The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Getting back on the path to decency

Nothing will get better in our troubled and divided nation until we take to heart three lessons about what it means to be a decent person.

First, give back to God.

In researching trends in giving, I was shocked to discover that more than 50 percent of those who attend Episcopal congregations give nothing at all — not a dime — to their churches. Giving has plummeted 50 percent over the past 20 years, even as personal income has soared.

Across mainline Protestant traditions, giving has sagged to 2 percent of household income — one-fifth of the biblical tithe. Even conservative traditions that teach the tithe give at only the 3 percent level, and Roman Catholics give 1.5 percent of income.

As wealth has skyrocketed, especially for the few, gratitude has been replaced by arrogance. We earned it, say the lucky, and we deserve to keep it. Trouble is, that wealth would vanish were it not for bailouts, government protections, tax breaks, and a complex infrastructure of education, technology, transportation and laws that they feel entitled to exploit but not obligated to support.

It's time we learned that what we have came from God. The fortunate have a fundamental obligation to give back to God. As long as we cling to wealth as if mammon were God, we will remain shallow and self-serving, and thus self-defeating.

Second, help the unfortunate.

The myth of rugged individualism is nonsense. Any society worth perpetuating learns charity, not hoarding. It is our God-given nature to help the child in danger, the elderly person who falls, the victim of assault. Labeling the unfortunate as lazy moochers violates every teaching of faith and history.

A decent society's moral foundation rests on sharing, not on building bigger barns. This is what Christianity teaches — what Jesus called caring for the "least of these." It is what Judaism teaches — giving from the harvest to benefit widows and orphans. If I understand correctly, caring for the weak is a core teaching of Islam.

It couldn't be more basic. Haves must care for have-nots. The fortunate must care for the unfortunate. The healthy care for the sick, the strong care for the weak. This isn't some radical concept designed to separate rugged individualists from their hard-earned wealth. It is a basic tenet of civilization.

Third, tell the truth.

No matter how fashionable and politically expedient it may be, dishonesty undermines society. We cannot possibly enact and enforce enough laws to protect people from cheats, thieves, liars and predators.

For society to endure, citizens must embrace a basic level of honesty. Otherwise, children cannot play safely outside their doors, neighbors cannot borrow tools, shoppers cannot trust products, patients cannot trust physicians and pharmaceuticals, contracts mean nothing, promises mean nothing, marital vows mean nothing, friendships mean nothing.

Big lies lead to demagoguery and oppression. Medium-sized lies lead to shattered trust and confidence. Small lies eviscerate families.

When politicians lie with reckless abandon, when business leaders treat dishonesty as slick strategy, they guarantee not only their own downfall but the collapse of the society that they claim to lead.

As a lawyer named Joseph Welch told a demagogue named Joe McCarthy at a low point in American history, if we have no "decency," all we have left is "cruelty" and "recklessness." 


Katherine Harms

Katherine Harms

Posted at 12:22 pm (U.S. Eastern) 10/16/2012

Patricia Kennedy

Patricia Kennedy

Posted at 1:34 pm (U.S. Eastern) 10/16/2012

I was shocked just last week to read that in Germany, if you claim to be a Christian, you must pay a church tax.  Those who do not pay their church tax cannot receive the sacraments, be married in the church, or recieve a church burial.  Both the Catholic and Protestant churches are doing this.  The practice was endorsed by the Pope.  Why are churches all over the world resorting to these tactics?  I believe it is because we have identified too much with a building and the laws and traditions that accompany the building and have lost our focus on the message. Much of our time and money is directed to the upkeep of the building and keeping up the traditions of our church.  I stopped giving as much to my church two years ago when they were proposing a $750,000 remodel project.  I was horrified.  If we could raise that kind of money, why would we spend it on a glass partitian, carpet, repositioning the pews, and a host of other "improvements".  What we really needed was an elevator which would have cost much less.  At that point I started directing a large portion of my offerings directly to organizations and causes that I felt would better serve the poor, needy, and forgotten.  Churches are so mired in tradition and building upkeep, they can't get past their front doors in many cases to reach out to those who are not part of the traditional church scene.  Jesus moved from place to place. He reached out to the most destitute and needy.  While church buildings and traditions may have a purpose, in many cases they have caused the church to become root bound unable to go beyond the confines of the building.  Unable to reach those who need the message the most. When we are not doing the real work of the spirit, the church withers.

John Mundinger

John Mundinger

Posted at 2:51 pm (U.S. Eastern) 10/16/2012

This article deserves broader distribution than just a posting on the Lutheran's website.

Lori Spangler

Lori Spangler

Posted at 5:06 pm (U.S. Eastern) 10/16/2012

Walter Campbell

Walter Campbell

Posted at 1:58 am (U.S. Eastern) 10/16/2012

This is a wonderful article, and I agree with John Mundinger: It deserves broad distribution.

Carolyn Haas

Carolyn Haas

Posted at 10:13 am (U.S. Eastern) 10/17/2012

What a terrific article!  I plan on sharing it with fellow council members and my confirmation group. Thanks!

@Patricia - if I recall correctly, that's how chuch membership has been in Germany and some other European countries since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. You can attend a different church, but your tax money goes to the church in your neighborhood/town/region.

A friend of mine of Swedish ancestry tells of her people coming to America to get away from the State (Lutheran) religion and it's taxes. 

Wasn't it in Luther's time that whatever religion your regional prince was, that's what you were - period? And you were required to support it?

Anyway, I loved the article!

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