The story has gone viral: A group got together at Applebees. When the tab came a minister wrote on the ticket, “I give God 10 percent, why do you get 18?” She scratched through the automatic large-group tip and substituted a fat zero and signed it with the word “Pastor” in front of her name. A waitress posted an image on Reddit. The pastor called to complain. The waitress got fired. The internet went wild. Last I saw, one story had 80,000 comments and counting.
In reality, the pastor simply exposed something that is all too common to Christian thinking: the sense that giving to the church and to religious charities is the be-all and end all of generosity. As indignant reactions to the Applebee’s incident show, service workers sometimes pay the price:
- “I worked at the Outback Steakhouse for 3 years and we ALL dreaded Sundays.”
- “The Sunday after church crowd were allways the worst tippers. I found another line of work.”
- “As a former waitress who frequently served large parties of CHURCH members and pastors, I can attest to the fact that the majority of them were very demanding, condescending, dismissive and cheap. When 1 or 2 from the party of 12 -15 did tip they would leave pennies and loose change.”
- “I have waited tables in the past and I am sorry to say this behavior is not unusual. Often Ministers come into restaurants with their parishioners and treat the staff their to wait on them beyond poorly. They usually come in rather large parties and often leave very little tip for the poor server, who goes out of their way to care for the group.”
- “I also provide a service to the public. It is ALWAYS the churches that want something for free or don’t tip.”
- “I waited tables for over 30 years and I have been stiffed many times by people like her.”
As an Arizona child, I grew up in a community in which tithing was expected. My parents gave regularly to the church and provided sustaining support to missionary organizations ranging from Wycliffe Bible Translators, which targets isolated tribes for conversion, to Child Evangelism Fellowship which views America’s public schools as a mission field. Our church showcased individual missionary families as well as far-reaching organizations like Focus on the Family. In my memory, it never encouraged generosity toward groups whose primary mission was justice or aid or stewardship. Similarly, church members were encouraged to take care of the elderly and ill—but only those within the church community or those being targeted for conversion. Whether and how to tip a hard-scrabbling waitress simply wasn’t a part of the conversation.
The practice of tipping taps into two very basic moral impulses – perhaps humanity’s two most fundamental moral instincts: reciprocity and empathy. The reciprocity aspect is obvious: you give good service, I give you a good tip. (Tipping is the reason service is better here than in France.) But as comment threads about the Applebee’s waitress indicate, many of us give generously to wait-staff because we know what it’s like to be in their shoes. “Servers work hard for little money. A lot are just trying to pay their way through college or even just trying to make a little cash in high school, or even supporting a family.” “My friend works in a restaurant and I asked him how much he get paid. He said $2.00/ hr. and only depend on tips. I said, that’s against the minimum wage law? I need work just to survive to eat. Thinking about him, I always give at least 18% or 20 for the services they do.” Generosity is rooted in empathy.
Researchers are starting to apply the tools of the social sciences to study religion, and one of the big questions they are asking is whether religion makes people more generous. The answers coming back are complicated and much debated. Religious people make more tax deductible donations, but without controlled research it has been hard to sort out how much of their giving is simply to promote their own religion or to pay for what economists call “club benefits.” Another issue complicating the research is social desirability bias–the tendency of people to say they do good things more than they actually do. We know, for example, that self-reports of church attendance greatly exceed actual church attendance.
On the other side of the equation are some interesting studies of what are called “priming effects.” When people, even atheists, are prompted to think about religion and god-related concepts they tend to behave better. The subconscious sense of someone looking over our shoulders may be a powerful nudge for us to watch ourselves a little more carefully.
A recent study by the Nottingham University Business School suggests that religion has little effect on generosity per se, except toward insiders. In one task, Malasians of different religions faced a situation in which they had an imaginary sum of money that they could share or not share with another person. The other person could give part back, in which case that part would be tripled. Religious participants, including Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists became more generous than nonreligious only when they were told that the other participant was a member of their own faith.
One factor this particular study doesn’t address is that religion provides social expectations and mechanisms for giving, and even sometimes establishes a duty to give a certain amount, as in the case of tithing. Stanford Professor Robert Putnam co-authored the book American Grace in which he lined up evidence that religious Americans give more than secular Americans, including to secular charities. Contrary to much of the resultant crowing about compassionate conservatives, he actually found that religious liberals were more generous than religious conservatives. The key to giving appeared to be not piety but community, the question of how many friends a person had that were a part of their church: “Faith is less important than communities of faith,” Putnam said.
