Tithing and Coercion

A number of comments on my post yesterday talked about the coercive nature of tithing. I thought I’d follow up on that idea in a new post, with two principal thoughts.

A History of Tithing and Coercion

The idea that tithing is coercive has a long and storied history. It may well predate 1870, but I know it goes back at least that far. I give more details about it on p. 139 of this paper, but the short of it is, the Bureau of Internal Revenue was trying to tax the church on its 1868 tithing revenue. One of the church’s assertions for why tithing was not taxable was that tithing represented a voluntary contribution by members.

O.J. Hollister, the Collector of Internal Revenue for the Utah territory, disagreed. He argued that Mormons’ payment of tithing was not voluntary for two reasons:

  1. Nonpayment could lead to excommunication. And, he said, given the special circumstances attendant to Utah, excommunication could lead to spiritual and temporal ruin, and possibly loss of life. As he said this, he acknowledged that he’d never actually heard of any Mormons being excommunicated for nonpayment of tithing. So he offered a second explanation of why tithing was not voluntary:
  2. Even if tithing wasn’t externally enforced, because it was called a “law,” it was “enforced upon the people at large by their own conscience, pricked thereto by the unflagging efforts of their priesthood for whose maintenance tithing was instituted of, according to the law (Mormon) & the prophets.”

In other words, tithing was coercive, either because it was enforced externally by temporal and spiritual punishment or because it was enforced internally by tithepayers’ consciences.

Honestly, the idea that tithing is coercive, and we’re subject to intense pressure to pay, doesn’t reflect my experience. I mean yes, you have to be a full tithepayer to go to the temple. But we can live very nicely without temple attendance. Moreover, the church doesn’t define “full tithepayer” beyond saying that you pay ten percent of something. That something on which you pay? That’s basically between you and the Lord.

But if you define down coercion enough, certainly I can see an argument that tithing is coercive.

Church Employment

My coblogger Peter LLC brings up the fact that, even if tithing is totally noncoercive for me, church employees don’t get that same degree of noncoerciveness. Church employment—or, at least some church employment—requires a temple recommend.

To get this out of the way first: I think that’s a pretty dumb requirements. I’m not a fan of the expanded place temple recommends have taken in church culture. A temple recommend has nothing to do with how good an organist an individual is, or how honest and capable a middle-manager, and I don’t like it being used as a proxy for all sorts of things it isn’t a proxy for.

That said, the idea of church employment being dependent on making offerings to the church isn’t unique to Mormonism. Chapter 8 of my recent book goes into significant detail on this, but in short, if you don’t pay your taxes, eventually you’ll have to pay them, plus interest and potentially penalties. If you’ve racked up a large enough tax liability, you may need to enter into a payment plan with the IRS to pay off your tax debt over time.

When you enter into the payment plan, the IRS calculates the amount you can afford to pay each month. It does that by starting with your income, then subtracting out the expense of certain necessities (food, clothing, housing, car, etc.); under your payment plan, you’re required to pay an amount equal to your income minus these allowable expenses every month until your tax liability is paid off.

One expense that is generally not allowed? Charitable contributions. You generally can’t subtract the amount of charitable contributions in calculating how much you can pay. (That’s not to say you can’t make charitable contributions while you’re on a payment plan with the IRS. If, for example, you get a $750 food allowance, but you only pay $500 one month for food, you can do whatever you want with that additional $250.)

But the Internal Revenue Manual has an exception to that general rule: where making charitable contributions is a condition of an individual’s employment, it will take those contributions into account. As an example of these types of permissible charitable contributions, the manual says:

Example: A minister is required to tithe according to his employment contract.

Note that the exception is fairly narrow: in the litigated cases I’ve seen, the courts have never forced the IRS to make this allowance. (Though frankly, the cases were all situations where the IRS was almost certainly right to deny the exception from the general rule—I suspect the IRS generally allows the payment reduction where an individual legitimately has to make charitable donations to keep her job.)

Now, I don’t know what denominations require their ministers to tithe as a condition of their employment. And I wouldn’t dream of arguing that this isn’t coercive—while I think it’s a stretch to argue that tithing is unduly coercive for most of us, this is certainly a situation where it feels a lot more coercive (though, again, there’s plenty of ambiguity in what constitutes a full tithe).

But it’s not unique to us.


  1. jaxjensen says:

    I don’t feel any coercion to pay tithing either. In my life long experience as a Mormon I’ve never felt compelled to pay it against my will. At times when I’ve been willing to pay, I have. If not, then I don’t and nobody seemed bat an eye.

    As for church employment, that is a consideration, but I still don’t think of it as coercion. They are still free to stop paying it. There are consequences to every action, so just because there are some negative ones (that they’ve knowingly chosen to accept) doesn’t make it coercion in my book. If you consider that coercion, then they are being coerced into living within all of the temple recommend question guidelines. They are thus being coerced into their sustaining of the President, Apostles, etc. Coerced into attending weekly meetings. Coerced into wearing garments; etc; etc. If you don’t feel a church employee is being coerced to do those things, then they aren’t being coerced into paying tithing either.

    If they wanted I suppose that as long as they report that they are paying to the bishop, and nobody is actually digging into the personal finances to check (that’d be coercive for sure!) then they could not pay tithing and keep their job all at the same time. (This scenario assumes that anyone willing to choose to stop paying tithing is willing to lie about it.)

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I tithe but I personally don’t perceive my doing so as based on some sort of coercion. If I didn’t tithe I couldn’t go to the temple, but I don’t go that often as it is and such a restriction wouldn’t bother me. I also might not be able to keep my current calling, but to me that would be a plus because my personal preference would be to not have any calling at all (I’m lazy that way). But I agree with Jax that if a church employer was comparing my tithing to my pay stubs I’d find that deeply troubling.

  3. The church employee issue is a red herring. Like any other member of the church, the only check is the bishop asking once a year if you pay a fully tithe. You say “yes,” and that’s all there is, whether you’re a church employee or not.

