When I lived in New York, I could have told you what virtually all of my friends paid in rent. It was a fairly common topic of conversation, and the conversation was one of two types: the can-you-believe-I-pay-$2,000-for-this-dump, or can-you-believe-I-only-pay-$3,500-for-this-apartment.[fn1]
I didn’t really think much of it; I didn’t put much stock in financial privacy. And it wasn’t just the amount I paid in rent—as an attorney at a big firm in New York, if you wanted to know how much I made, you basically just needed to know the year I graduated from law school, the firm I worked for, and the website for NALP.[fn2] My salary was there for the viewing.
After my first stint in New York, while living in the DC metro area, an acquaintance bought a house. And he mentioned the price[fn3] at his housewarming party. His wife was mortified. She explained to him that that is a number you don’t mention in public. It came as a shock to me—I was so acclimated to the public discussion of rent payments as a cocktail party discussion that it never occurred to me that anybody would want to be cagey about how much they paid for housing.
I remembered these differing social conventions about money when I read the Parade Magazine[fn4] interview with the Romneys. When asked about tithing, Mitt Romney says,
Our church doesn’t publish how much people have given. This is done entirely privately. One of the downsides of releasing one’s financial information is that this is now all public, but we had never intended our contributions to be known. It’s a very personal thing between ourselves and our commitment to our God and to our church.[fn5]
I’m interested in the assertion that tithing is a private, personal thing. On one level, it isn’t: when you and I pay our tithing, somebody knows how much we pay. It may be a bishopric member or a ward clerk. If we pay directly to Church headquarters, it may be someone in Salt Lake. If we itemize, the amount we pay in tithing is on an IRS computer somewhere, and may be accessed by one or more IRS agents.[fn6]
But, on the other hand, even in my most unconstrained I’ll-share-my-financial-information days, I never told people how much tithing I paid. Yes, they could have gone to NALP and made an educated guess about approximately how much we paid, but that wouldn’t have occurred to me back then.
I suspect that this reticence to share the amount we tithe is pretty common throughout the Church. But there doesn’t seem to be a policy of requesting members to keep their own tithing amounts private.[fn7]
Ultimately, then, I have a couple questions:
(1) Is there a general cultural norm in the Church of not talking about tithing?
(2) If so, is it a norm throughout the Church, or are there regional (or demographic) exceptions to the rule?
(3) What is the derivation of the norm?[fn8]
[fn1] Note that the numbers are kind of amalgamations of friends’ rents from several years ago; I suspect that these days, even the dumpiest dump probably runs more than $2,000 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
[fn2] Actually, at the time, you probably didn’t even need to know the firm I worked for. Most big New York law firms paid identical salaries.
[fn3] Or maybe his mortgage payment. It’s been a few years.
[fn4] Apparently it’s still a thing. Who knew?
[fn5] Note that, right before that, Ann Romney says that she loves tithing and, when she pays it, she actually cries. To which Mitt, belying the popular image of his being humorless, says, “So do I, but for a different reason.” Which is like the funniest thing I’ve heard a politician say (or, at least, the funniest thing I’ve heard a politician say that he or she meant to be funny) in a long, long time.
[fn6] Which, for reasons I hope become clear through the rest of the post, is not an assertion that Romney was lying. I suspect he wasn’t. Which leads me to this: this is not a political post, notwithstanding its being inspired by something Mitt Romney said in a fluff interview in a Sunday paper insert magazine. I’m not interested in attacking or burnishing Romney. If you want to do either, there are plenty of places on teh internets to do it. Here, I’m more interested in the norms of sharing religious financial data.
[fn7] There is, on the other hand, a Church policy requiring that anybody who handles tithing not disclose the amounts any member pays.
[fn8] On this, I have a two ideas, but neither is particularly Mormon-specific. Maybe our reticence derives from the reticence that we (at least Americans) feel about talking about money. Or maybe it derives from the injunction in Matt. 6:3-4 that, when we give alms, we not let our left hand know what our right is doing.
Maybe, though, it derives from something else entirely.