(RNS) 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 900 percent.
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As wealth has soared, especially for the few, gratitude has been replaced by arrogance.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. The spectacle of a rich politician telling his rich friends that the unfortunate are lazy moochers violates every teaching of faith and history. It is an assault on humanity itself.
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.”
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)