Mitt Romney released his 2011 tax return and the media went nuts.
Every angle got explored. The narratives were legion.
- Romney gave a “gift” the the government by overpaying on his taxes.
- Romney’s 2011 rate of making charitable donations is higher than Obama’s. 29.4% for Romney vs. 21.8% for Obama.
- Romney’s tax return was crafted to prove he always pays at least a 13% rate as he previously claimed.
- Romney could have given more to charity but it would have lowered his tax rate.
- Romney’s taxes prove he’s not fit to be president based on his own words.
These are interesting times.
And on every side of every single one of those points there are voices shouting that it proves something and other voices shouting that it proves the exact opposite.
It’s enough to make your head spin. Ah, spin. That word is also interesting.
I have a different sort of question about all of this, though: Where Mitt Romney is concerned, what kind of “charity” are we talking about?
An analysis (by Business Insider) shows in years 2009 and 2010 the “vast majority” (approx. 80 percent) of Romney’s charitable contributions were directed to the Mormon Church.
As always, where Romney is concerned, the financials get rather complicated. The donations take the form of tithes and other contributions, like stock donations.
Interestingly, though, if you set aside Romney’s contribution to his own church, suddenly Obama has the higher rate of charitable contributions. And that’s not exactly the same narrative they want to be sold. Factor in that wee little fact and suddenly Obama’s rate of charitable giving becomes four times higher than Romney’s.
So the question becomes: Is giving to your own church the same as giving to a “charity?”
Donations to churches are tax deductible. So it is legal for Romney to claim tithes and other forms of contributions on his tax returns. But is it “charitable” giving?
On the issue of tithing, members of the Mormon church are required to give 10 percent of their gross income to maintain their good standing in the church. Members who don’t meet their tithing requirements may lose their “recommends,” be deemed “unworthy,” and be prevented from entering the Temple. They may also be barred from other official church functions.
In my mind, the requirement that tithing is mandatory or members lose any kind of standing in their church weakens the argument that tithing is equivalent to charitable giving. In this regard tithing is more akin to a membership fee.
I do believe that the Mormon Church does a lot of charitable good. There is no doubt about that. But it is also true that charity begins at home. And, as an organization, it is the mission of the church to take care of itself before any charity work is done. As such, charity is an ancillary function of the church, superseded by things like growth of the church. This includes the acquisition of land, the building of facilities (chapels and temples). The church also spends money on education and other programs.
The Mormon Church is estimated to be worth about $30 billion. That’s an estimate because, unlike true charitable organizations, the Mormon Church is fiercely secretive about its financial status. It has not published financial statements in the United States since 1959. It does publish them in Canada and the United Kingdom, but only because it is required to do so by law. The United States has no similar law.
Charitable organizations, on the other hand, publish financial statements. This enables verification of things like income, administration costs, and where the money is going. This form of transparency is often crucial when people decide where they’d like to donate their money. Not so with the Mormon Church where financial secrecy is paramount.
Under U.S. law, churches and 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from conducting political campaigns or intervening in elections to public office.
Yet the Mormon Church has a stated objective to inject itself into American “public discourse” in the “public square.”
In a posting entitled “Let there be light!” on LDS.org in Nov. 2010, Elder Quentin L. Cook wrote:
As Church leaders, we have met with leaders of other faiths and have found that there is a common moral foundation that transcends theological differences and unites us in our aspirations for a better society.
In our increasingly unrighteous world, it is essential that values based on religious belief be part of the public discourse. Moral positions informed by a religious conscience must be accorded equal access to the public square. Under the constitutions of most countries, a religious conscience may not be given preference, but neither should it be disregarded.
Cook is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). As such, he is viewed as an apostle by members of the church.
What do you think? Does tithing constitute a form of charitable giving? Is it self-serving to claim that one’s tithes prove that one is more charitable than someone else?