An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘tithing’

Tithing–an Unequal Law

Many Mormons argue for a flat tax because, like tithing, it asks the same of everyone. A close reading of D&C 119, however, reminds us that the law of tithing was a substitute for the law of consecration, a more perfect law which the Saints could not live. Section 119 calls for all “surplus property to be put into the hands of the bishop,” after which “those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually.” In a modern economy of salaried people “interest” and “increase” have been defined as income—with some disagreement about whether gross income or net income should be counted. Many Mormons of lower incomes struggle to pay tithing, but hardly anyone recognizes the inherent unfairness of asking the same percentage of income from rich and poor alike.

Take a look at a millionaire such as Jon Huntsman, Sr. whose annual income, I’ve heard, is $10 million. He can doubtless cough up $1 million without missing any meals. Now consider a beginning policeman or teacher making $32,000 and supporting a wife and two or three preschool-age kids. Under current tax laws, he won’t owe state or federal income tax—although some will be withheld—without interest—until he files a return. After Social Security and health care insurance are deducted from his paycheck, this guy may be lucky to take home $2,200 a month. Unless they live with relatives, rent or house payment will take almost half their paycheck—leaving a little over $1,000 for food, clothing, car payments, insurance and gasoline. They may also have student loans to pay off.

Do the math and tell me it’s as fair for this man to pay $220 a month tithing as for Jon Huntsman to donate a million a year. I know George and I can afford to donate more than 10% of our income at this time of our lives. Paying tithing when our family was young and our income low was a hardship. Our kids resented seeing our tithing check placed in the hands of the bishop while we drank powdered milk and shopped at thrift stores. Church lessons and talks are replete with stories of financial blessings bestowed upon those with the faith to place their last dollar in a tithing envelope, but monetary blessings eluded us.

D&C 119:5 tells us, “Zion shall be tithed of their surplus properties.” Defining surplus is tricky, but many young American families truly have little or no surplus income. And what about members in developing countries where the average income is below $2.00/day? To tithe on their below-sustenance income, these families must take food from their malnourished children. Brad Walker writes about the struggles of LDS families to provide adequate nutrition to their children in Ecuador and Guatemala. These people are the poor the scriptures tell us to care for.

 A wise person said, “Nothing is more unfair than treating unequals equally.” If one of the purposes of tithing is to increase spirituality through sacrifice, it certainly gives the poor greater spiritual blessings than the rich. Somehow I doubt that God thinks the poor need more spirituality than the well-off.

The law of tithing was a replacement for a higher law. As far as I’ve read, God never said it is a perfect law that couldn’t be improved.

Tithing–A Regressive Policy

As an inherent idealist, I’ve always thought tithing a lesser law for Saints too imperfect to live the Law of Consecration. A recent blog points out that tithing is a tremendous sacrifice for many lower-income Mormon  families. He’s right. We had no surplus to consecrate when we were raising five kids on one income. But we were expected to tithe 10% of our gross income and to pay budget and building offerings which raised our church obligations to nearly 14%.

Granted, budget and building offerings have been eliminated since then.  And several years ago I learned that Mormons are now considered full tithe payers if they pay on their after-tax income. I don’t know when that change was made; it was never announced at any church meeting I’ve attended. While we were raising our family, church talks and lessons emphasized paying on gross income.

My real problem with tithing is that it’s so regressive.  A multi-millionaire like Jon Huntsman, Sr. who takes in $10 mil a year, does not take food off the table in order to stuff $1 mil into a tithing envelope.  A beginning policeman, teacher or other entry level worker who donates 10% of a $2000 a month pay check may very well have to choose between food or shoes for the kids after paying tithing, house payment, car payment, gasoline, utilities, and health insurance.

Our family lived a barebones existence, foregoing luxuries like vacations and entertainment, but still our kids sometimes did without adequate school clothes and shoes while we faithfully paid church obligations first. We were promised blessings for paying, and it’s true that none of us got cancer and no earthquakes destroyed our home. Still, I’m not convinced that our proportionally greater sacrifice to ante up 10% of our over-stretched dollars gave us more blessings than high income members receive for their lesser sacrifice.

Obviously, the Law of Consecration had problems of administration—allowing members to decide what is surplus is even trickier than deciding whether to tithe on net or gross income. In the end, it’s a matter of letting the spirit guide. We had no surplus for many years while raising our kids. If I were in that situation again, I would obey the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

Charity Begins with the Poor

Dr. Toby Ord, an Oxford academic, has pledged to donate the bulk of his lifetime earnings to fight world poverty. He calculates that for each £15,000 (approx. $22,500) donated to effective charities, 55 lives are saved. His website estimates that if the typical US citizen gave 10% of their income to the right NGOs, each year, 1900 cases of malaria could be prevented, 170 people could be cured of TB, and 1100 additional years of school attendance could be provided.

Now donating 10% of income is routine for active Mormons. For years George and I cheerfully wrote checks for 10% of our gross income—even though our kids went without things they really needed. We believed we were obeying the Lord’s will in furthering the work of the Church and that all the world’s problems would be resolved once everybody was converted and the Savior arrived. I did not believe this obedience would unlatch the Windows of Heaven to rain greenbacks upon our family. Experience had proven otherwise. Still, I felt our family sacrifice was making the world a better place. George agreed. Our children did not.

Eventually, I realized that most of our tithing dollars were going for temples, missionary work and CES. Fast offering was an extra donation to relieve the suffering of the poor. I upped that after a General Conference address promised that increasing our fast offerings would increase our blessings, not realizing that “our” referred to the church as a whole rather than to our family in particular.

I cut back on fast offerings about 10 years ago when I learned that nearly all of my donations were going to help Americans who actually have access to government welfare programs rather than to starving Latter-day Saints in developing countries. Church welfare to countries outside the US has increased since that time, but I suspect the bulk of fast offerings collected in the US still remain in this country. Yes, it’s nice to help people in the current economic system with house payments. But to my mind, that lacks the urgency of providing aid to members in countries like Ecuador and Guatemala where children risk brain damage and stunted growth because of severe malnutrition.

I appreciate the assistance LDS Humanities and PEF provide to the poor in other countries. Donations to those funds, however, are in addition to the 10% tithing required by all members who want to maintain worthiness for temple recommends and leadership positions in their wards and stakes. True believers will continue to make tithing their primary or only charitable donation.

C.S. Lewis observed that if we aren’t giving up something we would really like to have, we aren’t giving enough to the poor. But how much is enough? No one else can answer that question for us. And money isn’t the only thing we can contribute. We can donate our time to help others. We can also change our lifestyles so we are not consuming more than our share of the world’s finite resources.

The scriptures are replete with admonitions to remember the poor and to avoid greed. If Dr. Toby Ord keeps his vow to donate the bulk of his lifetime earnings to save the poor, I suspect the Lord has reserved a top spot for him in the Celestial Kingdom regardless of his religious beliefs. I’m less sure of my own placement.

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