Tithing is generally understood as giving back for God's work ten percent of one's income? But what counts as income? Net income? Gross income? Do you count employee deduction to the United Way as part of one's tithe or separate? Our first impulse is write rules defining what income is.
That's what the IRS does.
But not the Mormons. It turns out their definition of income is left pretty much up to the individual believer. The driving question for them, though, is not "what is income?" Instead, it's "am I cheating God?"
Many religious traditions stress the importance of charity. But Mormons are remarkable for the amount and the precision with which they give to their church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that each Mormon in good standing should tithe 10 percent of his or her income. The money goes right to church headquarters in Salt Lake City and then is distributed back to congregations around the world.
"That's written in stone, and preached from the pulpit," says Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, who is Mormon.
But while the church is very precise about that figure — 10 percent of income — it does not tell its members what income means.
"Which is really interesting to us economists, because we want to know how people define income," says Dahl.
As anyone who has ever done their taxes knows, figuring out what counts as income is harder than it sounds.
As we enter tax season and either open up the software or talk to our preparers or slog through the instruction books, we find that the IRS has hundreds of pages of rules defining income.
But what does God think? If we think God is watching, how do we think about our money? Dahl thinks that the IRS could actually learn from how Mormons make these decisions.
Studies have shown that people are more willing to pay taxes if they think taxes are fair. People who think someone else is getting special treatment are more likely to cheat.
Dahl theorized that if you know how people naturally think of income, you can craft the tax laws to better match people's motivations.
But first he had to get Mormons to tell their stories.
Tithing is a very personal act, and Dahl says people were unwilling to talk about how much money they sent in. So Dahl and his colleague Michael Ransom surveyed 1,200 Mormons and presented them with hypothetical questions about giving.
"Suppose your parents gave you $500 for Christmas," he told them. "Would you pay tithing on that money?"
That was a resounding yes among Mormons. Gifts of cash are definitely considered income.
What about a gift of a sofa worth $500? Not so much. Few Mormons said they would tithe on that.
What if you got a cash gift from someone you knew had already paid tithes on the money? The majority of Mormons in the study said they were happy to tithe on it again.
The concept of double tithing doesn't seem to upset Mormons the same way double taxation does. In fact, Dahl found that Mormons were willing to tithe on money that came out of a retirement account — even if they had already tithed 10 percent of it before they invested....
Dahl says he found that Mormons, in general, tended to adopt the more simple and generous definitions of income....
"...They're worried about being petty with God," Dahl says.
I asked a Mormon bishop in Salt Lake City if a few more rules defining income might make tithing easier on Mormons or bring in more money for the church. He said all this soul-searching about what you owe God is kind of the point.
Of course, this only works if the individual believer is actually free to act on her or his ethical deliberations.
From the Rev. Lee Shaw of Utah (former LDS)
I read through the ... article. I find it generally true. Tithing is a BIG thing in the LDS church. It is a place where guilt can be played and blessings can be withheld. If you are not a tithing member you cannot go to the temple, church offices, especially for men, are denied you, and it is preached on a regular basis. Mormons grow up expecting to tithe. It is part of the church culture, as is the guilt. In December you go to "tithing settlement" with your bishop. He asks you if you paid a full tithe. I know there are stories of asking to see tax returns, I never experienced [being asked for my tax return] and feel [that] is folk lore. But you are expected to give a full financial accounting to your bishop so that your temple recommend will be renewed.
There is always the debate between "net" and "gross" on what to tithe. Mormons differ on that very much. I always did it on the "net." figuring I didn't see the "gross" earnings anyway.
Mormons are diligent about getting money from members. There is also the building fund and maintenance fund that many ask for. The first Sunday of every month is "Fast Sunday" where you fast for two meals and give the cost of those meals to the church for their welfare program. On that day, at least in my time not sure about now, you had "deacons" (boys 12-14) going door to door to members to collect their "fast offerings." That Sunday is also "Fast and Testimony Sunday" with no speakers, just an open mic for folks to stand and "bear their testimony" about the church, i.e. giving witness in Protestant language. Let me tell you some of those meetings get really, really bizarre as some folks go off on all kinds of tangents about their faith and life.
Which returns us to the study: people feel good about taxation if it feels fair. It also bring us back to the point of the tithe which is not so much the 10% but the conversation with God in the context of our money and our communities.