Sunday 11 January 2015

Mormons buying a Mexican stairway to heaven

The Mormon faith is notable for its insistence that its parishioners abstain from all intoxicants, including caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. However, in Mexico the Mormon Church, also known as the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), has been spending pesos like a drunken sailor on a bender in Tampico.
Joseph Smith,
founder of Mormonism

According to the Church’s own financial statements, it has investments in Mexico totaling 11,200,000,000 pesos, over US$767 million at today’s exchange rate. The purpose of the financial statements is to assess the economic value of the Church in Mexico, and does not include philanthropic spending.

Practically speaking, as a result of reforms to the Mexican Constitution in 1992, “foreign” (i.e. non-Catholic) religious groups can have tax-exempt legal status in Mexico that allows them to acquire real-estate and hold funds in Mexican financial institutions. Non-Mexican missionaries are also allowed to proselytize, and the LDS can set up places of worship and even educational institutions.

In 2013 the LDS established a Missionary Training Center in Mexico (also known more euphemistically as the “Educational and Cultural Society”). This is the second largest LDS Center in the world.

Still, the number of Mormons in Mexico remains quite small, which means its per-member spending may be the highest of any faith active in the country. Official government data from 2010 has 82.7% of the Mexican population (92.9 million) as Catholic, 1.6% Pentecostal, 1.4% Jehovah's Witnesses, 0.6% Seventh Day Adventist,  0.4% Presbyterian, and only 0.3% (315,000) Mormon. However, LDS figures are more generous: they claim 1.2 million Mexican followers in 2010.

(Another 4.7%, or 5.3 million, reported having no religion. No data appears to have been collected for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., which can only mean those numbers are marginal. There is also no accounting for indigenous beliefs – one assumes they have been folded into the “Catholic” numbers.)

Mormonism has been in Mexico since 1885, when many moved from the United States to escape polygamy laws. Recently, the religion has been on a tear throughout Latin America, aided by a culture of proselytization (every young Mormon is supposed to put in two years of missionary service), substantial financial resources, and an ideology in which the Americas have a special place.

How special? The Book of Mormon, written in 1830, says that a band of Israelites migrated from Jerusalem to the Western Hemisphere about 600 B.C.  

Better yet, Mormons also believe that Jesus, after his resurrection, his ministration to people in the Old World, and his ascension to heaven, made a special trip back down to earth to visit the Americas. Once there, he healed the sick and taught the gospel.

Now, do all Mexican Mormons really believe that, or are they just showing up for the ride? Only God knows, but one thing is certain: the taps won’t be turned off any time soon.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

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