The LDS Priesthood Ban as an Impermissible Method of Accounting
For most (but likely not all) of its history until 1978, the LDS church denied the priesthood from its black male members, and denied the benefits of its temple ordinances to black male and female members. There have been several theories raised regarding the reasons for the ban, but the church has generally disavowed most theories as being non-doctrinal. The position today has been that the priesthood ban was not doctrinal, just a “policy.” Yet…this raises another question — if it was just a policy, why did it require so much time, effort, and prayer — and even a revelation — to change?
I don’t really have any answers on this, but this morning, I thought of the ultimate inside baseball nerd analogy between Mormonism and tax (…yep) that will probably alienate 80% of people who read this article and piss off the remaining 20%. Here goes nothing.
The analogy is as simple as this: The LDS “priesthood ban” was like an impermissible method of accounting.
For y’all non-accountants, accounting methods are basically rules determining how you recognize items of income or expense. For example, one’s overall method of accounting might be “cash basis” (recognize items when the cash is received or paid out) vs “accrual basis” (recognize items when earned/economic performance has occurred).
The IRS sometimes likes people to send statements or forms announcing what methods they take. However, for many methods, it says that people declare the accounting method simply by accounting for items a certain way on their return. For example, chances are that when you submitted your first tax return (if you are an American, I guess), you did not notify the IRS that you were taking (most likely) a cash basis accounting method. (And did you not know that you too, as an individual, have accounting methods? Because you do.) Because the IRS likes consistency, generally, something done in two consecutive tax returns is considered to establish a method of accounting.
…That is true even if the method of accounting is not permissible. Do it two years, and you’re stuck with the method, where the IRS is likely to bring it up in audit, with penalties and interest…
If someone finds themselves in an impermissible accounting method, they can’t just change it back, all sneaky like, just by doing the right thing on their next tax return. Rather, they still have to file an appropriate form notifying the IRS of a change in accounting methods — and they must calculate an adjustment based on what the tax impact would have been had they done everything right all those years. Because that’s really what the IRS cares about — when you have an established method of accounting, that has a cumulative effect on taxable income. Sometimes, the effect is small or short-lived (for example, if you were immediately deducting a cost that should have been capitalized into inventory, then the timing difference will only be as long as it took you to sell the inventory…which could just be a few months, depending on the inventory turnover), but sometimes the effect is large or long-lived (for example if you were immediately deducting a cost that should have been capitalized to a non-residential building…then that should be recovered over the 39-year tax depreciable life of the building…considerably longer.)
So, why would anyone submit a change of accounting methods if they found themselves in a bad one? That sounds like it is just asking for trouble from the IRS, since those applications go directly to the IRS. The upside here is the effect of that adjustment can be spread out over 4 years (whereas, if the IRS catches you, they will suggest an immediate change), and generally comes with audit protection. If a taxpayer catches their mistake before the IRS, so the logic goes, then they get a little bit of a break.
Now, getting back to Mormonism…early in the church, we know that some black men were ordained to the priesthood…but we know that early in the church, at some point, this stopped happening. Not only were black men excluded from the priesthood, but black men and women were excluded from the benefit of temple ordinances.
The church stresses now that this was just a “policy” but not a “doctrine,” but that even “policies” require “revelations” to change. What’s that all about?
If a policy — even an “impermissible” policy like a priesthood ban — is like a method of accounting, then we can say that a revelation is like the application required to change an accounting methods.
I guess in the end, this analogy is kinda lame though. I mean, who is the IRS here? Is it God? What would it mean for God to audit you or the church? The IRS doesn’t immediately audit impermissible accounting methods because it doesn’t necessarily catch them immediately, but would the same be true for God in an LDS worldview. Can a leader who has implemented a theological “impermissible method of accounting” be said to have led the church astray? What would a catchup adjustment to fix the cumulative effect of the priesthood ban look like, and has the LDS church made that adjustment? What would the penalties and interest of God catching the mistake first look like, and is the LDS church actually paying those instead?