Romney’s tithing: A closer look

Most of the reporting on the release of Mitt Romney’s tax returns has focused on the taxes paid by the Republican presidential frontrunner — and rightly so.

Still, a number of leading news organizations – including The Associated Press, the Christian Science Monitor, CNN and the Los Angeles Times — have touched on Romney’s tithing. Feel free to check out the preceding links and weigh in with any critiques or questions on the coverage.

I want to focus, however, on a local newspaper report that I came across. It’s a front-page story from the Sacramento Bee:

Mitt Romney’s tax returns reveal that the Republican presidential candidate does something fewer Americans do these days: He tithes.

Romney’s 2009 and 2010 tax returns, released Tuesday, show that he and his wife, Ann, gave 10 percent of their income, about $4.1 million, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The couple reported income of about $43 million for the two years.

LDS church members must tithe to participate in temple rituals. Nearly 80 percent of Mormons tithe, a poll released this month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows.

While tithing among Mormons is high, it is at an all-time low – less than 3 percent – among many faith groups, according to an October report by Empty Tomb, a Christian research organization. The theology behind tithing is also being questioned, with many saying the mandate to contribute 10 percent is not biblical.

I’m a big fan of this kind of approach: An enterprising journalist takes a major national news item and uses it as a peg to explore the larger picture — in this case, tithing trends among America’s faith groups.

My overall reaction after reading the entire story was positive. In a relatively tight space (850 words), the writer included a variety of sources and statistics and even cited Scripture. The piece seemed to be written in an evenhanded manner, which GetReligion readers know is not always the case.

Still, after I printed out the story, I found a handful of questions or concerns to raise. If I had been the editor, my markup on the reporter’s draft would have included these notes:

1. Nice job on a timely subject. The lede is catchy. I’m confident we can sell this for 1-A.

2. Can you explain the figures in the second graf? By my calculation, $4.1 million of $43 million is 9.5 percent, not 10 percent. Has there been any explanation of the apparent discrepancy?

3. Concerning this graf:

“The New Testament says a Christian is saved under grace and it does not teach tithing,” said Russell Kelly who argues against it on his website, www.shouldthechurchteachtithing. com. “A lot of people would rather stay home than go to church and hear about it. All it does is make them feel as if they’re cursed for not giving 10 percent.”

Who is Kelly? Is he a preacher? A lay member? What’s his denominational background? Where’s he located? What kind of following does he have? His quotes are terrific, but I think we need a better explanation of why we have appointed him as an expert on this subject.

4. Concerning this graf:

Evangelist Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” for example, reportedly keeps 10 percent of his earnings and gives away 90 percent.

Is there a reason you call Warren an “evangelist” and not a “megachurch pastor” or something specific like that? There’s a professor named Terry Mattingly with a renowned religion news critique website. He might blow a gasket if we call Warren an “evangelist.”

Also, what do you mean by “reportedly”? Who reported it? What’s the source? We’ll leave the “reportedly” crutch to our TV news friends.

5. Concerning this graf:

Tithing and collecting money is a sensitive issue in many churches. Many churches no longer pass collection plates during worship services. Instead they have boxes or baskets sitting at the back of the church. At the end of the service, they ask believers to give what they can.

Is there a source on this? How do you know this? If there are “many” churches doing this, can you call one in the area and get a quote about it? A specific example might work better than a broad claim with no statistical evidence.

6. A broad question: All the sources besides the Mormons seem on the surface to be evangelical Christians? My understanding is that giving is even less at Catholic Churches. Can you check your stats and call a local parish and add a Catholic perspective?

7. Another broad question: You mention that 58 percent of evangelical pastors do not believe the Christian Bible (Christian Bible?) requires tithing. Is there a reason we don’t reflect any of the 42 percent who apparently do believe it’s required?

Again, nice job. As always, don’t be overwhelmed by my red marks. Most of my questions are pretty easy to address. I know space is tight, and you’re already at 850 words. How about you see what you can find out and check back with me ASAP?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Will

    Tithing and collecting money is a sensitive issue in many churches. Many churches no longer pass collection plates during worship services. Instead they have boxes or baskets sitting at the back of the church

    I know this is practice in the General Church of the New Jerusalem (our detested rivals) and the New Apostolic Church.

    Oh, and “rightfully” does not mean “rightly”. One of my buttons.

  • sari

    I liked the Sacramento Bee article but wonder why he went with a quote from Malachi, a minor prophet, rather than the stronger verses in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (You will set aside a tenth….).

