Now that Mitt’s released his taxes for the past few years, I’ve seen a rash of articles popping up focused on how much he’s paid to the Mormon Church in tithing. Which of course is something everybody should have seen coming from miles away. (Indeed, the story for me would have been if he *didn’t* pay his tithing, which–ironically–would no doubt have caused even more problems for him, politically. I can just see Newt declaiming someone who makes a commitment to pay 10%, and then not paying it.)
I wanted to take a moment to explain a bit about tithing and how it works for Mormons, just in case any of you out there are curious. I think it’s a concept for most people, but then again, I never ceased to be surprised by the things I assume people know, only to find out my assumption was wrong.
Mormons pay 10% of their earnings to their local congregation. There’s no strict definition of what this “earnings” consists of. In fact, church leaders are discouraged from putting a strict definition out there. It’s up to the individual to figure out what that means. Is that 10% of what you make before taxes? After taxes? On gifts? Trust me–speaking as a “full tithe payer,” there are all sorts of ways you can get confused by something as easy as 10%.
That said, there is no one who demands to see your tax returns or paycheck stubs to prove you’re making the grade. Once a year, you sit down with your Bishop (the volunteer, unpaid leader of your local congregation), and he asks if you’re a full tithe payer. You say yes or no. End of story. (Having never said “no,” I really don’t know what happens if you do. Attendance in Mormon temples (buildings reserved for special ordinances–not weekly meetings) requires a person to be a full tithe payer. So I’m thinking your Bishop would likely have a chat with you about tithing and why God asks it of us. Then again, that discussion probably varies from Bishop to Bishop. But I digress.)
Could you lie and tell your Bishop that you paid all your tithing, and really only have paid like 5%? Yeah. But that kind of misses the point.
I pay tithing because I believe it’s a commandment. I pay it because I believe it brings blessings. Not in an “I give God 10% and He makes me rich” sort of way, but in a bunch of intangibles. I paid tithing when I was a starving newlywed college student. I pay it now.
Of course, I think this whole 10% thing is probably one of the reasons non-Mormons view the religion as cult-ish. You have to pay money to be able to be saved, that sort of thing. But people who make that assumption are missing an important side to tithing: what’s done with the money. If church leaders were driving around in Bentleys and living in luxury apartments in Vegas or New York, I’d be just as concerned as the next guy. But church leaders are–for the most part–volunteer. Mormon meeting houses are utilitarian. Clean and efficient, but hardly gaudy. The church carries out its affairs in the same manner it encourages its members: to live prudently and be wise managers of money.
Why would God ask people to pay 10% of their money to a church? What does God need it for? God doesn’t need it. The church certainly can use it to keep buildings operating and such, but in the end, I think this is a commandment more for the benefit of the individual than the church as a whole.
Many of my early budgeting lessons came directly from paying tithing. I had to keep track of how much I was making. I had to watch my money and pay attention to it. Step one of not going into massive debt is having a firm grasp on how much money you make. I pay my tithing first thing each month (not a requirement of members–just how I personally do it). If I’m going to be good at paying it, I automatically need to have a budget. I need to be planning out how I’ll spend my money. That’s a big plus.
Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, had the following to say about religion and sacrifice:
“A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things. It was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life”
I agree with this sentiment. I feel like religion today is becoming for many more and more a personal preference, find what you already agree with sort of a thing. Religion is asking less and less of individuals, when I feel like it should be expecting more. If a religion doesn’t ask you–expect you–to live a better life, to be kinder to others, to become a better person through both outward and inward actions, then what’s the point? But again, I’m trying to avoid having this post become a diatribe on modern religion, and keep it to the facts at hand. Sorry.
In the end, I get how tithing could be an issue for some in a political season. I mean, if I found out a candidate was donating a million dollars to the Chuckles the Clown foundation, or spending two hundred thousand on chocolate pudding baths each month, then I’d have concerns about that. But to criticize a candidate (even in a backhanded, “can you believe he actually pays this much to a church” sort of way) for being a faithful member of a religion doesn’t make sense to me.
I’d like a leader who believes in principles and isn’t afraid to be financially committed to those principles. I’m not saying I’m going to vote Romney this year. I would admire anyone who lived his or her religion to its fullest, whatever that religion might be. In Romney’s case, tithing is an excellent barometer of his commitment to his principles.
As far as I’m concerned, that should be the end of the political story.
Any questions from anyone out there? Keep ’em civil, but here’s one Mormon ready and willing to have an open discussion on the issue. (You might also want to check out the transcript to a talk I gave in church a while ago on the subject of tithing.) Anyway–speak up!