Utah, Tithing and Generosity

(Note: This is a cross-post with Seeking for Righteousness. I am joining in the trend of cross-posting, as others have done, as a temporary means of jump-starting the blog.)

Several people have posted online about Utah and generosity. There are posts by David Sundwall, here and here, a post by Nate Oman over here, an update by the very busy Matt Evans (who apparently has time to promote a pro-life organization, assist with an international charity outfit, and still post on blogs) here, and a detailed statistical analysis here. (It seems like most of the Mormons and Mormon-discussers have weighed in, though we still need to get Dave and Taint to opine).

I agree with much of what has been said by others. I especially think that David Sundwall’s recent post is a nice balance of giving Mormons credit for their giving, while also noting valid concerns with attributing too much in the way of mental state to the tax-return chart.

Is Tithing Really Confidential?

I wanted to disagree, however, with one characterization made by Matt, Nate, and one of Matt’s commenters. That is the polite fiction that nobody knows who pays how much tithing. I think this is fiction, of the same variety as many other phrases which church members perhaps wish were true, but often are not. (It is along the lines of “All investigators meet the Bishop or local leaders before baptism”, or perhaps “Church basketball games can be a friendly, non-violent way to show a good example to non-members”).

The reality is, first, that church members gossip, and one of the favorite topics is who is or is not keeping up. Members are very sharp-eyed, and will often start chatting immediately if a member stops going to the temple with the ward, or is released from a church calling for no apparent purpose. This is compounded by the fact that church leaders gossip. Not the First Presidency, of course, but gossip is endemic among local leaders.

I cannot count the number of times I have been told private, personal information by a bishopric member or elders’ quorum presidency member, where is appears that the disclosure is for no reason other than to gossip. (As a member of the Elders Quorum presidency, I am often privy to personal information — I mean instances beyond where my calling would suggest I need to know certain facts). There are numerous reasons for this, I am certain — People like to name-drop, they like to show off that they have information, people are not good at keeping secrets. I am certain that I have, at times, engaged in such gossip myself (I don’t remember specific instances, but gossip is like that — and yes, I try not to). Information that I have been told (again, without apparent reason) includes members’ tithepaying status. This has occurred in more than one ward (and I haven’t been in the Elders Quorum presidency in other wards — so there was no possible reason I should be privy to such information).

And, related to their gossip, church members ostracize and form cliques. Because of this reality, I am not convinced that social pressure does not coerce tithepaying. The idea that tithing is between the member and the Lord is certainly how things should be, but I think it is often not how they actually are.