    But, you know, Mormons, so if you pay 9% some month, Danites will come at midnight and subject you to blood atonement. Probably something like that.

  4. Generally agree, but… my parents felt like they were held hostage to tithing in order to attend my temple wedding. That issue is a whole other ball of wax, but in effect there was a very real entrance fee to the ceremony.

  5. I have talked to two people(I know alot), but for me they represent 100% of those that use to attend, but did not attend anymore, and to go to their daughters temple wedding they described a situation of going in to renew a long lapsed temple recommend. What ensued was nothing short of a shakedown. Pay or you can’t go. Clear and simple. They both paid.

  6. Kristine says:

    ABCD, sorry, you are mistaken. There are real people who have abusive bishops and employment that depends on those bishops’ endorsements. Probably (hopefully!) not many people, but it does happen.

  7. The anecdotal argument that “I don’t experience tithing as coercive” is not very persuasive, Sam. My hypothesis is that if you polled a reasonable cross-section of Mormons you’d get many more registering some sense of coercion, than not. Pretty much according to a modernized version of Hollister’s theories. Many of us feel that tithing is a gateway to full fellowship, between callings and temple recommends (pragmatic coercion). And many of us feel that it is a religious spiritual doctrinal obligation (spiritual coercion). I have thought the argument is not that there is no coercion or quid pro quo, but that almost every church does it in one form or another, that nobody is willing to take on contributions to churches generally, and that only edge cases are sufficiently distinguishable to avoid entanglement issues.

    The ministerial exception is another matter. I’m not closely following nor up to date, but the Mormon Church has been among the churches stretching the limits of who can be treated specially as a “minister.” I guess your “pretty dumb requirement” suggests a point of view?

  8. Aussie Mormon says:

    “And many of us feel that it is a religious spiritual doctrinal obligation (spiritual coercion).”
    That doesn’t stop at tithing/donations though. If we’re going down that path, whether you’re throwing a virgin into a volcano, paying tithing, or making a pilgrimage to Mecca, if the deity you worship requires certain actions for salvation/immortality/protection, then the same coercion argument can be made. It’s whether you think it’s coercion that matters. (Which might be the point you’re trying to male).

  9. jaxjensen says:

    “if the deity you worship requires certain actions for salvation/immortality/protection, then the same coercion argument can be made. It’s whether you think it’s coercion that matters.” He beat me to it! Using the logic from Christiankimball here (and many others before him, like those which prompted this post from Sam), God is coercing us all.

    We can’t get into heaven if we don’t pay tithing. Can’t be exalted if I don’t remain sexually pure. Can’t be a forever family if I don’t (fill in the blank)! When in reality, we all know lots people who don’t follow those rules and don’t care at all. There is no coercion. It is all a matter of a persons free choice. They know the consequences and are able to choose for themselves. It is not coercion for you to decide that because you want A (job, temple recommend, eternal life) that you are willing to do B (pay tithing, marry in the temple, WoW).

    Can you imagine an employee telling his boss, “you are coercing me to work. I want the paycheck, but you won’t give it to me unless I show up every day and do your bidding.” If you want the rewards (like employment with the church, which you aren’t required to have) then you make the choice to qualify for them. Just because losing your job would hurt you, doesn’t mean you are being coerced into being there.

  10. As a spouse dependent upon a church employee salary, I feel like the previous comments are underestimating the consequences to a career of suddenly losing a job for reasons other than actual job performance. The next employer isn’t going to understand that you lost your position over a religious disagreement, and if you try to tell them that you’ll seem moronic. It’s just going to look like you were incompetent, got fired, and are trying to hide it. I don’t expect my wife to ever lose her testimony and quit the church, but I still remind her to keep on her toes so we would have options if some stupid scat went down.

    And I would never in a million years let anyone at church know if I was having a faith crisis. What, am I going to endanger my wife’s career over a philosophical disagreement? Fat chance.

  11. When in reality, we all know lots people who don’t follow those rules and don’t care at all. There is no coercion. It is all a matter of a persons free choice.

    The fact that those who don’t care about or believe in the promised consequences for sin or inaction aren’t hung from meathooks or burned at the stake is hardly a ringing endorsement of free will. I mean, your eternal salvation at stake, but sure, go ahead and eat, drink and be merry!

  12. “My hypothesis is that if you polled a reasonable cross-section of Mormons you’d get many more registering some sense of coercion, than not.”

    Really? MY guess is that if we got a true cross-section many more would register no coercion at all. Namely there are two big groups I have in mind. 1- The two thirds of people on church rolls that don’t show up to church even once a month to be considered active. 2- Active tithe paying Mormons.

    Most active members (group 2) I know like paying tithing, and going to church, and going to the Temple. It’s just part of who they are. My parents taught me to pay tithing not because I’d burn in hell if I didn’t but because A)everything I have is the Lord’s, and he only asks for 10% and B) the church does a lot of good in the world. Now the second part of what my parents taught me (the church does good things) is surely something that warrants discussion. That said, for the purposes of the coercion discussion, the bigger point was that my parents tithing is no more coercive than someone donating to the republican party, democratic party, planned parenthood, the NRA or any other group that they believe does good things (even if other people may disagree).

    Group 1 on the other hand won’t have church employment or temple recommends pulled from them because church attendance was required for both. Heck, they probably don’t even know when tithing settlement is. I just don’t think they are going to check the “coercive” box and even if they did I’m not sure I buy it.

    Now if you pulled readers of BCC or Dialogue, Sunstone, or other groups of generally active Mormons who may or may not have a complicated relationship with the church’s policies, history, and or teaching, they might pull the coercive lever, but even then I don’t know if you get to a majority. This thread seems split even among people in group three.

  13. Rockwell says:

    I guess it depends on how you define coercion. It is naive to say there are not real serious consequences to non-payment of tithing.

    People who want to attend a temple wedding, either as a spectator or participant, must either pay tithing or lie in order to attend. I can’t think of any other religion, community, or group that keeps parents and grandparents out of weddings.

