Money may be the root of all evil, but, for Mormons, it also provides a pathway to the highest heaven.
That’s because to gain access to the sacred spaces and saving rituals of a Mormon temple, LDS believers must donate 10 percent of their income to the church.
No payment? No entrance.
“You can earn [a place in the presence of our Father in Heaven],” LDS apostle Marion G. Romney once said, “by observing faithfully day by day, and year by year, the law of tithing and the other requirements of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Should Mormons’ place in the afterlife, though, be determined, at least in part, by the dollars they give here and now? Should blessings of the temple be withheld from those who can’t — or won’t — pay?
Mormon leaders reject the notion that the process to gain a “recommend” for entrance to an LDS temple is a form of salvation blackmail. Tithing, they argue, is repaying a debt owed to God or showing obedience. It’s about faith, not finances.
Sure, tithing may seem like buying your way into heaven “in a very strict and misleading way,” Mormon historian Matthew Bowman says, “but I don’t know why that seems more offensive to modern sensibilities than, say, the requirement that one attend one’s [Sunday] meetings.”
Bowman, a professor at Arkansas’ Henderson State University and author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” suspects the concerns are felt more acutely in countries such as the United States, “a consumer capitalist society that equates money and finances with freedom.”
Americans view religion “as something that’s supposed to be private,” he says, “and thus if religion becomes involved with employment in any real sense, we tend to think that it’s interfering in realms that it’s not supposed to.”
To some, the bigger question is: Should The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do away not with tithing but with tithing as a prerequisite for accessing the temple and its exalting ordinances by which members can qualify for celestial glory?
It does create “a strong incentive for the practice among the faithful,” concedes Patrick Mason, Mormon scholar at Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University. “The corollary, that removing the requirement would lead to decreased rates and amounts of tithe-paying, also seems commonsensical.”
Indeed, says historian D. Michael Quinn. The church’s revenue would plummet, warns the writer, who was excommunicated for his historical writings but remains a believer.
The Utah-based faith earns billions from commercial ventures every year beyond what it collects in member contributions, says Quinn, whose latest book, “The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth and Corporate Power,” explores the world of Mormon money. “But if you cut out tithing, the reserves would be depleted within a relatively short time.”
In 2010, he reports, the global faith took in $33 billion in tithing and less than half that, $15 billion, from stocks, bonds, taxable businesses and other enterprises.
If the church dropped the tithing provision from the temple imperatives, the upper middle class and wealthy (who account for a large percentage of the faith’s total revenue) would be the ones “more likely to cut back,” Quinn predicts. “The poor tend to be the more faithful.”
Sam Brunson, a Latter-day Saint who teaches tax and business law at Loyola University in Chicago, doubts eliminating the tithing question from temple recommends would have much impact on believers’ willingness to contribute to their church.
“Based on the rhetoric I’ve heard, not many pay so they can have a temple recommend,” Brunson says. “In [childhood], I didn’t learn about paying tithing as a way to get to the temple.”
Instead, he says, it was “something you did to become a good person.”
Allowing members to attend the temple without paying could be a good move, Brunson theorizes. “It might tie them to the church even more.”
Still, the professor acknowledges, he is “coming at it from a comfortably middle-class place.”
Giving 10 percent of his income, Brunson says, “doesn’t hurt me in any obvious way.”
From giving all to giving a 10th
Mormonism has never separated economics from eternal truths; fiscal realities go hand in hand with spiritual needs.
Not long after the faith’s birth in 1830, LDS founder Joseph Smith asked believers to share all they had for the common good, taking only what was necessary to live.
Known as the United Order, it remains part of the church’s scriptural canon.
It was a time of communitarian experiments, and the fledgling church was all-in, caring for armies of new converts who arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Ultimately, the faithful failed at living this “higher” law. Tithing, with its biblical roots, is seen as a preparatory step before a return to the United Order. The church, with its lay ministry at the local level, uses the money to build temples and chapels, to buttress its worldwide missionary outreach, and to support its vast educational offerings, including Brigham Young University.
“I’m almost positive that payment of tithing was required to obtain a ticket to attend the May 1846 dedication ceremony inside the Nauvoo Temple,” Quinn notes. “I’m sure that tithing payment was required for the recommend to attend the 1893 dedication ceremonies of the Salt Lake Temple.”
But formalized collection was “hit or miss,” he says, for most of the 19th century.
Then, in the early 1900s, church President Lorenzo Snow made a big push for the collection of tithes, and church revenues shot up.
“It allowed LDS headquarters,” he says, “to pay off half of its $2.5 million in debt within three years.”
The church endured other financial struggles in the 20th century but eventually erased all red ink by instituting sound budgeting practices and launching lucrative investment strategies to become a prosperous institution, one Quinn has called an “American success story without parallel.”
