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Of Charity and Cruz

The religious right makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

By Hobbes  |  February 29, 2016

In an increasingly irreligious America, the devoutly religious politician is becoming a rarity.  It's inconceivable that there could be a modern Democrat of note, much less a President, who was a devout Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher even though President Jimmy Carter was both within living memory.

Republicans still have the occasional churchgoer like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee; but they tend not to get too far.  Santorum in particular has been so pilloried by the left as a religious nut to make the fact that he's still standing a source of amazement.

Yet for all that, there's never been any question that the religious conservative vote does matter in the Republican party and that it presents a plausible path to victory in the primaries at least.

Then along comes Sen. Ted Cruz, who is as rock-ribbed a religious conservative as might be wished.  His wife has extensive missionary experience from childhood; Mr. Cruz himself graduated from private Christian schools.  Though not an ordained minister like Mike Huckabee, he certainly knows how to sound like one.

You might think this would make him popular in the Bible Belt.  You would be wrong: in South Carolina, for instance, Ted Cruz was defeated among evangelicals by Donald Trump, who, suffice it to say, is not a poster child for Christian sainthood.  The leading conservative religious educational institution in the country, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, declined to endorse Cruz for president; instead, its president stumped for Mr. Trump.

Why?  A possible explanation may be found here:

Cruz doesn't tithe. He and his wife donated less than 1 percent of their income to charity and nothing to churches, including to their own in Houston, according to tax returns from 2006 to 2010, the most recent Cruz has released.

He's since released summaries of more recent tax returns, showing far larger deductions, but without the accompanying schedules it's impossible to say whether he's shelling out to the church or stiffing God.

For the religiously devout, this matters:

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.

 - Malachi 3:8

This deficiency has been noticed and is appearing in anti-Cruz attack ads.  We'll never know haw many churchgoers were swayed by Mr. Cruz' tithing record, but it can't have helped.

Hypocrisy, Vice, and Virtue

Yet here's a question worth pondering:

Is it preferable to support a man who shares one's beliefs but fails to live up to them and then feels ashamed at his failures?  When asked about this by a Christian reporter, Sen. Cruz replied:

Listen, on the question of tithing, all of us are on a faith journey, and I will readily admit that I have not been as faithful in this aspect of my walk as I should have been.

Mr. Cruz doesn't tithe, or at least didn't during the time period for which we have his full tax returns.  But he has admitted he has a problem.

We can realistically condemn him as a hypocrite.  Does it then follow that it's better to support someone who is not a hypocrite, because he makes no serious pretenses along those lines?

Consider Donald Trump.  He has never claimed to be anything other than a Presbyterian.  A Presbyterian is a member of a Protestant Christian sect, so there's nothing inconsistent about Mr. Trump proclaiming his Christian faith.

Yet Presbyterians aren't expected to tithe.  They aren't nearly so evangelical and missions-minded as, say, Southern Baptists; certainly Presbyterian pewwarmers aren't expected to support missions as a matter of duty.  Most Presbyterian congregations have been around so long and collected so many endowments that they don't really even need the money; their problem is getting anyone to attend services, not paying the light bill.

Does Donald Trump tithe?  Almost certainly not, but then, his particular religious group doesn't expect him to.  In absolute terms, he is not a hypocrite whereas Ted Cruz is.

But if you happen to be someone who believes in the Biblical command to tithe, when presented with two non-tithers, is it logical to prefer the man who doesn't care over the man who feels shame at his weakness?

The French thinker Francois de La Rouchefoucault said "Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue."  In other words, when there is hypocrisy, the hypocrites are at least acknowledging the way things ought to be even if they themselves aren't living up to them.

Consider the Victorian age, viewed as a time of uptight and straitlaced morality.  In actual fact, there were brothels everywhere, to say nothing of booze, opium, and many other vices.  The Victorians recognized drunken debauchery as something that you shouldn't do, even if you did do it.  They kept it somewhat under cover "so as not to frighten the horses," and society as a whole was cleaner and better for it.

There's a story that a turn-of-the-century tycoon fired a young employee for extramarital dalliances that had come to his attention.  The man protested that, behind closed doors, the tycoon himself kept a mistress.  "Young man," the boss replied, "that is what closed doors are for."

Was the tycoon a hypocrite?  Obviously.  Yet is there not a difference between him and, say, rapper Shawty Lo, who proudly proclaims his 11 children from 10 different mothers, with most of whom he still carries on an active horizontal relationship?  In all honesty, which of these behaviors is more corrosive to society?  Hidden adultery, or openly flaunted polygamy?

The fact is - and all Christians ought to know this - every single one of us a sinner.  No Christian lives up to the example set by Jesus Christ.  Thus, by definition, each and every Christian is a hypocrite, differing only in degree.

The only people who are not hypocrites are people who don't believe in God or morality at all!  Adolf Hitler was many things, most of them bad, but one thing he wasn't was hypocritical.  He proudly proclaimed all the evil he intended to do, passed laws requiring that government employees do his evil, and went ahead and directed all the evil his armies and labor camps could with all his might.

But - Hitler was not a hypocrite.  Does this make him a better person than Ted Cruz?