membership rolls, continuing long-term trends, according to separate June reports.
A “state of the church” report issued by the UMC said its U.S. membership fell to 7.9 million — a loss of nearly 6 percent — from 1995 to 2005. In Africa and Asia, however, Methodist numbers are growing, with 200 percent increases on each continent during that decade.
UMC membership dropped about 1.4 percent in 2006, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
Active membership in the Presbyterian Church (USA) fell by more than 46,000, to 2.27 million in 2006, according to the church’s Office of the General Assembly. Almost 1,000 fewer adults, and 230 fewer children, were baptized by the church last year, the church said.
Several large congregations have left the PC(USA) this year, choosing to affiliate with the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church instead.
The Church of the Brethren reported a 1.4 percent decrease in membership last year, to about 128,000. Membership fell by a similar percentage in 2005, the church said.