Students in Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield’s courses receive two sets of grades. The first set is public and what a student feels entitled to. The second set is a reality check—the private grade a student actually earned. Reality checks for Americans are in the mail this week—IRS tax returns. They remind us that culture carries the day and explains why most American Christians grade their giving on the wrong curve.
Professor Mansfield teaches at the Harvard School of Government. There was a time when the average GPA at Harvard was 2.5 on a 4.0 scale—today it is about 3.5. Over time, Mansfield became fed up fighting with students over their grades. In 2001, he began handing out two sets. The first is what Mansfield calls the “ironic grades” that go on public record and students feel entitled to. It’s full of A’s and A minuses. The second set is based on reality, the more accurate and lower (and private) marks that Mansfield gives students for the same work but which only they and he will ever know.
Mansfield is conceding that a culture of entitlement is carrying the day. Grades started to shoot up nationwide in the 1960s, leveled off in the 1970s, and then started rising again in the 1980s, according to Stuart Rojstaczer, a former professor of geophysics at Duke University. “Grades continue to go up regardless of the quality of education.” At elite Brown University, for example, two-thirds of all letter grades given are now A’s. This is all part of a culture of entitlement that has seeped into every level of American education. In one College Board survey of almost a million high-school students, only two percent rated themselves below average in leadership ability. When it came to getting along with others, zero percent rated themselves below average.
Before you go tsk tsk, consider how entitlement has changed the grading curve for tithing. It is true that the more observant members of Christian faith traditions are generally less wealthy but more generous than the majority of their neighbors. Based on this cultural curve, American Christians give themselves high grades for being more generous than their neighbors. Unfortunately, they’re grading on the wrong curve.
In Old Testament times, tithing levels were between 10 and 29 percent of income (the three tithes in the OT are either three descriptions of a 10 percent tithe or three tithes stacked on top on another—10 percent of income, then 10 percent of the remainder, then another 10 percent—amounting to roughly 29 percent). The New Covenant surpasses the Old, so today’s tithing levels should surpass 10 or 29 percent.
Here’s a reality check: American Christians typically give away only 1.5 to 2 percent of their income, writes University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, in his new book, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money. Considering that this figure is based on self-reporting, the reality is probably even less. The first two chapters lay out the problem of Americans’ ungenerous behavior, while the third ventures explanations: it’s not that Americans don’t have the money, but that they spend it on luxuries and fail to perceive needs outside their own circles. Smith concludes by calling on pastors to preach better sermons on stewardship and to be clearer about the need to tithe. Good solutions—and the fact that American Christians give slightly more than their neighbors indicates that preaching accomplishes some good. But as Jonathan Swift ruefully reminds us, you can’t reason a man out of a position he never reasoned his way into. American Christians don’t wake up in the morning and reason to themselves: “I’m going to spend money on luxuries and ignore the needs of those outside my own circle.” There is a more foundational reason why American Christians don’t give away more money.
An accurate assessment of human nature indicates that we are fundamentally enculturated beings rather than rational ones. American Christians are therefore going to act more American than Christian. If America’s culture-shaping institutions took a biblical definition of reality seriously, American Christians would fare better. But since most American faith communities don’t take seriously making culture, other definitions of reality—entitlement, in this case—become more influential over time.
The result is that American Christians, acting more American than Christian, give nowhere near the standard set in scripture. Entitlement reframes what were once considered luxuries into necessities today. Americans then spend over 98 percent of their income on what they imagine as being “essential” and entitled to. But you can’t mortgage a home to the hilt, lease the latest vehicle, purchase everything you feel entitled to—and give over 10 or 29 percent of your income. Praying doesn’t change the equation since God doesn’t rejigger reality for irresponsible individuals. Nor is better preaching the total solution, since people can’t give what’s already spoken for. Cultures win because they are antecedent to choice. That’s why the business of making culture is more critical than asking people to choose to give because, “at crucial moments of choice,” Iris Murdoch cautioned, “most of the business of choosing is already over.”
At the end of the day, cultures create what becomes reflexive. “When you give to the needy,” Jesus said, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt. 6:3). When the left hand simply does not know what the right hand is doing, generosity has become reflexive. At this point, the reflexive move for most American Christians is to give themselves high marks for tithing more than their neighbors, lots of A’s and A minuses. God’s kingdom grades on a different curve.
Professor Mansfield recognizes that two sets of grades is not a solution. The difference between the two ought to create dissonance in the minds of a few Harvard students. Perhaps a little dissonance will be created in the minds of American Christians as they complete their tax returns this year. Dissonance might make them demand that their faith community begin taking the business of making culture more seriously.