Religious institutions sometimes exploit and redirect empathic or generous impulses, converting them into a means of simply feeding the beast more dollars or adherents. My friend Kent recently received a mailer titled, “They’re Crying Out for Bibles. Please Help!” It told of one “dear elderly” woman in China who had been waiting for a Bible all her life. When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, a different missionary organization used the disaster to raise funds and ship Haitians much needed solar-powered Bibles. At the time of the Asian Tsunami, a Seattle mega-church sympathized on its website and then advised parishioners to pray for those affected, give to their church-building ministries (aka conversion activities) in India, and give to Mars Hill Church. A hip newspaper published by the same church, advises that God want you to give first and foremost to your home congregation. The formula has worked beautifully for them.
But the very same mechanisms that can direct the generous impulse to fill church coffers and pews can also elicit or shape generosity for other purposes. In his book and TED talk, Atheism 2.0, Alain de Botton argued that people who have moved beyond supernaturalism should adapt and keep the best of religion. One aspect of that is a structural, institutional emphasis on service and giving.
Nonbelief in America is growing rapidly, and as it does, nascent secular groups are asking what it might mean for them to be giving communities. A Kiva lending team that calls itself “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists, and the Non-Religious” is Kiva’s the top ranked team in terms of total microcredit lending. The Foundation Beyond Belief recently created added tools to build on-the-ground volunteer groups centered on “compassionate humanism.” Religious communities increase giving by making it easy and fun to give and sometimes by making it uncomfortable not to. Many churches offer automatic monthly withdrawals. Mormon bishops have been known to have face to face discussions in which they actually review a family’s finances and level of giving. While few of us want the secular equivalent of bishops rooting around in our bank statements, doing a blood drive together, swapping notes about favorite charities, or teaming up on an aid project can be immensely rewarding.
So can cultivating a sense of empathy and a habit of generosity toward folks who work hard for a living.
More about generosity:
Hey Atheist, Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is
Atheists, Humanists Resolve to Give
Giving Children Giving Skills
Raising Good Kids without Gods–Common Wisdom Project
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
I wonder whether the same forces that shape fundamentalist’s attitudes toward tipping also shape their attitude toward unions. If so, what can unions do to overcome those attitudes?
I too waited tables many years ago and I remember one large church group came in (about 15 or so) and they left ONE PENNY as the tip. We had busted our behinds to serve them but I guess they felt they weren’t treated like Children of the King.
Fwiw, the server who was fired was not the one who waited on the pastor. The one who waited on the pastor showed the receipt to a coworker, who snapped a photo and posted it.
I waited tables while in college. Never again. Some people seem to go out of their way to be rude and difficult.
Thank you. I made the correction.
As a Christian who worked Sundays through college as a waitress, I used to find the tract tippers and after-church crowd that would chastise me for working on a Sunday so demoralizing.
I’d rather they would just leave no tract and no tip or stop assuming I’m not a believer and chastise me for working so that they can eat out on Sunday.
I had big-girl bills to pay, like rent, and guess what- there’s not a lot of work for a girl in her early 20’s that isn’t in the service industry.
I would have loved to be in church, but I think we can hold a Sabbath on days other than Sunday.
The Bible says we should have a strong work ethic- I’ve always worked for my daily bread.
The Bible also says that the Sabbath is a day of rest that should be observed for the purpose of quieting the mind and having communion with God.
If my Sabbath is on Tuesday, so be it, and it’s no one’s business but mine and God’s.
On table manners- Most of my tract tippers had bad manners. It’s just unseemly to go out to eat and behave like that, even if you are paying.
I was raised better than that, because I was the Deacon’s grandchild, and if I shamed my family by behaving like some of these people did I would have gotten the whipping of a lifetime.
Also, most states automatically tax me on all sales, from my 2.13 an hour salary, whether someone tips or not.
The Bible says some pretty harsh things about oppressing the poor. When a Christian goes out to eat, abuses the waitstaff and the waitstaff has to basically pay to serve that person, the patron is oppressing the poor.
Before I got a better job, I was so poor that I lived on Ramen noodles, had to pay almost all of my earnings towards rent, couldn’t afford to go to the doctor or dentist, couldn’t afford a car and hand-washed my 1 work outfit every night.
I had two sets of clothes for days off that were ragged, I cut my own hair and I had to work my way through college so I would have a better life.
I didn’t get food stamps because I was raised not to do so, although I would have done so if I could go back in time.
So, if you’re a fellow Christian and you don’t tip, or worse-give me a nasty diatribe about how I’m going to hell for serving you your $30 a plate brunch- think about what your actions say to someone who isn’t a believer, or more importantly, what God may think about your behavior.
