Ted Cruz and Tithing

TithingOkay, so this post isn’t actually about Ted Cruz; it’s more inspired by an article McKay Coppins posted today on recent Evangelical criticisms of Ted Cruz. In short, Cruz, a Baptist, is courting the Evangelical vote. But he’s facing pushback from some Evangelicals (including Mike Huckabee), who argue that his charitable giving (roughly 1% of his income) belies his claim of authentic Christianity which, according to them, demands a 10-percent tithe.

So tithing. As Mormons, we’re squarely in the 10-percent-(of-gross-or-net-or-something)-to-the-church camp. But is ten percent (a tithe, after all) to the church the inevitable conclusion for what represents appropriate religious giving? Not surprisingly, no.

Judaism features a number of different religious giving obligations; one is the maaser kesafim, which is pretty close to what we consider tithing. Certain Orthodox Jewish communities believe that if a poor person appears before you, you have a religious obligation to help that poor person. Maaser kesafim (which means “a tenth of the money”) is a way to set that money aside in advance. In harmony with its literal meaning, many rabbis believe that paying ten percent of your income meets the maaser kesafim obligation, though many see 20% as the ideal.[fn1]

Muslims pay zakat, which is the Third Pillar of Islam. Zakat is similar to maaser kesafim in that it is used to support the poor. Unlike maaser kesafim (and most Christian tithing), though, zakat is paid on wealth, not on income. Muslims are religiously obligated to pay 2.5% of their wealth in excess of an exclusion amount.[fn2]

Christians are split in a number of ways on tithing. Some believe that tithing (at least defined as one-tenth of one’s income) is an Old Testament law that was done away after Jesus came. Others believe that Christians need to pay 10% of their income, either to their churches or to their churches and other charities.[fn3]

Of course, that variation in Christian beliefs on tithing probably doesn’t get Ted Cruz off the hook in Evangelical circles; among the Christian religions that believe in a 10-percent tithe are Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, and Cruz’s Southern Baptist Convention.[fn4]

Of course, even Mormonism hasn’t always believed in the 10-percent tithing thing. And I’m not just talking our flirtations with communitarianism. In 1837, Bishop Patridge defined “tithing” as two percent of one’s net worth. A year later, Joseph Smith received a revelation which defined tithing as an initial contribution of “all of their surplus,” and then ten percent of “interest” thereafter. In 1841, the Quorum of the Twelve pulled back a little, changing the initial contribution to ten percent of a person’s assets, and then 10 percent of “interest” going forward.[fn5]

The point? Just that tithing has been interpreted, within and without our religious tradition, in many different ways. This variation doesn’t affect the current Mormon practice and definition of tithing, but it does remind us that our version of religiously-motivated charitable giving is not the only version.

[fn1] See Adam Chodorow, “Maaser Kesafim and the Development of Tax Law,” Florida Tax Review 8 (2007), 155, 165-167.

[fn2] See Russell Powell, “Zakat: Drawing Insight for Legal Theory and Economic Policy From Islamic Jurisprudence,” Pittsburgh Tax Review 7 (2009), 43-44.

[fn3] Christianity Today polled its readers, and discovered that 36 percent of the 244 respondents believed that tithing meant paying 10 percent of a believer’s income to her church, and more than half believed that tithing required a believer to pay 10 percent of her income either to her church or to a religious charity. The poll was small and unscientific, but it gives anecdotal support to the idea that not all Christians believe in tithing in the form we believe in it. See “How Do You Interpret Tithing?,” Christianity Today, December 2012, 56.

[fn4] See Phillip B. Jones, Southern Baptist Congregations Today (Alpharetta, GA: North American Mission Board, SBC 2001), 42.

[fn5] See D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Finances from the 1830s to the 1990s,”
Sunstone, June 1996, 18.


  1. This is so great — really love it. Thanks for the comparative view.

    On Mormon giving, including tithing, I found Joseph Spencer’s treatment in A Mormon Theology of Hope really enlightening/inspiring.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    A pleasant surprise to see one of my old law professors in the footnotes.

  3. An interesting look at how different people think about religious giving.

  4. A Happy Hubby says:


    And wasn’t it John Huntsman that said something to the effect of, “Tithing is like country club dues and charitable giving is something separate that he does.” After taxes and tithing, I don’t have enough $ for any “country club” dues – let alone even a round of golf.

  5. Yes–Jon Huntsman Sr. (not to be confused with his son, the former governor of Utah). Pointing out that almost all of tithing goes towards things like churches and temples and other things that members of the church get to use and enjoy.

  6. The question of what is charitable is a little beyond the scope of this post, but it’s worth pointing out that questions of the charitable nature of giving aren’t limited to churches. Huntsman Sr. notwithstanding, chances are that, if I donate money to the opera or the symphony or the museum or the public radio station, I benefit from and enjoy them, and my donation helps them pay their employees and their heating. Does that mean my donation isn’t charitable? Not completely clear.

