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Being stingy with God

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor

WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) -- One of the most ancient religious practices -- giving one tenth of one's income to God -- has suffered a severe setback in the U.S. last year, a study of the California-based Barna Research Group shows.

Tithing, as commanded in the Old Testament, has dropped by 62 percent in 2002. Only three percent of America's adults followed the law given by Moses, "And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's: It is holy unto the Lord" (Leviticus 27:10).

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In 2001, eight percent still tithed.

Being stingy with God reverses a practice going back many thousands of years, and preceding even the first mention of a tithe in Scripture. Long before Abraham tithed to the priest Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20), the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians offered 10 percent of their annual earnings -- or harvests -- to their temples.

Whence the sudden stinginess, even among "born-again Christians," who represent 38 percent of the nation's population, according to Barna? In 2000, 12 percent of this group tithed; in 2001, presumably in response to the horrors of Sept. 11, that share rose to 14 percent. But down it went to 6 percent in 2002.

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And these are not wishy-washy Christians -- they were the born-again variety!

Researcher George Barna attributes this development to several factors: There is the soft economy. There were terrorism and the prospect of war, which have "raised the level of caution," as Barna put it.

Then there was probably the most disingenuous excuse -- a loss of confidence in clergy due to the sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

Why disingenuous? Because the decline in tithing is not really a mainly Catholic event. Catholics never were rarely generous with their church; hence where giving is concerned, nothing much has changed in that branch of Christianity. That means that many Protestants have used the Catholic tragedy as a fig leaf to cover their own lack of generosity.

Catholics are among five segments of the population who paid less than one-tenth of one percent to their church, Barna reports; the other four groups are: Hispanics, liberals, downscale households earning less than $20,000 a year and not being headed by college graduates, and parents who home-school their children.

The traditional failure of Catholics to tithe renders the clamor for married priests illusory, the Rev. Gerald E. Murray, a canon lawyer in New York explained. Parish priests make at best $15,000 dollars and are housed for free. That would not be enough to raise a family.

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By contrast, a Lutheran pastor in Washington with four years of post-graduate education is paid an annual "package" of $60,000, and even that is not sufficient to afford him a comfortable living.

There are many reasons why Catholics don't tithe. "We used to have huge congregations," Murray said. "This meant that a lot of money came in even if each individual member paid a small amount. Protestant congregations, by comparison, were much smaller. Thus people were more conscious of the fact that the church depended on their generosity."

But now that Catholic congregations are shrinking, priests have to ask for more money, and that, "is becoming a problem," Murray said, especially as Catholics don't really have the same tradition of close association with their parishes Protestants have.

This means that in the largest Christian denomination in America attitudes concerning tithing will have to occur, even if celibacy remains the rule. Under the present circumstances, only very few Catholic parishes could actually afford married pastors.

The most generous donors among America's Christians are people 55 and older, college graduates, Republicans, conservatives, Southerners, mainline Protestants and evangelicals.

The latter group represents only 6 percent of the public. But 9 percent of evangelicals tithed in 2002 -- three times the national average. Tithing seems to be even stronger in the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, the second-largest Lutheran denomination.

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The Rev. David Strand, communications director of this theologically conservative church estimates that 15 percent of its 2.6 million members tithe, not just by writing checks but also by giving time. This is enormously important considering that pastors, who work 60 to 70 hours per week, simply do not have the time to handle all the tasks in a parish.

Strand added those who tithe in the LCMS often give much more than 10 percent. Theologically, though, tithing is not a matter of salvation. It is "no investment in the Hereafter," as Strand phrased it.

If tithing is not about the venue where one spends eternity -- what is it then? Said Strand, "It is simply an expression of the implications of Jesus Christ in one's life."

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