    BIC members tend to be blind to this aspect of the church, myself included. When I got married, I had several relatives that couldn’t come to the wedding, most likely because of their tithing or activity status. I always knew that certain family members wouldn’t be at my wedding. It’s just the water we swim in. But it’s a very unusual and serious consequence for not paying your membership fees. This really becomes obvious when a concert gets married, and their parents can’t go to the wedding. And we wonder why people think Mormons are weird.

    A while back I saw someone ask on Facebook if anyone had heard of a bishop asking people to pay “back-tithing”. I can only assume that they were being asked to pay a lot of money in order to get their recommend renewed, presumably for a wedding.

    It’s a bit odd to see the argument in the comments that tithing is not coercive because all you have to do is lie to get out of it. In my view, the fact that people feel the need to lie to get out of it is evidence of coercion. Not mafia style extortion (which would be the threat of physical or other serious harm) to be sure, but coercion, depending on how you define it.

  14. Rockwell says:

    “when a concert gets married” should have been “when a convert gets married”.

    (Sigh, swypos)

  15. Tithing is a commandment with a promise. It’s not unlike working for a living. If you want to be part of the economy then one needs to work. Work provides a paycheck that then can be used to buy goods and services for the basic needs of life.

    Paying tithing opens the window of heaven, the heavenly economy. Participating in the heavenly economy provides the gift of the Holy Ghost and the gifts of the Spirit.

    I consider it a privilege and blessing to pay tithing.

    Considering tithing as a form of coercion betrays a huge misunderstanding of the plan of salvation.

  16. Oh my, JK, I guess in your world children and other folks with no income and therefore no tithing payments cannot receive or retain the gift of the Holy Ghost and “to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God,” D&C 46:11, but only if he pays for it. There may be promised blessings from tithe-paying, but not those in my world.

  17. Personally I’m glad to pay my tithing. Not because of any coercion, not because I feel OBLIGATED, no. I’m happy to pay it because it’s the right thing to do (IMHO…nobody has to agree with that). It’s my ten percent and although (especially given recent articles posted on BCC, the Church doesn’t need it; I feel that I’m giving a little back for the sacrifice that Christ gave. Just my take on things. And the blessings? Continue to pour down. They didn’t (or I didn’t notice them) when I wasn’t paying. As with most things in the LDS faith, it’s a CHOICE. You won’t be excommunicated these days, but your temple recommend may be withheld. But I ask why do you want one of THOSE if you’re not willing to follow the rules for one? THOSE rules are man-made. The miracle of tithing? A personal choice. Just an old fart’s take on this issue.

  18. Old Man says:

    10% of no income is zero. Therefore those without income are full tithe payers. And the blessings from tithe-paying in my world are extraordinary.

  19. Mortimer says:

    I would be more likely to agree with the “choice/consequences” argument if the church didn’t successfully threaten and intimidate a key leader of Ordain Women with missing her sibling’s wedding during a critical campaign moment.

    If the church were to only use the temple and tithing as a motivator and not as a stick, I might think its intentions were purely to entice, educate and promote self determinism, but since it also at times has rebuked, punished, and threatened, it isn’t neutral. When the stick is wielded by a third party (not merely natural consequences), choice is lost. In fairness, I think GAs are aware of this phenomenon and in recent decades, they have intentionally focused on the carrots, not sticks, but local leaders don’t always get it.

    I’d be more likely to buy the “choice” argument if golden handcuffs for church employees weren’t real, if ostracism from Zion didn’t cause severe emotional and psychological trauma and sometimes suicide.

    I’d be more likely to buy the “choice” argument if the church didn’t know exactly how much co-opting Christmas for Malachi 3 is and if the church didn’t know exactly the cost/ratio figure is for building local temples and creating local context for tithing compliance through pressured temple attendance.

    I might buy the “choice” argument if only the blessings of tithing were spoken of and references to “fire insurance” were simply a joke, but during my last tithing settlemt appointment, the bishop extolled the reasons why the term “fire insurance” was true in a little pre-prepared speech.

  20. Chris, for the general membership, you can certainly call tithing coercive, but it requires a paraticular definition of “coercion.” My principal point here is that allegation of coercion is an old allegation. (Secondarily, I think it defines “coercion” down from its general meaning, which, per my glance at the OED, generally includes force or threat of force. That’s not to say that there isn’t pressure, because for many people, there’s clearly internal pressure, and for some, external. And again, I’m a tax attorney—I’m perfectly comfortable with words meaning whatever we define them to mean. But going with ordinary definitions of “coerce,” this seems the bottom limit, at best.)

    For church employees, I would say “coercion” fits better, albeit without force. That said, I don’t read this as a ministerial exemption kind of thing. The IRM uses a minister as an example of they type of person allowed to reduce their monthly payments by their tithing, but that’s only an example. If you worked for NPR and NPR required you to donate, you’d get to reduce your payment. It’s an issue of contractual requirements for employment, not of religious practice. (The theory seems to be that, if you lose your job, you won’t be able to make your payments, which is worse from a revenue perspective than paying less each month.)

  21. Many reply in the affirmative to the tithing question and receive a recommend when they do not pay a full tithing, especially when there is a family member receiving their endowments or a marriage. No one checks; so it works…at least in this life.

  22. Fred VII says:

    All you can really do is make the determination of whether tithing is coercive for yourself. I see many trying to make that determination for others ITT.

  23. The irony of an IRS official complaining about coercion is not lost on me. Failure to pay taxes taxes to the government can result in huge fines and even imprisonment. The federal government rakes in almost three and a half trillion dollars a year. With three and a half trillion dollars (which is collected under penalty of law) you can do a lot. Try telling the IRS that you’re not paying because you don’t like the way the money is being spent.

    Of course, the federal government has considerable assets on its books, assets that make $32 billion look like peanuts. Its stash of gold is estimated to be valued at $442 billion, just sitting there gleaming in vaults. It owns mineral rights on two and a half billion acres of land, on- an off-shore, worth over $128 trillion in oil and gas reserves alone. It has three billion square feet of real estate assets. It owns $948 billion dollars in student loans (not dischargeable in bankruptcy) plus hundreds of billions in other credit-market instruments. Try telling the IRS that you’re not paying because they are sitting on plenty of assets already.