“Tract tippers.” I have a part-time job cleaning a church. Recently, I went in and found some tracts lying out on the desk. They looked exactly like $100 bills folded over so that just then ends showed. I didn’t really have to check them out–I knew what they were–but, sure enough, they were tracts. That reminded me of my youth, when I went out with other kids from the church to pass out tracts on the streets. We had some like that (although the denomination was only $10 if I recall.) I blanched at the thought. There are people out there who really needed the money, and all we were handing them were pieces of paper. Imagine the temporary burst of joy when some down-and-out type gets handed what appears to be a $100 bill only to discover it’s just trying to sell Jesus to him. What cruelty!
I wish I could give you a thumbs up or like points for your post. Many Xians are the worst, when it comes to low income working people, esp when they eat out on Sunday.
I totally agree with you. my industry is responsible for all the Sunday sports millions of christians (no caps intentional) watch RELIGIOUSLY! My wife and I were chided many times for me not being at church, just prior to the families all trooping home to WATCH THE VERY GAME I WAS WORKING ON!!!
Churches get unfair accommodation with IRS laws; why not demand them in other areas of life?
The election campaign of Mitt Romney stuck in my craw. He listed donations to his church as if they were acts of generosity. They were in fact acts of salesmanship and hard core pushing of a product, not acts of generosity. Their purpose was to sell to the targeted population the concept that this religion is “the right one.” Funny thing but if a brand of coffee, say Maxwell House, is promoted ahead of others, nobody pretends that doing this is service to God.
I’ve been to France many times. A tip is automatically included. Got the best service of my life there. Like your article, but disliked your unfamiliarity with the French. We Americans could learn a lot from their form of courtesy.
The only time I saw the French being rude was when Americans behaved like animals. I loved the French honesty: act like an animal and get treated like an animal.
Perhaps you were being a typical American animal and the French called you on it.
I am atheist, but try hard not to be judgemental about religious people. But incidents like this, and Nate’s reminding about Mitt Romney’s smug assertion that his donations to the LDS Church should somehow be counted as part of his “tax burden” makes it much more difficult to not lash out.
I will never eat at Applebee’s again. I leave 20% as most servers go not get min. wage.
I found an article trying to rebut the claim that Christians are poor tippers here. It includes a study, but apparently it’s just a web survey, so I’m not sure it’s all that reliable. FYI.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, so I find it interesting!
I was a waitress years ago and was stiffed by a now retired local weather man and others. The best tip I received was from a group of Asian men. Everyone else tipped a dollar or two. I remember that and try to tip well when I do go out to eat. Waitressing is one of the worst jobs money wise IMO.
Church and State: http://churchandstate.org.uk/2013/02/busting-the-myth-that-christians-are-more-generous-than-non-believers/
I would like to point out that not all Christians are this way!! Many of us find this behavior just as appalling as everyone else. Personally, I always tip 20% (unless I’ve received terrible service, but I’ve never not tipped, even in these cases). PLEASE don’t judge all of us based on the actions of these folks!!
Yeah, well, Jenn – here’s the deal. If I, as waitstaff, get stiffed by five ministers and their rude brood of sloppy obnoxious children – you betcha I’m not going to wait on the next fat minister that walks in towing his spawn behind him. If I work Sunday churchgoers after church lets out, and 85% of them either stiff me or leave change on the table – you betcha I’m going to see a pattern.
Didn’t take me long to not work Sundays, and to avoid anything that looked like a religious family or group; I graduated up the waitstaff ladder to 3-5-star restaurants, only serving dinner. Never had another problem, because the religious dolts can’t afford them. ;)
Attention to all servers! When a “christian” group come in and stiffs you on the tip, THEY ARE NOT REAL CHILDREN OF GOD! They are not christians in anyway because I know for a fact Jesus Christ would never EVER stiff the hard worker. Its DISGUSTING what this pastor did, and “she” (which SHE should not even BE a pastor, its in the bible that says women should not be pastors!) tries to throw the whole tithing bit in, well guess what you vile viper of a woman. TIPING CAN ALSO BE INCLUDED FOR TITHING, just like donating to the poor or giving a homeless guy some cash. HEARTLESS VIPER THAT WOMEN IS! She should be ashamed. But unless she accepts and puts her faith and trust in Jesus, she’s going straight to hell. I am a Christian, and I would never ever ever in my dreams stiff a waitress, I give at least 15% or more. The devil has invaded the churches and there are devils disguising them selfs as children of God, but dont be deceived, they are wolfs in sheeps clothing!
The pastor may give God her 10% but that is 10% of her total INCOME. The pastor is asking why the waitress should get 18% from the TOTAL BILL OF THE ITEMS THEY ORDERED! Can’t believe she was serious with this, furthermore, I cannot believe she’s actually a pastor.