Charity involves voluntarily giving aid and assistance to help someone in need who is not a family member, and in most cultures charitable giving is considered a virtue. In the New Testament of the Christian bible, there are several instances of Jesus Christ teaching his followers that giving to, and caring for, the poor and infirm is an act of love, and indeed, his sacrificial death is the ultimate demonstration of charity by freely sacrificing his life to ransom all mankind. It is curious though, that giving assistance to religious organizations is considered charity when the money does not always go to aiding the poor and infirm as Jesus commanded, and it is a constant source of aggravation and contention that churches are exempted from paying taxes on the charitable contributions they receive. Tithing is a strange concept for many Americans because it represents a commitment to giving a percentage of one’s income that is not unlike paying taxes.
As the American people have pressed Republican candidate for president, Willard Romney, to release more of his income tax returns than one year and an estimate of his most recent one, he and his wife have remarked that besides paying a despicably low tax rate, they also pay 10% to the Mormon church. It is curious that, what is supposed to be a voluntary gift to help those in need, they consider tithing to be analogous to paying income tax, but on some level, it is easy to understand why.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, giving to a religious organization is considered a charitable donation and is an allowable deduction on an income tax return. It is a nice scam for religious people and churches because the giver gets to deduct their donations, and the church is exempt from paying taxes on the gifts from their members. However, for Willard and Ann Romney, their donations are not necessarily charity and more of a tax, or fee, for the privilege of gaining access to Mormon temples. Mormons are commanded to give a “Full and Honest 10%” of their gross income to the church in order to get a “Temple Recommend,” and it is entirely possible that, in the Romney’s minds, they really are paying a tax; albeit to the church, but a tax nonetheless. It is no wonder that Willard and Mrs. Willard were testy when they were questioned about their ultra-low tax rate and never failed to mention their 10% tithes as part of their tax rate. It almost appears that they consider their so-called charitable giving (tithing) as a value-added tax on income to be members-in-good standing with the LDS.
What is questionable, is why the money owed to the Mormon church by its members is considered charitable giving when so much of it is used to invest in for-profit business ventures. In a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article in July, they did a fairly exhaustive report on the cult’s vast business empire that certainly is funded in part by members’ tithes that are supposed to be for charity. The report lists several for-profit enterprises that have nothing to do with providing aid and assistance to the poor and infirm, and it brings into question how members are allowed to deduct their contributions as a charitable donation when the money goes to turn a profit for the church.
A sampling of the cult’s holdings includes AgReserves, a for-profit Mormon company that reportedly owns about 1 million acres in the continental U.S., and the $1 billion, 290,000-acre Deseret Ranches in Florida which keeps 5,700 head of cattle, citrus, sod, and timber operations including operations in Britain, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. The church’s Australian property, valued at $61 million in 1997, brings in an estimated annual sales of $276 million, and they own several other for-profit real estate firms that own, develop, and manage malls, parking lots, office parks, and residential buildings. The church does fund charities, but it also uses members’ tithes for right wing tax-exempt organizations, conservative think tanks, and prestigious private schools, but the bulk of the money goes into for-profit businesses with the sole purpose of increasing its land holdings, and various investment interests. For the record, the church itself is not a charity, but for tax purposes is a Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization and is not required to reveal its financial records, but there have been repeated calls to have their exemption revoked. Maybe Willard is following the church model in refusing to reveal his financial information.
Recently, Romney’s reason for not releasing his tax returns is that his “church doesn’t publish how much people have given,” and that “one of the downsides of releasing one’s financial information is that this is now all public, but we had never intended our contributions to be known.” However, if that ridiculous argument is true, then Willard would not have released 23 years of returns to the McCain campaign in 2008, or the measly two years he released to run for president if he was serious about concealing how much he pays the Mormons to enter the temple. Willard’s father set a precedent for releasing 12 years of income tax returns because, he argued, releasing “one year of the document, while it might serve a political purpose, would not prove very much. One year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show, and what mattered in personal finance was how a man conducted himself over the long haul.” It is obvious that Willard is concerned that the American people will learn how he has conducted himself over the long haul and based on the recent reports of Bain Capital’s dealings under his leadership, there is conduct he desperately wants to keep out of sight. Some pundits wondered aloud if Romney is refusing to release more returns because he did not meet the 10% church requirement, but without releasing his returns, there is no possible way to ever know.
There are myriad reasons Romney needs to release more than just two years of tax returns other than to see how much he gave to an alleged “charity.” By all accounts, the Romneys do give to charity, but the 10% tithes do not fall into the “charitable” category if the church is using one penny of it to enrich its net worth or to fund for-profit enterprises. Jesus Christ told a follower to “go sell your belongings and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven “(Matt 19:21), but he did not designate a certain percentage that is an Old Testament (Genesis 14: 18-20) requirement of 10%. Charity has lost its true meaning if it is not for the sole purpose of aiding someone less fortunate, and regardless of the tax code, to use it as a tax deduction, or reason to conceal tax returns is as despicable as charging 10% to gain entrance to a temple.