    But, you say, the government is doing some good things with the money. Yes, it is. So is the Church. One difference among many is that I donate to the Church voluntarily.

  24. Old Man, yep, but being a full-tithe payer of zero is a bit outside what I would understand by JK’s reference to a “heavenly economy.” I have known non-tithepayers with income and with gifts of the spirit, so for me JK’s argument simply doesn’t work. The failure of that particular heavenly economy argument is not a denial that there are blessings, extraordinary or not, from tithe-paying.

  25. Leo, I don’t know of any IRS agents complaining about coercion; if you’re going to comment on my posts, please read and understand the posts first.

  26. Sam,

    O.J. Hollister, the Collector of Internal Revenue for the Utah territory, was certainly complaining about coercion. I read it in your post.

  27. Leo, no he wasn’t. Hollister, in 1870, said that tithing was collected through coercion, and therefore qualified as taxable income. And if you want more information, I have a ton in the linked article.

  28. Tabitha Rasa says:

    I’m quite taken aback by the (OP) quote: “We can live very nicely without temple attendance,” and the (Commenter) quote, “If I didn’t tithe I couldn’t go to the temple, but I don’t go that often as it is and such a restriction wouldn’t bother me.” There seems to be a conflation here of going through the temple and receiving the endowment for the first time and going through after that as part of a regular worship practice. Those are separate things. The fact of the matter is, the temple is set up by the institution as the gateway to exaltation. There are certain requirements to get to that gateway. If you don’t meet the requirements, you’re kept out. Therefore, one of the requirements for exaltation is that you give the LDS church money, regardless of personal circumstances.

    History runneth over with examples of people doing very drastic things in an attempt to secure the favor of God. As a people, we’re doing the constant work of deciding which of those things are asking too much. Is it too much to ask a gay person to remain celibate their entire life? Is it too much to ask that a woman share her husband with others? Is it too much to ask that a man butcher his only son? Is it too much to ask that a single mother in a developing country give her last few pennies to an organization with a net worth of tens of billions?

    I’m not suggesting that these examples are all on the exact same footing, but we have to draw the line somewhere. Telling vulnerable people around the world that they have to give a few badly-needed dollars in order to be exalted (and be with their families forever) so that white kids from Utah (including past me, BTW) can have subsidized tuition is at least somewhat problematic. Doesn’t mean I’ve had any particularly negative experiences paying tithing. Why would I have? I’m a random middle-class white lady from Utah.

  29. D Christian Harrison says:

    A couple thoughts, some of which echo comments above…

    1) Mormonism (like many faiths) insinuates itself into every nook and cranny of our personal, professional, and social lives — which is in addition to what it promises about our eternal lives. Letting go of one part of the Mormon praxis tugs at nearly every other part (to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the part and the person in question). Coercion may not be the best term for what people feel, regarding tithe paying, but it’s not far off.

    2) And that sense of coercion (or whatever term you end up using) intensifies the more a) literal your belief structure is and/or b) the more fragile your connection to the Church is (because of distance or other factors). And in your very helpful $32B post, both of these factors come to play in the comments, where the beef with the $32B is that the Church has it and still makes such a big deal out of tithing—even (perhaps especially) among its poorest (and, often, most literal/fundamentalist) adherents.

    I realize this is just a coda to your other post, but I suspect that you’ve really and truly misgauged how important tithe paying is to many members of the Church.

  30. D Christian Harrison says:

    Also: what Tabitha says, above.

  31. Seems like there is no objective way to say something is coercive. It’s entirely dependent on the feelings of the person involved. We could gather any number of stories of people who felt they were coerced and people who felt they aren’t coerced and it wouldn’t make any meaningful metric.

    Do we also find “being honest with your fellow man” to be coercive?

  32. “Hollister, in 1870, said that tithing was collected through coercion”
    As a federal agent whose job including collecting taxes by the coercive force of law with penalties including fines and imprisonment, Hollister must have had very little sense of irony. I stand by my comment.

  33. jaxjensen says:

    ” It’s entirely dependent on the feelings of the person involved.” My contention here is that coercion has nothing (or at least very little) to do with feelings but with actual tactics involved to induce compliance. Leaving it to feelings means people with high stress might “be coerced” under identical circumstances to someone with no anxiety and doesn’t feel coercion at all. The tactic of asking, “are you a full tithe payer?” doesn’t amount to coercion (as asked during tithing settlement and TR interviews).

    The internal pressure a person feels to comply does not mean they’ve been coerced. If it is their own longings to attend weddings, fear of “burning” (?), desires to not feel outside the group, and other personal feelings then ‘blame’ doesn’t lay with church policies or practices. Your own regret for missing out, or sadness for exclusion doesn’t mean coercion has been used against you.

  34. Deborah Christensen says:

    @ Sam Brunson, I’ll mention two points since no one else has..1-I think OJ Hollister was probably accurate in saying tithing is coercive. He was discussing the economics of Utah in 1868.. Being excommunicated would impact a persons ability to maneuver economically. In present day Utah….not so much. Unless you work for the church as you pointed out… and someone is checking your pay stub to your tithing record. 2- The other point is that while I agree with the logic in OJ Hollister’s argument I’m not sure it translates into divine law or even everyday life. ie..speeding is illegal but it’s not necessarily immoral. If you’re speeding to get someone to the hospital it may be illegal. But it may be good morally or in everyday life? In other words I suspect you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill with legalese.

  35. Sam: “Coerced” comes from your interlocutors and If you want to argue that it is too strong, conveys a meaning that would be objectionable to many religious people (not just Mormons), and is intentionally provocative, I’m with you.

    But for a tax lawyer to enter the fray and argue rhetoric is a little bit of a head feint. Your characterization of Hollister–“He argued that Mormons’ payment of tithing was not voluntary”–is a fairer start for the conversation I think you want to have.

