Okay, 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.