LDS leaders could see tithing receipts slip again, however. A groundbreaking survey by writer-researcher Jana Riess revealed that while 7 in 10 Mormon millennials report paying a “full tithe,” many donate a 10th of their “net” incomes. Older faithful Mormons more commonly pay on their “gross” incomes.
In the early 20th century, BYU administrators wanted to guarantee that all its professors were full tithe payers, even proposing to deduct the amounts from employee paychecks.
After pushback from some, arguing that such an arrangement would make tithing less of a freewill offering and more of a tax, leaders shelved the idea.
But a tithing requirement for BYU employees (as for all church workers) took hold in the 1990s.
The late Bert Wilson, who taught folklore at the school, objected publicly to the practice.
“The policy diminishes the satisfaction I, and I suspect others, feel in holding a temple recommend,” Wilson wrote. “I received my first recommend 42 years ago, have held one continuously since then, and hope always to live worthily enough to do so. For me, the recommend is a sacred document not to be sullied with any worldly concerns like job security.”
Everyone’s doing it
Of course, every faith tradition must find ways to cover costs, but the LDS style of tying earthly payments to heavenly payoffs, observers argue, may bring greater pressures.
When it comes to financial stability, University of Utah historian Colleen McDannell says, “Mormons are the envy of all religious groups in the U.S.”
The faith always seems “to score at the top or close to the top on church donations,” she says, “the study of which has become big business for Protestants, who are always trying to ‘grow’ churches.”
This is true, in part, because of attitudes governing giving.
Churches that have the biggest problem attracting donations “are those with a traditional ‘professional’ clergy — like the Catholics,’” McDannell says. For years, “the assumption was that church workers sacrifice for God and so don’t have to be paid anything. So Catholics don’t give. “
To a Catholic, being poor was a “type of purifying sacrifice,” she says. “You don’t give so you can get blessings.”
The “blessings” model is precisely what Mormons are taught. Giving is not just an act of self-sacrifice — though LDS scripture classifies tithing as such — but also a kind of heavenly quid pro quo.
Members who hand over their 10 percent are “complying with a divine law,” Marion Romney said, upon which “great blessings are predicated.”
Such donations also act as a kind of “fire insurance,” he quipped, against being “burned” when Christ comes again.
The apostle’s remarks stemmed from an LDS scripture, which declares ”now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.”
Rather than end the tithing requirement for temple entrance, Quinn argues that those facing financial hardships should be allowed to pay less.
“Over time, it has been demonstrated that tithing is a reasonable financial obligation for Mormons in countries that have a significant middle class,” the historian says. “In the [developing world], it is not.”
LDS children in such places are routinely undernourished, often going to bed hungry, Quinn says. This affects their brain development and, ultimately, their “adult future.”
Expecting 10 percent from members who struggle to pay even a fraction of that, Quinn says, may be “taking food away from their children.”
He doesn’t suggest a progressive tithe in which those who have less pay less than 10 percent. But Quinn does believe LDS leaders in regions such as South America and Africa should preach a “do your best” approach to tithing, rather than a strict percentage.
“Jesus doesn’t condemn the poor for not paying their farthings,” Quinn points out. In the New Testament, in fact, the Christian savior praises a “poor widow” who donated a mere “two mites,” deeming her more generous than the rich who gave ample “gifts” to the treasury.
Paying in private
All religious organizations struggle with “how to get their members to pony up,” says Claremont’s Mason, “and most have to resort to frequent public exhortations that feature heavy doses of shame and guilt.”
Though LDS authorities certainly sermonize about tithing, members “probably hear less explicit talk about money than do their friends in other churches,” Mason says. “Furthermore, the practice of paying tithes is much more private in an LDS ward than in many churches and synagogues that still literally pass around the basket.”
Consequently, the willingness to give is more private, yet is seen as “one of the prime behavioral markers of a person’s belonging in the inner core of Mormon membership,” Mason says, “along with adherence to the Word of Wisdom [the church’s prohibition on tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea] and law of chastity.”
Bowman adds that tithe paying is historic, but has evolved through the centuries.
“In the Hebrew Bible, God commands the children of Israel to tithe for two purposes: first, to support the poor,” he says, “and, second, to remind them that they were slaves in Egypt, where they were driven to work day and night to generate production.”
In modern times, Bowman says, tithing is “a way to press back against the power that consumption and capital have in our lives.”
LDS temple recommend interviews, says writer Fiona Givens, are meant “to help members gauge their progress toward the divine.”
“It might, perhaps, be helpful to emphasize those questions which focus on the first and great commandment: to love God and our fellow man.”
In short, make temple worthiness less about sizing up finances and more about sizing up souls.