Church and State and Charity

GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney released his tax returns this week, and much of the focus has been on his astronomical income and the relatively low tax rate he paid on those earnings. But also embedded in those IRS forms is evidence of Romney’s charitable giving. Over the past two years, Mitt Romney took in more than $40 million. Of that, he gave nearly $7 million to charity, almost half of which went to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon Church.

Contrast Romney’s giving with a couple Roman Catholic politicos. The avuncular Vice President Joe Biden reported on his returns that he gave $369 to charity, though in fairness to him, he said he does not report contributions he made to his church. The former Speaker of the House and wanna-be president, Newt Gingrich, fares a bit better donating about two percent of his not insubstantial income to charity.

Does faith help explain the giving gap among these politicians? Perhaps.

Mormons are known for their generosity when it comes to tithing, and they are instructed to give 10 percent of their income to the church. Romney comes close, giving seven percent one year and 12 percent the next. Catholics are also exhorted to give 10 percent, but in a somewhat different way. It is generally preached that individuals split the tithe in half: five percent to church and the remaining five percent to charity.

But while Mormons are known to live up to the tithe, Catholics are not. In fact, there are entire books devoted to the study of why Catholics are so stingy when it comes to church giving. Sometimes Catholics feel they’re just not asked to contribute and sometimes they don’t feel they have enough control over their gifts. “A popular explanation for low Catholic giving emphasizes the laity’s dissatisfaction with the amount of participation they’re allowed in church-decision making in general,” explains Chuck Zech in Why Catholics Don’t Give. Contrast that with the Mormons, whose churches are lay run from bottom to top, and who have the highest giving rates among mainstream faiths.

So if you’re a student whose net worth is sadly in the red these days, are you expected to give 10 percent of the meager income you may earn from a work study job? Or, if you’re a recent grad, holding the average of $25,000 or more in student loan debt, and working for a salary that barely gets you by, should you subtract 10 percent from that for charity? Not necessarily.

Tithing is all about the spirit of generosity. One Jesuit, Fr. Bill Byron, suggests that in lieu of money, one could devote time to service. You could volunteer at your parish or at local agencies that serve the poor or marginalized. Visit an elderly person in need of company. Advocate for a cause you believe helps those with no voice. Discover your talents and use them to assist others. Members of the millenial generation, those now in their 20s and early 30s, give their time to service in unprecedented magnitude. Might that redefine what it means to tithe? But should action also be complemented with some form of financial sacrifice? Can you monetize service? Do places of worship place a premium on one over the other? How do you or your peers serve, and has that ever been done in a spirit of giving, similar to a financial gift?

While you might not have the ability yet to give massive amounts of cash, who knows, your generosity may well just be worth $7 million.