(Note: This original article has been divided into 2 parts for readability. Part 2 here)
“Tithing in the Mormon church is completely voluntary! No one forces you to pay tithing and you determine whether or not you are a full tithe payer yourself – between you and God.”
(any one of several of random Mormon internet commentators)
The intention of this argument is usually to demonstrate that there is no coercion or inducement to pay tithing in the Mormon Church – every one does so in a completely voluntary manner.
What does the church officially have to say about whether tithing is voluntary? One of the most recent statements on the matter was published in a March 2013 Ensign article by President Howard W. Hunter:
“The tithe is God’s law for His children, yet the payment is entirely voluntary. In this respect it does not differ from the law of the Sabbath or from any other of His laws. We may refuse to obey any or all of them. Our obedience is voluntary, but our refusal to pay does not abrogate or repeal the law.”
(“Our Law of Tithing” Howard W Hunter, March 2013 Ensign, lds.org)
It is the unambiguous position of the church that tithing is voluntary. In the above quote, President hunter states that the voluntary nature of the law of tithing is no different than how others of God’s laws are voluntary.
What else is voluntary?
If you accept that tithing is voluntary, what else may be considered voluntary? Would you consider the payment of taxes to be voluntary or mandatory? Hear what Senator Harry Reid has to say about this issue when asked:
Tithing is given as a law, just a taxes are given as a law. One may choose to pay taxes or tithing and thus reap the benefits – the blessings of God in the case of tithing, and the blessings of the state and continued “freedom” in the case of taxes. One may also voluntarily choose not to pay tax or tithing. What, then, would be the result? On such consequences, the church teaches the following:
“While you are free to choose your course of action, you are not free to choose the consequences.”
(“For the Strength of Youth” lds.org)
In the case of not paying taxes, those consequences would include loss of freedom and imprisonment in this life. In the case of tithing, it is loss of blessings, Celestial glory, eternal family in the eternities, not to mention combustibility at the 2nd coming of Christ. In each case you are free to choose to comply with the law or disobey. They are voluntary. This is something that defenders of the fraud case must concede.
The Madoff deception
One real world example to demonstrate that even when someone pays money to a third party voluntarily, they may still be victim of a crime is seen in the investors of Bernie Madoff. Bernie Madoff was a stockbroker, investment advisor, and financier with impeccable credentials who was successful in convincing thousands of high value investors to entrust him with their savings. His investment securities business was, in fact, a Ponzi scheme which resulted in the largest fraud in American history – amounting to billions of dollars. Each and every one of his investors had voluntarily given him their money, and yet when all of the facts of his deception were made known, they were clearly all victims of fraud.
When deception is employed, the person who voluntarily pays is the victim of a crime.
A Study in Sherlock
In my prior article on LDS Tithing: Cheer vs Fear, I described how the threat of loss of celestial glory, eternal families and burning at Christ’s return are employed in warning members of the dangers of non-payment of tithing. If such threatening negative consequences are employed, can the payment of tithing still be considered voluntary? A recent story in the popular BBC drama Sherlock may be illustrative.
Sherlock is a modern retelling of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character’s adventures. (Spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen it yet – you might skip this section.) In the episode “A Study in Pink” a series of murders take place in London with no apparent connection or sign of struggle. After much investigation, Sherlock is ultimately lured by the murderer into an empty building where he confronts Sherlock with a dilemma.
The murderer presents each of his victims with 2 pill bottles, each containing a tablet. One of the tablets is a poison which will kill them peacefully, and the other is an inert tablet that has no effect. The murderer states that his victim gets to choose which tablet they will take.
Upon further analysis & deduction, Sherlock decides that his best course of action is to use his free agency and not play the game at all. To this suggestion, the murderer introduces what the resulting consequences would be by introducing a gun to Sherlocks face.
At this point Sherlock still has, by the standard of the Church and Harry Reid, his free agency and his decision to take one of the pills is completely voluntary. He could choose to take a pill and risk life or death – or he could choose not to play and receive immediate certain death by a bullet. It is still Sherlock’s choice. I will not reveal the resolution of this dilemma for those that read-on despite the spoiler warning. (Sherlock is an excellent series – definitely watch it!)
Threats change everything
While some may still define Sherlock’s scenario as voluntary, it strains credibility when evaluating notions of free agency. When a gun is in the room, free will goes out the window. This is why people carry guns – to compel other to comply with their will against their targets own agency. A gun is an effective tool in this manner only if the victim recognizes the gun, has the experience and knowledge to understand its danger and believes that the aggressor will use it in the manner threatened.
Temporal vs spiritual threats
A gun threatens a persons existence in this life. What if the murderer in Sherlock didn’t pull out a gun, but instead said that if Sherlock did not choose one of the pills, he would lose God’s blessings and risk being burned at Christ’s return? This threat would not be effective because Sherlock has no reason to believe that the murderer has any authority to make such a claim.
Now lets change the scenario. Suppose Sherlock is not a genius savant, but instead a lowly church member and suppose he is in an interview with his Bishop. Because his personal testimony has bound him to the church, He believes that the Bishop, and the doctrine and church authority which grant him that title, are real. The bishop tells him that he must pay his tithing, or else he will lose God’s blessings, Celestial glory, his eternal family, and risks burning at Christ’s return. The very real threat of eternal consequences would then be just as effective in the mind of our victim as a gun, though delayed in it’s effect. This is because they acknowledge the consequences and believe the Bishop, church and doctrine to be authoritative in describing them. The persons decision to pay tithing can still be said to be voluntary in exactly the same manner as Sherlock’s dilemma – the threats are simply displaced into the afterlife rather than in the temporal world.
Coercion vs sincerity
To the extent that the payment of tithing is done because of fear of the negative consequences, it may be said to be the result of coercion. By definition, such payment is not a sincere expression of a cheerful giving heart, because if the threats were not there – the member would not pay. While those who no longer view the church as a legitimate authority for spiritual matters may look back to their tithe paying days and only see a system of coercion, most members would likely state that they do not pay tithing primarily because of those negative consequences (softer term for threats). They would state that their obedience to the Law of Tithing is a sincere expression of their love and devotion to God and would do it despite any positive or negative promises. The mere fact that it is God’s Law is sufficient for them to comply.
At this point it is important to examine just how people come to the knowledge that tithing is in fact God’s law. If a person chooses to obey such a law it is because they have been informed of it from a source that they trust. Their compliance with that law is then a voluntary action made out of informed consent. What exactly are the components of such informed consent and how does this concept relate to the payment of tithing?
This question is explored in Part 2 of Voluntary Tithing and Mis-Informed Consent.