FORT WORTH, Texas (Christian Examiner) – As if the irreligious and people of other faiths in America needed another reason for lampooning religious conservatives, this week several Christian politicians (and even a denominational leader or two) served one up by weighing in on how tithing illustrates the Christian character and spiritual maturity – or lack thereof – of a particular presidential candidate: Ted Cruz.
The timing couldn't have been more perfect for Cruz's opponents.
Now surging in the polls and with less than two weeks to go before the nation's first presidential primary, Cruz was sucker punched by a blistering attack ad in stalwartly conservative Iowa. In it, two women discuss how Cruz folded his conservative ideals and tucked them neatly into his pocket in order to raise money among wealthy New York liberals.
In the advert, the ladies – who sound like the sisters Emma and Ima Betterthanyou gossiping at a quilting bee – talk about how Cruz said he wouldn't fight against gay marriage if president. Pardon me, ladies, but why would he now that the ship has sailed and is out in open water?
The Supreme Court makes decisions. Those decisions we abide by, even if we don't like them, insofar as they do not require us to violate the principles of the Christian faith. That's what we do as Americans. As Christians, we focus our energy on changing hearts.
Certainly, the high court sometimes gets it wrong (think Plessy v. Ferguson or Korematsu v. U.S.). Cruz believes they did, in fact, get it wrong because five justices departed from the originalist method of interpreting the U.S. Constitution to reach their decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, an action which created the right to same-sex marriage nationwide. He also believes, and has stated so repeatedly, that states should have been able to define marriage individually – a record which even Politico recognizes.
So Cruz has now shifted his focus to religious liberty, to protecting those who don't want to violate their consciences by officiating, catering, photographing or spinning the turn tables at same-sex weddings. He sees what is the next great question to be answered: can the government compel a financial, transactional relationship that crosses religious and ethical boundaries?
Answering the question in the negative, for those who have been listening, has helped Cruz gain traction among evangelicals who feel like the government has its boot on their throats. For Cruz to gain, someone else has to lose. In this case, it is Donald Trump, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee and others.
And that is why Americans United for Values – whose ad campaign is being run by Republican strategist Nick Everhart, recently charged and convicted of illegally accessing the computers of the employer that fired him in 2015 – dropped $125,000 on the ad buy. They're trying to knock down the up-and-comer, playing a game of political "king of the mountain."
If I was to continue arguing from Cruz's record, you might logically assume that I am stumping for the candidate. I am not. I am interested in the truth of the matter, and truth both political and spiritual. I find the ad and the response of some Christians so incongruous with my own political and spiritual beliefs, and for many reasons.
First, I can't recall a time when so many have piled on to declare the lifelong faith of a conservative Christian politician bogus (or, ________________, insert your adjective here) for his lack of tithing while ignoring the frontrunner's inability to articulate the idea that faith should move one toward repentance, or his inability to quote a single Bible verse – with the exception of the one from "Two Corinthians."
Consider the words of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whom I have met, interviewed and once hosted as a guest speaker at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He echoed the ad which criticized Cruz for his millionaire status and 1 percent donation to charity and church from 2006-2010.
"I just think it's hard to say God is first in your life if he's last in your budget," Huckabee said of Cruz. "If I can't trust God with a dime out of each dollar that I earn, then I'm not sure how I can tell him that I trust him with my whole life ... To me, it's a validation of a person's stewardship and whether they put God first in their life, not just in their political endeavors."
To this Huckabee added that he has faithfully tithed his entire life (proven by his tax records). He stopped short, however, of overtly pressing any further into Cruz's political wound. Without mentioning Cruz by name, he said tithing was a "matter of authenticity."
"If I say I'm a vegan but you look at me eating hamburgers and ribeye every night you're going to say, 'I don't think this guy's really a vegan.'"
Really, governor? Really? There are grounds to question a candidate's faith based on the number of zeros on the check placed in the offering plate?
At least Frank Page, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee, tempered his response. Page said the manner in which a candidate prioritizes his finances indicates "their caring for people and sensitivity to the commands and dictates of the Lord."
"But unfortunately, those who do tithe are in the distinct minority, and because of that most people don't bring it up," Page said.
American Evangelicals are good at many things. They feed the poor. They clothe the naked. They fight for the unborn and run adoption centers. They provide free health care. They do any number of things to show the love of Christ daily. But they are inept when it comes to talking about money and God and, I fear, prove they just don't understand the Gospel and grace at all when they speak like this.
What is on display in this spiritual argument being waged in the very public political realm, and in front of non-believers, is outright legalism. It is the result of an internally-imposed class system where many have come to believe the time spent writing tithe checks elevates a believer's level of spiritual maturity and acceptance by God. Even if this is an unintentional consequence of American church life with its massive buildings and theater seats, it is wrong and it is thoroughly unbiblical.
If something we "do" is to be evaluated as the measure of a Christian's sincerity or devotion to God, then we've failed to understand the most basic principle of the testimony of Scripture – Jesus paid it all, so I no longer owe.
Grace is that simple. God doesn't need Ted Cruz's money. He wants his heart, the same as he wants Mike Huckabee's, Donald Trump's and yours. I think listening to what Cruz has said indicates he is well acquainted with the Gospel (even his pastor and former pastor have said so).
Some would argue, as did the Puritan John Owen, that tithing is not a New Testament command. I agree with that sentiment, but I still believe a workman is worth his wages. To support ministers and ministries, we should give, but the amount given should never be used to measure spiritual authenticity or the qualifications for public office. If so, there are any number of widows more qualified for the position than those currently running for the nation's highest office.
If anything, our approach to tithing should be like that of the great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who demonstrated in his preaching a fine grasp of Old Testament tithing for the New Testament Christian.
"I do not, however, like to lay down any rules for God's people, for the Lord's New Testament is not a great book of rules; it is not a book of the letter, for that killeth," Spurgeon said.
"[I]t is the book of the Spirit, which teacheth us rather the soul of liberality than the body of it, and instead of writing laws upon stones or paper, it writes laws upon the heart. Give, dear friends, as you have purposed in your heart, and give proportionately, as the Lord hath prospered you, and do not make your estimate of what you ought to give by what will appear respectable from you, or by what is expected from you by other people, but as in the sight of the Lord, as He loveth a cheerful giver; and as a cheerful giver is a proportionate giver, take care that you, like a good steward, keep just accounts towards the great King."
Gentlemen Republicans, there it is so eloquent for all to see. Give liberally as the Lord has purposed in your heart, but make no claim about what another has or has not given, for you are not the Judge.
Besides, on Judgment Day the King of Heaven won't be asking any of you what office you achieved or how much you gave. He will ask only if you accepted what He gave and acknowledged that what He gave could not be achieved on your own.
Dr. Gregory Tomlin covers the intersection of politics, culture and religion for Christian Examiner. He is also Assistant Professor of Church History and a faculty instructional mentor for Liberty University Divinity School. Tomlin earned his Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also studied at Baylor University and Boston University's summer Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. He wrote his dissertation on Southern Baptists and their influence on military-foreign policy in Vietnam from 1965-1973.