    It’s also worth clarifying that tithing isn’t like country club dues; if I don’t pay my country club dues (or gym dues, or whatever), I can’t go in. But I can go to church whether or not I tithe. Moreover, if I’m not concerned about lying, I can participate in anything the church has to offer without paying tithing.

    It is true, though, that LDS tithing doesn’t go, substantially, to feed the poor; I have trouble, though, seeing that as the only acceptable charitable purpose.

    Which is to say, the question of whether LDS tithing (or donations to museums or radio stations or universities or almost whatever else) is charitable is a complicated question, not amenable to pithy answers.

  7. I had this rather random thought while reading this about how drastically different our church would be if our 10% tithing went 100% to the poor and funds for everything else had to be raised on top of that the way we currently do fast offering.

  8. “the question of whether LDS tithing (or donations to museums or radio stations or universities or almost whatever else) is charitable is a complicated question, not amenable to pithy answers”
    Have you written on this? It deserves a thoughtful review. I could spin out questions and (not so hypothetical) cases, but top-of-mind start with entrance (LDS temples is actually a good test case) and naming rights (buildings, endowed chairs, etc).

  9. The Other Clark says:

    John Huntsman Sr. has more money than he knows what to do with. For the rest of us in the real world, comparisons to country club dues fall flat. So does his implication that if we don’t give significantly more than 10%, it doesn’t really count.

  10. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    lehcarjt- it used to be that members did have to raise money for buildings, activities, and other things on top of tithing. They were expected to contribute more than the 10% tithing, and whatever fast offerings, they contributed. That doesn’t mean 100% of tithing went to the poor, but maybe a greater percent than it does now.

  11. I’m just barely old enough to remember those days. The downside of the old way was the hard selling the leadership was had to do to accomplish their goals. Still, such a system would make us a vastly different people. I’d argue, for the better.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    I remember the olden days from when I was very young. (I never had to contribute to a building fund as an adult; the system had changed by then.) Our ward had a pizza business, most of the profits from which went to the building fund, I think. A bunch of people would get together in the kitchen at church (warming only, not cooking, was not a thing in those olden days), make pizzas from scratch, package them for freezing, and deliver them (before or after freezing I don’t recall) to people in the community who had placed orders for them. My impression is that people liked working together, it had a very communal aspect to it, and my further impression is that they made a boat load of money from the endeavor. Which was a good thing, because most of the members didn’t make enough money to contribute much beyond tithing.

  13. @lehcarjt

    Consider the considerable anti-poverty effects of Mormonism:


  14. I think the reason Huntsman Sr. uses the “country club” metaphor is that full membership in the Church requires payment of tithing–and that the things that tithing funds purchase aren’t really available to nonmembers, or even to members who aren’t in full standing (i.e., no temple recommend, perhaps missing some ordinances). These things include temples in particular, but also stuff like the BYU tuition subsidy. Like them or not, those “CLUB MORMON: 10 PERCENT AND YOU’RE IN” T-shirts/bumper stickers I’ve seen in SLC proper have a valid point.

    I can tell you that I would be a lot happier if the Church were to say that one should pay ten percent of one’s income in sacred offerings, allocated however one wishes. I struggle to pay much more than the bare minimum of tithing (which, as an indication, doesn’t even add up to an amount that makes it worthwhile for me to itemize on my 1040) and a few hundred dollars a year in fast offering. Various members of the Brethren have mentioned a few times here and there that the Church could maintain its current operations indefinitely without a single additional cent of tithing money, thanks to the profitability of the church’s investments. Perhaps a dramatic shift of member donations from tithing to fast offering and humanitarian aid is in order.

  15. My personal favorite tithing definition is one LDS off-shoot that, according to a member, claims that tithing is 10% of your increase or, in other words, 10% of what you have leftover after you’ve paid for everything else. They told me that some of the “really good” members actually pay it.

  16. Leo – To be honest, I don’t see how your link relates to my (off the cuff) thought. Unless you are trying to say all is well in zion?

  17. The Other Clark says:

    STW, that would be Rock Waterman, who was excommunicated last year. So call it what you want, but SLC doesn’t seem to think that promoting that definition is orthodox

  18. STW, that is scriptural — the injunction is to pay 10% of interest and increase. 10% of all income is a very different standard, and one that hits the poor much harder than the wealthy.

  19. I remember (as a young lad) the days when members paid a substantial contribution to their own meetinghouses. Wards with rich people had nice facilities, those without fared worse.

  20. Clark Goble says:

    Regardless of the sectarian issues and their theology, it just seems a worthy topic to ask why someone wealthy gives so little to charity.

  21. Clark Goble says:

    “Various members of the Brethren have mentioned a few times here and there that the Church could maintain its current operations indefinitely without a single additional cent of tithing money, thanks to the profitability of the church’s investments.”

    That will change quickly as more and more of the Church are outside of the US and depend upon wealth transfers for basic Church needs as a practical matter.

  22. I’m sure glad we no longer have to fundraise for different projects. Its hard enough even getting a quarter of the Friends of Scouting goal every year. Imagine having to funraise like that in perpetuity instead of one abysmal month of the year.

  23. Regardless of the sectarian issues and their theology, it just seems a worthy topic to ask why someone wealthy gives so little to charity.

    Yes, yes it does. Very few of the possible answers would be considered morally acceptable by more than a tiny fraction of the population, too.

    That will change quickly as more and more of the Church are outside of the US and depend upon wealth transfers for basic Church needs as a practical matter.

    Perhaps. I do wonder about the relationship between membership growth in a given area and the cost of serving basic Church needs–more particularly, between active membership growth and the cost of service.

  24. @lehcarjt

    I am not saying all is well, but the Mormonism, including the Church’s self-reliance program, is a far better anti-poverty program than just giving money away or anything Ted Cruz or any politician has to offer. Some of the best anti-poverty workers I know are Church self-reliance missionaries.

  25. Leo, that’s actually not true. The church’s welfare program is a wonderful way to support individuals facing short- and even medium-term setbacks (and occasionally long-term financial disability), but it doesn’t scale on the state or the national level. Which isn’t to say it’s not valuable—it certainly is—but it functions precisely because the various levels of government in the U.S. provides SNAP and social security and Medicare and the earned income tax credit and unemployment insurance, etc. etc. The church couldn’t take on all of those obligations itself.

    And to its credit, the church is also tremendously aware of this. Today, the church encourages members in need to look to family and the church, but also to look to government assistance programs.

    That’s not to suggest that the church’s welfare program is bad or insufficient. It’s really, really valuable and helpful, and I’m tremendously glad that it exists, and that we care about people’s physical welfare. But it isn’t meant to replace governmental anti-poverty campaigns, but rather to supplement them.

  26. Fascinating comparisons and information. Thanks!

  27. Sam,
    I think that one of the biggest things that the church does that helps the anti-poverty effort is to teach self reliance to people who are or could be on long-term govt welfare. Over time, they do become more self reliant and get themselves out of poverty.

  28. When locals had to raise money for the building where I currently attend sacrament meeting, they got the money from non-LDS community members through performing services. The women made crafts and quilts and baked goods that were sold at local spring festivals etc. They engaged in all kinds of labor-rental projects that would cause liability concerns nowadays–e.g., spending an evening catching and caging chickens for shipment on the next morning’s railroad car.

    USAmerican President Ronald Reagan was also criticized for his lack of charitable donations. He had claimed that he gave 10% of his income to “help people” and that such a figure was not reflected in his tax return because some of the ways he offered assistance were not tax deductible. (see NYT January 20, 1982).

    At the time, I snorted with derision at the idea. But since then I’ve been humbled as I also had the opportunity to offer assistance in ways that were not tax deductible–for dental work so a young person could go on a mission, for a young person to attend Especially for Youth, to keep a senior couple on their mission. Apparently church funds could not be used for those things. But that was in addition to the 10% tithing.

  29. I recently found myself consisting my net profitability in relation to tithing. If a career is taken as a business I am still $60,000 in the hole. I pay rent, not mortgage. All in all I am still meet negative. Should I even pay tithing? A business that makes zero profits wouldn’t pay taxes.

  30. @Sam

    Of course, the Church is small in scale in the U.S. and in the world, but it would scale very nicely if more people became Latter-day Saints.

    LBJ’s War on Poverty didn’t scale and Nixon dismantled much of it. General growth in the economy has done more than government programs, but both capitalistic growth and socialist welfare are built on sand. As we saw in 2008, the economy can turn down quite suddenly, and government can change its mind about social welfare programs in just one election cycle (or in foreign countries in just one revolution). The Church is (correctly) neutral on most economic and political issues. It has its own program, which is applicable in a wide variety of situations, including outside the United States.

    Most of the world doesn’t have access to SNAP and social security and Medicare and the earned income tax credit and unemployment insurance, etc., and the U.S. government can’t provide all that to Africa, Asia, etc., even though we have perhaps 16% of the world GDP, about on par with China. The U.S. is only 5% of the world by population. China has four times our population. Africa has three times our population. We need to think beyond just the U.S. if we want to think about poverty.

    Of course, the most serious form of poverty in the world is spiritual poverty. The industrialized West is particularly vulnerable to spiritual famine, something the government is ill-suited to address.

    Returning to the original topic, tithing, as taught in the Church, represents the best part of your spending. It is building the kingdom of God on the earth.

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