    Is tithing voluntary, a free will offering, a gift? Or is it payment for something? And if payment for something is that the sort of thing we want to take into account in some calibration of force or requirement or obligation?

    Some commentators here (and elsewhere) view tithing in a voluntary, free will, gift sense. I think that’s genuine. But I think it is the exception, not the rule. And I pause on the version that says it is all a gift from God and God asks for only 10% back. I do think the motivation behind such statements is free will/voluntary/gift, but they actually sound in obligation and mandate.

    At the other extreme, I am very sympathetic with the idea that payment to keep a job is more like a purchase than a gift. But even there, one might argue that the job requirement is not that you pay tithing, but that you be the sort of person who gives freely of what they have.

    But my imagined mainstream Mormon population ethic is that tithing is a significant element in our vending machine model. We pay for blessings. We obey for admission. We do it because it is commanded. We give because we made a commitment. It is common to hear about the windows of heaven. It is rare to hear about one’s love of God springing forth in giving to the Church. (I’ve heard talks along those lines, but–for what it’s worth–the good ones were all in other churches, and the Mormon ones I remember all ended up at charity and aid to the poor and needy, not to the Church. In fact, the most motivating one I remember somewhat provocatively analogized the Church to Caesar (as in render unto, the 10%) and asked that we go beyond.)

    Since I believe the “coercion” label is a diversion, and the actual U.S. federal income tax case is reasonably well settled on other grounds, the interesting question is whether payment for blessings is really the gift we want it to be? Or is it payment for blessing or opportunity, or fulfilling a commitment, or obedience to a command? Is the language of giving and charity and offerings just as much a diversion as the language of coercion?

  36. Is it lunchtime yet? says:

    Whether the church is worth billions or in bankruptcy, the point of tithing is personal. I believe in the principle of tithing which is that we have to put God above everything else, including money.

    Believe me, I could use that 10% on all sorts of needed things for my family. I’d be debt free by now. But I pay because I want to belong to the community of God and that community eventually requires everything including my (necessary and practical) attachment to money.

    Call that coercion if you’d like.

  37. Ah, Chris, the quid pro quo question. Whether tithing—or, for that matter, any charitable gift—is truly a free will offering or is some sort of payment is a tough question. For my tithing, I get to go to the temple. For my pew rent, I get a reserved pew, for certain payments, I can get a special mass or access to the High Holy Day services. Or my Scientology auditing. Or access to the museum at no cost. I mean, there is probably some type to donation that couldn’t be characterized as a quid pro quo, but many do.

    But that’s a different question from coercion (or voluntariness). I don’t doubt that some people feel extensive pressure to pay, and that others don’t. I’m skeptical (leaving aside church employees) that the pressure rises to coercive, or even to undue pressure. But mostly, it’s not a new allegation. (N.b.: I’d also describe pleas for money to buy an airplane as noncoercive. I think they’re pretty terrible, and potentially risky to the ministry’s tax-exempt status, but that’s different again from coercion.)

    Deborah, I would totally agree that threat of excommunication in 1860s Itah would have been coercive. It seems pretty clear that nobody was excommunicated for nonpayment, though, something Hollister acknowledged. I’m less convinced that internal belief that it’s a divine law cuts against its voluntary nature, though.

  38. D Christian Harrison writes “insinuates itself into every nook and cranny of our personal, professional, and social lives “

    Of course, religion in general and Christianity in particular is expected to affect all parts of our lives. Those worrying about the LDS or any church intruding on their lives have been swallowing camels. It is civil government (federal, state, and local) that more intrusively and far more coercively insinuates itself into every nook and cranny of our personal, professional, and social lives. By the whim of a central government in much of the world or in America by the vote of the legislature and concurrence of the other branches of government, income and property can be taxed (the power to tax is the power to destroy), businesses regulated (even to the point of putting them out of business), and individuals drafted and sent overseas to fight a war. The penalties for going AWOL or desertion are severe in the extreme. Google “government intrusion” for countless other examples, and those will typically be cases from our own government. Our government has been fairly benign, but the great dictatorships of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries were and are organized as formal civil governments, not churches or other voluntary associations.

    Yet I am not in principle against government with its power and trillions of dollars, funds that dwarf all the churches put together. On balance, our government has been a fairly good one (ignoring for the moment the fact that in the 1870’s, the era of irony-challenged O.J. Hollister, the federal government actively sought to imprison LDS leaders and otherwise destroy or suppress the Church).

    Jordan Peterson argues that sacrifice (as opposed to solipsism, nihilism, hedonism, and expediency) is, in fact, the principle on which civilization rests. Sacrifice for the highest good is a principle inherent in Christianity. Jesus did not condemn the widow for giving her mite.

  39. In a small town that I lived in, one of the denominations had their building on Main Street. The seating capacity was limited and demand outstripped supply. Tithing was serious business for this church. If someone in the audience had not paid the expected tithe, it would be announced at the beginning of the service and the person would be forced to leave. That is certainly closer to coercion, than an annual Sacrament meeting on Tithing, an annual correlated lesson on Tithing, and an annual interview with the Bishop.

  40. “Good Morning Brothers and Sisters. I have been asked to speak on coercion. The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines the root work of coercion – coerce as:
    1 : to compel to an act or choice
    2 : to achieve by force or threat
    3 : to restrain or dominate by force”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. I think if you take definition #1 and even #2 that you could consider tithing coercive. The examples of restricting access to a key family event like a wedding is clearly “compelling an act or choice” and can definitely be felt as a “threat”. As a non-TR holding Mormon that has no desire to see the inside of a temple until someone gets their act together and sheers out the blatant misogyny I would be in a really difficult position if one of my children wanted to get married there. I could “lie” to my bishop but he knows I make some money and that I give none of it to tithing. So that actually isn’t an option. It would be at the complete whim of the bishop to see whether he would accept my explanation that I don’t tithe to the church on principle but do “tithe” other charitable causes that meet my criteria for transparency and governance.