    Why add just a Catholic perspective when Garza says:

    While tithing among Mormons is high, it is at an all-time low – less than 3 percent – among many faith groups, according to an October report by Empty Tomb, a Christian research organization.

    Is it to be understood that faith groups refers only to Christians? What about non-Christian giving, now and in the past?

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Oh, and “rightfully” does not mean “rightly”. One of my buttons.

    Will, Not certain I understand the difference, but in your honor, that one was easy to change. :-)

  • Bobby Ross Jr.


    Good question on the verse cited. I noticed that Lisa Miller and the L.A. Times item linked to in the post both cited Leviticus.

    Concerning your question about why I suggested adding a Catholic perspective. That was based on these grafs in the Times report:

    Modest tithing is especially noticeable among Roman Catholics, who give to their parishes about half as much as Protestants.

    In 2003, Protestants gave 2.6% of their income to their churches and Catholics gave 1.2%, according to studies conducted by Empty Tomb Inc., a Christian research and service group based in Champaign, Ill., the story noted.

    The reason for only including Christian groups is that I was trying to be realistic about a story on deadline. The writer has a Christian research firm and is relying on stats on “faith groups” — but I think that probably means “Christian faith groups” and that denominations or another word might have been better there. I’d have no problem with additional insight. There’s just only so much that’ll fit in 850 words.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Actually, doesn’t look like it was L.A. Times that cited Leviticus. I know a few of the stories I saw did but can’t find retrieve them quickly.

  • Stan

    Bobby, you make a wonderful editor: supportive of the reporter, yet asking the right questions to sharpen the article. Any reporter should appreciate you as an editor.

  • sari

    My point was that biblically mandated tithing was institutionalized well before Malachi’s time. It’s interesting that the reporter was interested only in faith giving, since tithing went to support the Temple priests, the Levites -and- the “widow and orphan”, the biblical euphemism for the poor. As to including non-Christian faith groups, the press should acknowledge and address the diversity of the American public, even in 850 words. Unless we’re quaint or do something bad/weird, it’s like we don’t exist. I’d like the media to reflect America as it is and include us in the data set. You may read the paper with a critical eye, but most people take what’s printed at face value. By ignoring minorities, religious or otherwise, journalists help perpetuate stereotypes–in this case, that only Christians give.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Here are some stats on the religious makeup of Sacramento County.

    According to these stats, Roman Catholics make up 49.6 percent of the county’s religious adherents. That’s a large portion of the population that needs to be represented in the story.

    I don’t buy that the story presents a stereotype that minority faiths don’t give if their voices aren’t included in this story. I do think it would have been interesting to include a Jewish rabbi’s perspective. But I don’t think that’s essential.

  • Stan

    Sari, I don’t think there is a stereotype that only Christians give, at least in the broader sense of philanthropy. I live in a majority Roman Catholic City (New Orleans), but the only really philanthropic segment of the population are Jews. The joke is that wealthy Creole families spend so much on Mardi Gras they have no money left to support philanthropy, so the Jews take on the obligation to be civic minded. Most of the great philanthropists in the city’s history have been Jewish. I don’t know if that carries over to support for temples and synagogues, but I suspect that it does.

  • sari

    After reading this quote from the L.A. Times article, I guess I should be grateful that the profiled article left Jews out of the picture.

    Jews have no fixed amount of giving to charity and usually make their major offerings to synagogues by buying seats for the High Holy Days and in special offerings to recite prayers at the point the scriptures are read in the service. Depending on the congregation, the special offerings can take the form of an auction, with the largest donor winning both the prize as well as kudos from fellow congregants for his generosity.

    Uh, no. These are all ways that some Jews give to charity, but these represent a small portion of what’s given and are not representative of all synagogues or their members. Sheesh! Too bad there’s no attribution.

    Stan, one of many stereotypes, in addition to big noses, is that Jews are cheap. My experience tracks pretty much with yours, especially in the areas of poverty, education, science, the arts, and social justice. It’s interesting that reporters honed in on church giving, which often benefits no one but the church and its members, rather than the whole package.

  • Jettboy

    Sari, tithing is a Church donation and not a charity donation. That is how I see the journalist approaching it. As for the use of Malachi about tithing, if your a Mormon he is the major and often only Biblical prophet cited on the topic and therefore in this article’s context rather appropriate.

