Wealth, like tithing, no cause for suspicion

Published 10:15 am Monday, February 6, 2012

Mitt Romney is getting a lot of negative criticism for 1) just being wealthy, 2) being smart enough to become wealthy, 3) not caring about the poor, and 4) giving away his money to his church. I see more need for careful evaluation of such economic matters than I do for his religion. We want a president who both enhances the opportunity of everyone to increase material assets and ensures no one is denied this opportunity by law or public policy.

What voters must recognize is how well Romney would pursue these goals if he were president. I assert there is no necessary relation between a person being wealthy and what is the attitude toward those who are not. The most serious failing I have found in personal conversation with wealthy people is a naïve ignorance of what it means to be poor. I have, on the other hand, found more unreasonable resentment of wealthy people among those who are not.

The news reports and opinion pieces about Romney’s Mormon practice of tithing trouble me. No one has yet said he has no right to give ten percent of his income to the LDS or that it is, somehow, wrong to do so. What troubles me is not what these express, but what they seem to imply. I sense an underlying prejudicial cynicism as if there were something immoral about tithing.

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The first consideration is that tithing is not peculiar to or original with Mormons. It is about as ancient a tradition and practice as society. The first substantial written record of it is in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). It is mentioned and expounded throughout, but the classic text is: ”Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Malachi 3:10)

One of the surest indications of the concept’s antiquity is that the Hebrew root is a verb. Tithing was well established and in practice prior to the creation of Israel. For the Hebrews, it was not a matter of calculating the tithe at the end of the year and handing it over to the priests. Every time a Hebrew took in, he gave out. Each time he brought produce from the fields, a tenth went to the priest for the common good, and this accumulated to a good deal more than a tenth.

The practice was carried over by the Christians, the earliest being Jewish, and it was respected and practiced by the earliest churches. My first allowance was ten cents, and my father gave it to me in ten pennies. Every Sunday I put one of those pennies in the Sunday school offering plate and did so with a sense of gratitude for the nine and the privilege of having one to give.

The attitude in most Christian churches is not a legal requirement of membership, but a joyful privilege of participating in the life and work of the church and beyond. In point of fact, the standard expression is “Let us worship the Lord with tithes and offerings.” The understanding is that one routinely gives the tithe and then thoughtfully adds offerings beyond the title. We hear not as much about tithing as about stewardship, i.e., the responsible use of all we are and have as children of God.

The more Christians and Jews mature spiritually, the more focus is on the spirit of the law and less on its letter. The Apostle Paul put it well to the church at Corinth: “Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Remember, a basic concept of tithing is not amount but proportionality. It is a matter of ability and willingness.

Rather than resenting Mitt Romney for his wealth, we owe him respect for working to achieve it. Rather than suspecting him for tithing, we owe him admiration for living by his principles. If this should affect fitness for the White House, each voter must decide.