    Other than that I don’t feel tithing to be coercive but I would if I felt the temple as some actual requirement like it is explicitly taught in Mormon doctrine. I think that is the point here – if you accept the moral authority of the church and its teachings as spiritual fact then the current practice is coercive to some degree. I think others experience it as coercive dependent on their local social pressures.

    I think the thought experiment you would have to do or the experiment the church would have to do is to declare tithing completely voluntary and take it off the list of requirements for temple attendance but still encourage people to pay it. The delta of how many people stop or reduce tithing I think would be a pretty decent measure of coercion. That definitely wouldn’t be 0 and my gut tells me it might be significant.

  41. rah, so much agreement here. I keep a TR because my husband feels it is important but I really have no desire to attend for similar reasons. If they took it off the list of TR questions we would probably give something but not 10%. Freeing up that income to reduce our debt and give to other causes would be welcome.

  42. Having not been raised by LDS parents or in a predominantly LDS area, I do not feel any pressure to look like an LDS person.

    I can’t fathom pretending to pay tithing just to get into the temple to see someone get married. If you don’t subscribe to the teachings that make you eligible to enter, why would you fake your way in just to please others? If you don’t want to belong, why do you need to look like you do? The Church is not the mafia. Geez.

    In my view, it’s not the Church “keeping people from seeing their loved ones get married in the temple.” It’s the bride and groom. They could choose to get sealed quietly and privately and have a more public ceremony of some sort. But they turn the temple wedding into a huge thing with a hundred people because that is what Mormons do…in some cases, leaving the most beloved, important non-LDS or non-practicing LDS guests outside.

    I know. I did it to my parents, like a thoughtless, heartless, ungrateful child. It was my choice. But as a wiser, middle-aged person, I’d never make that same choice. Lucky for me, I don’t see everything we do as an LDS culture as all that great or necessary anymore. Ironically, now I finally feeling at peace with God.

  43. Let me clarify.

    If you did the same to your parents or loved ones, you aren’t necessarily heartless or ungrateful.

    But the spirit with which I excluded them was self-righteous.

    That is what I regret. Tithing, temple, whatever. They’re not supposed to be weapons.

  44. LatamGirl says:

    Thanks for this post. I was surprised at some of the comments in recent threads that appeared to me to be arguing why someone shouldn’t be expected to pay tithing. For me, tithing has become the easiest gospel principle for me to follow. I truly believe it’s a principle with a promise. I recall Elder Oaks telling a story about his mom (? Or maybe it was referring to his mom’s situation with a story of someone else) when the widow said something along the lines of not being able to afford NOT to pay tithing. I guess I’m rather orthodox in my views on tithing. For a while I was even paying on the gross, which I finally realized was ridiculous because there was a period of time that it constituted nearly half of my take home pay. I’ve since fixed that…

    I used to be saddened when I would think back to my sophomore year at BYU when I didn’t pay tithing regularly, thinking I couldn’t afford it on my BYU Bookstore part time wages and paying for room/board. I used to be ashamed that I once had a desire so much for a nice sweater I saw on display that I purch it with my tithing money. But now I look back at that year of growth with gratitude that, at least for that one gospel principle, I’m fully in with no questions. For me, it really is a principle for which one can immediately see the wisdom. Prioritizing tithing helped me learn how to budget, plan, and, well, prioritize. Of course it brought temporal blessings – perhaps as a direct result of paying it but more likely because I forced myself not to waste my money.

    So, I feel no guilt or shame in exhorting my fellow ward members, even those with very meager incomes, to pay their tithing. As others in the $32 billion thread have pointed out, the church really doesn’t NEED the widow’s mite and it doesn’t really move the needle on the finances of the church. Then why does the church ask all, regardless of level of income, to pay tithing? That sophomore year at BYU was seminal in my life for gaining a strong testimony that I needed to pay my tithing for me, and not for the church. And I tell people that story whenever I’m talking to them about paying tithing. For me, it’s such a basic faith principle. YMMV, but on this principle, I personally have no disagreements.

  45. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Tithing is personal, and is supposed to be between a person and the Lord (with Bishop as intermediary, of course). But it’s fascinating to me that there are situations where one is “outed” as a less-than-full tithe payer. Weddings are occasions where family members who do not pay tithing are exposed (or, they are obliged to quickly run to their Bishop to rectify, or lie, or they come up with some external excuse for why they can’t attend the ceremony). Perhaps someone’s name is floated for certain Church callings, but a Bishop has to step in and redirect the conversation. If you’re applying for Church employment, or attendance at a Church school, you’re not getting an ecclesiastical endorsement without paying a full tithe. Of course, there are reasons other than tithing for which someone may not have a TR, but tithing seems to be major culprit.
    We’re being very narrow-minded if we exclude social sanctions from our thinking on coercion. These are often more powerful, and longer-lasting, than legal sanctions. As such, tithing is most definitely coercive.

  46. Sam, the legal question of whether tithing is voluntary reminds me of a question that comes up occasionally under the FLSA: whether a person working for a church is a volunteer or an employee. The key SCOTUS decision on this is decades old, but it basically says that to be an employee rather than a volunteer you have to either work in expectation of pay or work because you’re coerced. There’s a recent sort-of circuit split this year. The Tenth Circuit held that children that the FLDS had contracted out to harvest pecans were employees, not volunteers because they were coerced by their parents, their church, and their community. Just about a month ago, the Sixth Circuit held that church member volunteering at a for-profit church restaurant were volunteers, not employees because “spiritual coercion” doesn’t count, and only “economic coercion” counts.

    Coercion seems like an unhelpful term for tithing because it seems to apply a legal concept of whether something was voluntary in a non-legal context to say something substantive about the concept of tithing itself. Not all social pressure is coercive. And somebody might be forcefully compelled by “spiritual coercion” or peer pressure, or the like in ways that are even more powerful than something that would be legally recognized as coercion. And the strength of that pressure feels to me like it is often subjective.