  • Frank Lockwood

    2. Can you explain the figures in the second graf? By my calculation, $4.1 million of $43 million is 9.5 percent, not 10 percent. Has there been any explanation of the apparent disrepancy?

    Bobby, I think the Governor gave stocks, as well as cash, and that his total giving to the church easily surpassed ten percent.

    By the way, many evangelicals would consider a $4.1 million gift on $43 million in pre-tax income to be a proper tithe, as it’s more than 10 percent of his after-tax earnings.

  • sari

    Thank you for the clarification, Jettboy, In that context Malachi makes more sense.

    Re: tithing. The history of tithing predates even the Temple and was attached to those who performed the sacrificial service. While some institutions retain the narrower meaning, the word itself has taken on broader implications.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Yes, Jettboy, thanks for the clarification.

    This is from

    Our people believe in the word of God as set forth in the book of Malachi, that the Lord will open the windows of heaven and pour down blessings that there will not be room enough to receive them (Malachi 3:8-10). Moving and touching is the testimony of Latter-day Saints throughout the world concerning this the Lord’s law for the financing of His work.”

    Thanks, Frank, for your insight. Any links or sources that could verify your understanding?

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Obviously, we’re on “deadline” most of the time when we’re posting at GR, so I just now had a chance to read Rachel Zoll’s excellent AP story real closely.

    Rachel offers some explanation of the 10 percent question:

    A campaign official said the governor bases his tithes on estimated income, since he donates to the church at the end of the calendar year before his taxes are finalized. He plans to pay above the 10 percent in 2011, to make up for the underestimate the year before, the campaign official said.

    For many Mormons, the percentage of tithing varies from year to year.

    “In one given calendar year, I might actually `pre-pay’ some tithing and then the next year, I’ll kind of work that into my calculation,” said Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News, which is owned by the LDS church. “I think that most Latter-day Saints can recognize it looks like he’s giving roughly a 10th, whether it’s one calendar year or over an extended period of time.”

    Interestingly, though, the AP piece also has this line, which is ironic given the angle of the Sacramento story:

    The annual 10 percent donation is a Bible mandate taught throughout Christianity.

  • Will

    “Tithe” means “10%”. 2.6% and 1.2% are not “tithing”.

    Also, “decimate” means “kill one in ten”, not “a huge proportion”.

    Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the language. Or else send the killer pandas to eat, shoot and leave.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    “Tithe” means “10%”. 2.6% and 1.2% are not “tithing”.

    Did somebody say otherwise?

  • Frank Lockwood

    The Deseret News’ Joseph Walker wrote a story headlined “Mitt Romney hopes millions he tithes to LDS Church isn’t politicized.”

    The first two graphs include:

    With the release of Mitt Romney’s tax records on Tuesday, the world now knows what was previously known only by a select few: Mitt and Ann Romney pay 10 percent of their income in tithing to their faith.

    Traditionally, tithing records are viewed as a confidential matter between members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the lay leader of their church congregation, but for the Romneys in the midst of a presidential campaign, those charitable donations are now a matter of public record.

    And a matter for possible misunderstanding. The Romneys, as is common among LDS Church members and in all kinds of American charitable giving, made many of their donations to their faith through appreciated stock, according to the tax return for 2010 Romney released today and his estimated taxes for 2011.

  • Frank Lockwood

    Bobby, I should have placed quotation marks beginning immediately after

    The first two graphs include.

    I apologize for the error.

  • Frank Lockwood

    And I should have said “first three graphs.”

  • cvg

    I really like how the author bounced between positive and negative between-the-lines innuendoes to fairly contrast Mormonism and other Christians.

    For example after presenting Rommney’s tithe in a positive light, she follows this up with a question of whether it is biblical. Reinforcing this idea with a dig about how richer people should contribute more, instead of keeping on the negative track like so many stories do, she jumps right into a rather ironic dig at the accusing group: “Christians should give as an expression that ‘all we have belongs to the Lord.’ Christians, on average, give 2.38 percent of their income.”

    I really liked that contrast. It is very refreshing to see a Mormon story not getting stuck in a single meme. Maybe the trick to covering Mormon stories to ensure you dig at both the accusers and those being accused?

    The only other thing I could think to improve the story would be to carry that back-and-forth onto the last section to question whether those digging at Rommney’s low tax rate are throwing motes when his total contributions (tax and charitable) are looked at.

    WIthout a definition of Christians, are self-acknowledge Christian groups like Mormons counted in 2.38% Christian contribution average?