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.