  47. Personally, I consider paying tithing a privilege. While I have never felt coerced to pay it, I have experienced a bishop who demanded I pay more in fast offerings. It happened during tithing settlement during a year when I was unemployed and had just answered the question that yes, I had paid a full tithing. Zero on zero income. And I had paid a small fast offering by denying myself needed medical care. So I was less than happy about his demand.
    I did not feel coerced. I did feel angry. My response was to stop paying fast offerings altogether. I hope the sting of that experience will continue to fade and I will once again feel emotionally free to choose for myself. But emotionally charged incidents take a long time to lose their sting, especially in circumstances where the balance of power is uneven or the person feels their voice carries no weight.
    On a slightly different problem with coercion within the Church, my sister works with someone whose boss is her bishop. He told her she needed to come back to church. She did, strictly out of fear she would lose her job if she did not attend. I would consider that a more serious Utah problem than tithing coercion.
    The use of manipulation or force in any way marks us as followers of Satan.
    I would like to see a practice in America like exists in many European countries where the marriage is civil and public and the sealing separate. It would have been great to have my family at my wedding. (I know about separate ring ceremonies. They did not exist at that time. And I still think the bishops so downplay them that they lack the beauty and meaning and inclusion of family they could have.)

  48. Jack Hughes says:

    Tithing is definitely coercive. My mild OCD/scrupulosity magnified the coercive nature, to the point where I was grossly overpaying out of fear that shorting the Lord by even one cent would jeopardize my salvation and dissolve my eternal family. Even then, I still thought I might be calculating incorrectly and accidentally underpaying, and obsessing about whether or not I was “worthy” in that moment. You could say that this problem was entirely in my own head, except that lessons on tithing continue to use scriptures about “robbing God” and emotionally manipulative stories about self-imposed poverty and the blessings that supposedly result. Saying that “it’s between you and the Lord” is code for “the Lord really knows how much tithing you are (or aren’t) paying, so cough up or you’re going to hell!”

    My mother-in-law was excluded from my temple wedding. Being very orthodox at the time, I didn’t think much about how hurtful that was. She had been through a nasty divorce a few months prior and was broke, struggling to support her remaining minor children on her small salary. Her bishop was not sympathetic to her plight and neither was I, regretfully.

  49. Conner T says:

    Compare how tithing is collected in the LDS church vs. other churches. In other churches, a collection plate is passed around and fellow church goers notice if you don’t put money in the plate. But if you went and put $20 a week for your household, it would be probably be considered leaning on generous and would amount to about $1000 a year. You wouldn’t be held accountable for the donation at the end of the year. The only coercive aspect to the collection plate is perhaps being looked down on a little by fellow church goers.

    Now let’s compare LDS tithing collection in the Mormon belt. Bishoprics are instructed to talk with each individual or family about their year’s tithing payment and ask them in a face-to-face interview behind closed doors with a print-out of the amount that they paid if they pay a full tithing. If you are married, your spouse and children are often asked to accompany you. Bishoprics are given no specific instructions by the general LDS leadership not to ask about income or additional questions that might cause the tithe-payer to feel additional pressure. Talks printed in LDS publications and given over the pulpit routinely shame people who don’t pay a full tithe and who are not willing to make financial sacrifices (if needed) to pay their tithing. Temple recommends are not given to people who don’t pay a full tithe. If you belong to a family who has deep roots in Mormonism and are married to a firm believing spouse, the pressure to pay thousands and thousands of dollars is extremely high. Although, the general leadership doesn’t specifically tell the members whether or not they should pay on the net or gross, the cultural pressure is to pay on the gross. Average household income is just over $50,000 a year. So that means that the expected amount given to the hypothetical LDS collection plate each week is $100. The ex-Mormon subreddit is replete with stories of spouses who end up taking out thousands and thousands of dollars from the joint account because they feel guilty about not paying enough tithing. You can’t tell me that LDS tithing collection is not coercive. In the wake of the revelation about the LDS church owning $32 billion in stocks, I think it is high time it put an end to tithing settlement and asking about tithing payment in temple recommend interviews.

  50. I really like rah’s thought experiment in his last paragraph. I think that–taking the tithing requirement off the TR questions and observing how much tithing revenue of the Church changed–would go a long way toward showing how members in general view it.

  51. Some blogs are places where apostates and opponents of the church gather to coerce church members to disaffect by constantly shaming them for their beliefs and practices, mocking and pointing fingers. The resultant coercive pressure is real. Indeed, the critics of the church find their own arguments compelling.

  52. Conner T says:

    Some blogs are places where orthodox believers and blind adherents of the LDS church come to express their delicate fragile little sensitivities and get super offended over the most innocent of questions about the validity of their belief. Please, Leo, you and other TBMs control through hyper offendedness. In fact it is this type of offendedness that serves as a form of coercion upon people to pay through the nose on tithing. Get over yourself and your persecution complex.

  53. Guys, maybe take it down a couple notches. Sam’s post wasn’t at all engaged in shaming, mocking, or pointing fingers. And I didn’t read the majority of the comments to be doing so either. There’s clearly a disagreement (full disclosure: I don’t experience tithing as coercive) and some raw feelings for people who have felt pressure from linking tithing to attendance at temple weddings, but expressing those feelings honestly doesn’t strike me as mocking or shaming.

  54. Conner T says:

    Another thing to take into account is leadership roulette. Some bishops don’t pry into tithing payment all that much, while others ask for W2s and hound members for not paying enough tithing. And what is one to do if they are cursed with a hawkish bishop? They just have to live with him for years. The general leadership has a responsibility to give more instructions as to what bishops can and can’t ask at tithing settlement. Better yet, just scrap tithing settlement altogether. But alas, the general leaders like to maintain plausible deniability. They foster a culture of high pressure and order a structure that encourages and allows for the flow of such pressure.

    The bishops, conditioned through training meetings and seeking to win the approval of the Stake Presidencies and other peers, play along and exert undue pressure to collect tithing. If one bishop gets out of hand and starts asking for something like a W2, then the burden falls upon the member to report this (nevermind that it is culturally frowned upon to do or say anything against local leaders). If there are lots of complaints, then the general leadership absolves itself from blame and says that it was that local leader who was in the wrong, but take little to no responsibility make necessary adjustments.

