Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Paying Tithes and Throwing Stones: Judgement and Morality in American Politics

Now that Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has made his tax documents for 2010 and 2011 public, the press has latched on to the statements therein about his payment of tithes.

Romney is a faithful Mormon, or at least says he is. Faithful Mormons follow the Biblical commandment to tithe, that is, to donate 10% of their income to their church. Tithing, or payment of the tithe, is one of the items on the checklist that gives you access into the LDS temples.

Some pundits have done the math and determined that Romney's 2010 contributions fall short of the 10% mark. I'm not sure what kind of conclusion they intend to draw from this calculation. Let's follow a few logical trails, shall we?

First, there's the "A bad Mormon will be a bad president" line of reasoning: Mitt isn't a full tithe payer, therefore he's not a good Mormon, and therefore he's unworthy to be president. That's pretty funny, considering how many people out there say that a devout Mormon is also unworthy to be president. The poor guy is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.

Then there's the "The Mormon church will exert undue influence on the president" line of reasoning. I tried to follow this one, but it broke down somewhere in the middle. I think it goes like this: The Mormon church exerts this degree of financial "control" over Mitt's life, and therefore (this is the part where I got lost) the church exerts control over other areas of his life, and will tell him what to do as president. Hey, this isn't Scientology, guys. Stop trying to paint it as such.

Third is the "What a waste of money" line of reasoning.  The idea that Romney pays tithes at all really bothers some people, who feel that he is deluded or misguided in his support of an institution that, in and of itself, doesn't deserve to exist. These people feel that Romney's $2 million per year, give or take a bit, would have been better used elsewhere, and that it's a real shame to see him throwing it away like he did.

(Personally, knowing what the LDS church does with the tithes it collects, I can't think of a better use for his money. There's good info on or, telling about it from the official LDS point of view. For an outsider's view, you can look up that old investigative report from the Arizona Republic: "Counting Its Blessings", June 30, 1991. The thesis of the AzRep article was "Well, we set out to do a hatchet job on the LDS church, to uncover evidence of rampant fiscal irresponsibility. However, in everything we dug up, we couldn't find any sign of wrongdoing. We did find lots of do-gooding, though. We were really disappointed.")

Payment of tithing has always been voluntary, and it has always been confidential. At the end of the year, those who pay tithing get a summary statement, for use in preparing their state and federal income taxes - this is the same thing that other charitable organizations provide for their donors - it's required by law. And the leader of the local congregation meets in private with each member of the congregation, points to the bottom line on the statement - the total contribution - and asks one question: "Does that represent a complete and full tithe?" The parishioner's answer is kept confidential.

The church doesn't even care how big the number is. And the member isn't audited or fact-checked; his word is trusted. How much a member pays, and whether it represents a full tithe, is NOBODY ELSE'S BUSINESS.

I also find it funny that anyone would sit in judgement of Romney and whether he's a good Mormon or a bad Mormon because of this. The Fraser Institute reports that 1999, the average Californian gave less than 2% of their income to any charity, and in 2007 it wasn't any better. With only two or three exceptions, the rest of the country followed the same patterns as California. And the average Canadian was even stingier than the average American. Within religions themselves, according to an article online yesterday, the average Christian in the U.S. donates between 2% and 4.6% to his church or local congregation, and a large percentage of Christians donate nothing. Ever.

I find it even funnier that this may be used as ammunition by Romney's opponents or their proxies (including certain members of the press corps) to judge him as a bad candidate for president. This is where the "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" thing comes in. I don't think anybody in the world is qualified to pass such a judgement. Moreover, Romney's tithe donations are handled through his charitable foundation, which also gives away millions of his dollars to other charitable causes, besides the LDS church.

I think that people are trying to find chinks in the White Knight's armor. They can't zing him for sexual harassment, like Herman Cain, or for divorce or infidelity, like Newt Gingrich. (Come to think of it, a majority of the voting public are overlooking Gingrich's divorces and infidelity. What's that all about?) They can't hit him for bigotry or intolerance, although he has been the victim thereof. They can't even call him stupid, ignorant, or uninformed, as they have done to Sarah Palin - or forgetful, like Rick Perry. He doesn't even come across as arrogant or out of touch, like Gingrich and Ron Paul.

They can't find anything illegal or unethical about the way he made his millions. They haven't found any evidence (yet) of bribery, influence peddling, or shady dealings during his terms as governor of Massachusetts, chairman of the SLC Olympics, or partner at Bain Capital.

They can't even find anything wrong with the way he calculated his taxes. (If they did, the IRS would have been all over his case, and they're completely ignoring him in public.) People seem to resent the fact that Romney is so rich, and that of all the money he made last year, he only gave 15% of it back to the government - all that he was legally required to give back, according to the IRS.

So they have to find some weakness somewhere. And this is the closest they've gotten: a private and confidential religious practice, which affects only his standing before his church and his God, and which came to light only because of the quirks of the U.S. tax code (which requires charitable contributions to be reported) and the U.S. political system (which requires - not by law, but by public acclamation - that candidates for political office make their tax records public).

Postscript: For the record, I am still not an official supporter of Mitt Romney. I keep my religious affiliation separate from my political preferences. (So does Romney - or at least he would, if people would let him.) It really bugs me to see these politicians, Democrat and Republican alike, putting their religion on their sleeves, like a secret signal to fellow believers or an endorsement from God. While other candidates tell reporters where they're going to church on Sunday, and even invite reporters to accompany them, Mitt quietly slips away for three hours to perform his devotions, away from the public eye. And it amuses me to hear so many of them (I think the count is up to four, and Romney's not one of them) claim that God told them to run for president. If I vote for Mitt Romney, it will be because I think he is the best qualified candidate for the office, regardless of his religious affiliation.


Zyzmog said...

Hmm. This article ended up being something different from what I intended. I wanted to explore how questions of morality play in U.S. federal politics: how some faults are overlooked while others can bring down kings; how we judge different people according to different standards; the issues of accountability and forgiveness; and how we give a break to some people because of their abilities in other arenas.

I also wanted to explore the differences in the moral standards we use to measure sports figures, Hollywood stars, politicians, regular people, and ourselves.

It didn't turn out that way. Bummer.

Well, my ideas aren't copyrighted. If you want to blog about them, go ahead. You can give Zyzmog Galactic HQ a nod if you want.

martytardy said...

Regardless of how this blog may have turned out, you've made some valid points. I would write such a piece myself, but do I really need to when others such as you are so much better at it?

Zyzmog said...

Here's another view of Mitt Romney's tithing and taxes: