God is watching us

Thursday afternoon. Spring Break was just hours away for most of my students. And although all of my students behaved politely, their facial expressions belied their true feelings. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock – will she EVER stop talking and let us out of here??? 

When my students get like that, I think, Movie day.

The movie of the day was 8: The Mormon Proposition, a powerful and controversial film about the involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in the passage of California’s Proposition 8. Some reviewers called the film “outstanding” and “highly emotional,” others referred to it as “propagandistic” and “heavy-handed.” To me, the film revealed the well-organized, high-powered, strategic tactics that were launched in order to pass the initiative. What snagged my attention the most, however, was the astronomical amount of money the campaign was able to raise – to the tune of $22 million. No other statewide initiative has generated that much money – to borrow a phrase used in the film, we’re talking “Obama money.” And when you consider the fact that there are only about 750,000 Mormons living in California (just shy of 2% of the population), the numbers become even more staggering. How, you might ask, did such large sums of money stack up so quickly?

One word comes to mind. Tithing.

Members of the LDS church are very accustomed to tithing. A 2012 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 79 percent of Mormons said they practiced tithing – meaning that they gave about 10% of their income to their church. Once a year, families who are active members of the LDS church meet with their bishop and discuss their donations – at which point they may be encouraged to increase their contribution. Moreover, when Proposition 8 qualified for the November 2008 ballot, LDS churchgoers were encouraged to give even more. On June 29, 2008, in a letter titled “Preserving Traditional Marriage and Strengthening Families,” Mormons were told that “[m]arriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, and the formation of families is central to the Creator’s plan for His children.” The letter went on to say:

“We ask that you do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time [emphasis mine] to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman. Our best efforts are required to preserve the sacred institution of marriage.”

Means and time. Tithe your money, tithe your time. No wonder the LDS church was able to raise $22 million in such a short period of time.

Most people don’t give anywhere near 10% of their income to ANY cause, religious or otherwise. According to one study, members of Protestant churches give an average of about 2.38 percent of their income to their church – a decrease over the last thirty years, despite an increase in prosperity. If we expand our definition of “tithing” to include charitable giving, we find that Americans are actually quite generous; in 2010, individual charitable giving totaled over $200 million. However, if we dig a little deeper and consider a range of data sources, we find that:

  • half of that money went to churches and faith-based causes;
  • people who are religious are far more likely than their non-religious counterparts to make charitable donations; and
  • only about 3% of LGBTQ people donate to LGBTQ-related causes.

Yikes. That last statistic is sobering. Clearly, when it comes to charitable giving, it’s hard to ignore the God factor. While many LGBTQ people believe in a God-concept, very few actually go to church on a regular basis – probably because, in most cases, the church climate is pretty chilly for LGBTQ people. So what is it about believing in God – or going to church – that factors into financial giving?

Whether it’s a belief in God or regular church attendance, the God factor was the focus of a recent study published in Psychological Science. The title says it all: “God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game.” The primary researchers, Azim F. Shariff and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, demonstrated that people were more likely to allocate money to anonymous strangers when God concepts were implicitly activated than when neutral or no concepts were activated. In other words, when people thought that God was watching, they tended to act better – at least when it comes to financial generosity.

I’ll admit openly that, although I do have a God-concept, I’m not a regular churchgoer. I’ll also admit openly that the form of tithing I practice involves a little money here, a little money there, but not with any kind of regularity – and DEFINITELY not 10% of my income. But, I have to say, when I learned that only 3% of the LGBTQ community contributes to LGBTQ causes, that gave me pause. What if the roughly 11 million LGBTQ people in the United States (to give a conservative estimate) contrinuted 10% (or 5%, or 2%, even) of their income to, say, the Human Rights Campaign? Or the Trevor Project? Or the Lambda Legal Defense Fund? Or to your local LGBT community center? Mountains would be moved.


Filed under same-sex marriage, Uncategorized

4 responses to “God is watching us

  1. Great post, Gayle! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Thanks, Jan! Glad to see you reading this.

  3. Once again, Gayle, a great post. Thank you. The juxtaposition of your ideas makes it all even more thought provoking. Could you post or send a link to your souce on the God-factor?

    A few thoughts come to mind for me immediately. Some of my birth family are quite religious, even tithe. But they are also rather progressive when it comes to sexual orientation and the rights of LGBT people. So, while my mother is contributing a horribly expense window to the church, she will tangle with her pastor about statements on marriage equality. My sister is passionate about her Catholicism, but withheld thousands (even got others to do the same) until an employment situation was handled for a gay music director in her church.

    I wonder if the giving is connected to religion, but that this need not include thoughtless giving to causes which are morally reprehensible.

    Another memory is of spending some time outside Salt Lake City several years ago. I had a chance to work closely with a large group of Mormons and several gay and lesbian people in their midst. I was fascinated by the tolerance, warmth, and apparent inclusiveness of the Mormons I met when it came to these gay and lesbian folks. However, I was even more fascinated by the much deeper rejection of these same people. For me it was a level of compartmentalizing I had not seen before. It was also apparent that the koolaid of tolerance may have lulled the GL folks into a depth of self-loathing that is increasingly rare.

    Finally, the 3% figure will float around for awhile, but we should remember that it is from a pretty flawed study. We can’t reliably say if the number is 2% or 22%; but we are pretty sure that it is low in any case. Locally, I am working toward 50% of LGBT folks giving 1% of their gross income. At $35K a year, that is $350. I did the math — local programs would be awash in funds.

  4. Gary, here’s the link to the Psychological Science study: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/18/9/803.short. You’re right – even if we aimed for 1% of gross income, that would be a huge windfall. Our local gay and lesbian center would certainly benefit from it.

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