    Meanwhile, you have legions of devotees (many of them very intellectual (how Mormonism lucked out to have a relatively large intellectual following is still a puzzle to me, but I think this is changing)) who have played things by the book for years and are just used to how Mormonism is saying, “hey, I’ve never felt coerced into tithing, what’s your problem?” To these devotees, I say you’re just plain ignorant. And don’t tell me to “take it down a notch” because you feel your precious little religion is getting a little bit criticized. I’m being as diplomatic as I can about the issue of LDS tithing collection here.

  55. Aussie Mormon says:

    Conner: Whether it goes into a plate or onto a donation statement should be irrelevant. A tithe is 10%, that’s the english language definition not some Mormon definition, and it’s in both the old and new testament so pre-dates Mormonism too.
    In regards to tithing settlement, it’s not compulsory, so if someone doesn’t want to have that discussion with their bishop, they don’t have to.

  56. Conner T says:

    Aussie Mormon, I never said that tithing collection should be by collection plate. I merely pointed out that that is how other churches do it (these other churches also accept donations in other ways) and that the pressure of the collection plate passed around among congregations and the pressure from the sermons about the importance of paying 10% is about the only pressure that is exerted by the churches to collect tithing. The LDS church goes a step further and asks its members to report before a bishop (in a relatively small congregation where a bishop is a local neighbor) whether or not they pay a full tithe.

    Yes tithing is 10%. But what 10% of what? According to D&C, it is 10% of one’s increase. But how do you define increase? More modern LDS teachings clarify that this is to be 10% of one’s income. But how exactly do you define what your income is? This classic blog post by Rock Waterman, “Are We Paying Too Much Tithing?” (http://puremormonism.blogspot.com/2012/12/are-we-paying-too-much-tithing.html) convincingly argues that LDS folks should be paying much, much less than they feel they need to pay.

    Tithing settlement isn’t compulsory, but bishoprics are instructed to pretty much relentlessly hound members to come to tithing settlement. My whole life in the LDS church, never have I encountered a bishop wanting to meet with me so much as at the end of the year for tithing settlement. I have heard countless stories of people being pulled aside during church for a special meeting with the bishop about tithing. There is a culture of coercion when it comes to tithe-paying in the Mormon belt (and of course that is the location I’m referring to, not some branch out in Mongolia where locals are grateful if they get just a few people showing up at church).

    Overall you’re missing the point. The LDS church is a voluntary organization that is extremely wealthy. I know of no other voluntary organizations that ask their donors in face-to-face interviews if they are paying a truly generous donation. Why does the LDS church need to have tithing settlements? It is nonsense. It is coercion.

  57. Connor,

    Regarding the why of tithing settlement…

    Beyond the obvious of finding out if someone is paying a full tithe, I’ve seen it as an internal administrative check on the system to ensure that what the church has a record of matches my records. There have been plenty of instances of tithing embezzlement in the past and settlement can serve as an additional check. One could argue that now that form can be emitted electronically but in the past it wasn’t that real of an option.

    I’m sorry you’ve felt coerced in this regard.

  58. Angela C says:

    I definitely see tithing as more coercive in the Mormon church than in other contemporary churches, particularly when you consider that adults will be barred from their children’s temple weddings if they don’t pay up and that church employees will be fired, even when they are not in any true ministerial capacity and we brag endlessly about no paid clergy. But, OTOH, it’s less coercive than centuries ago when the Church (not ours, natch) had a complete stranglehold on every aspect of life. So there’s that.

  59. Aussie Mormon says:

    It’s been brought up on BCC before, but it’s worth comparing to the church tax ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_tax ) system if you want to talk about coercion.
    It’s not tithing, and the amount isn’t 10%, but its legally mandatory if the church you belong to decides to make use of that system, and in some cases, legally mandatory even if you are not affiliated with a religion.

  60. Anon-observer says:

    I’m a non-Mormon but I have Mormon friends. The July 2009 Ensign magazine had a faith promoting article about tithing. It was about a woman with 6 children who had difficulty paying for necessities. The story contained these lines. “My voice broke the silence of the kitchen as I declared that I would rather lose the water source to my house than lose the living water offered by the Savior. I would rather have no food on our table than be without the Bread of Life. I would prefer to endure the darkness and discomfort of no electricity than to forfeit the Light of Christ in my life. I would rather abide with my children in a tent than relinquish my privilege of entering the house of the Lord.”

    This is from the official LDS church magazine. The message is clear that tithing should come first even if you have financial dfficulties, or at the very least, that people who consider tithing more important than food or having a roof above your head should be celebrated. Just because people aren’t excommunicated for it doesn’t mean it’s not coercive. Just because you don’t go to jail for not paying tithing doesn’t mean it’s not coercive. Furthermore, as a non-Mormon I must admit the institution having a very specific percentage that is applied to in a blanket manner to all Mormons, no matter the individual/financial circumstance is something that doesn’t sit well for me.
    If it was truly not coercive, Mormons would have the complete freedom to choose whether or not they give money to the church; if so, when to donate, and if so, how much to donate, without tithing themed articles in church magazines, without bishops being nosy about it, and without what Mormons call ‘tithing settlement’ every year. But that is not the case.

    If this was about membership to a specific club or subscription to something then yes, it’s justifiable that there’d be a set fee every month/annually. But I personally do not see it as as ‘charitable donation’ if there is a set percentage. People should be free to donate to the LDS church as they wish, but there should be no pressure to donate or to donate a certain amount from either the institution or its members. I get the impression this pressure is stronger in the lDS church compared to other churches.

    For a church that emphasizes 10% tithing in all circumstances/for everyone/no matter the financial issues, they also seem to be reluctant to be open about how they use that tithing or where it goes. In countries such as Canada etc they are required to be a bit more transparent by law, but in the US, they tend to be very secretive about even basic breakdowns of the usage of tithing, and many Mormons seem to never question it, even though other churches are more open about their finances. This is a little odd to me as a non-Mormon.

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