Several nationally prominent news outlets have taken advantage of the recent release of two years worth of Mitt Romney's tax documents to take a close look at LDS tithing doctrine, policy and practice.
Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press says "Romney reports he will give a total of $4.13 million to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (during 2010 and 2011) as part of his overall charitable donations." And she indicates that some Romney supporters are concerned that releasing that number will "fuel opposition to him based on his religion."
"It can be misconstrued if the sums of money he's giving to the church struck observers as unusual or as indicating some particular loyalty that threatens his independence as a politician," said Terryl Givens, a professor at the University of Richmond and author of several books on Latter-day Saints, to the AP.
Zoll points out that according to the Romney tax documents released, "the 2010 amount is less than 10 percent, while the 2011 figure is higher than the expected tithe."
"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," Zoll writes. "He plans to pay above the 10 percent in 2011, to make up for the underestimate the year before, the campaign official said."
Which isn't an unusual thing, according to Paul Edwards, Deseret News editor, who was contact by Zoll for comment.
"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," Edwards told the AP. "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."
But Kai Pertainen, writing for Forbes, isn't so sure. After taking a detailed look at Romney's tithing for the two years, he wonders if "Romney, by releasing his tax forms may have reopened a debate within the church as to how much should be given."
"It's not just a presidency that he'll represent," Pertainen writes. "If his tithing isn't up to par within the church — that could create some interesting complications within the church itself … Just because he is rich, or just because he becomes the president, it wouldn't preclude him from tithing."
That point was emphasized by Givens, who was also contacted by CNN's Dan Gilgoff about the subject.
"Mormon children are expected to begin tithing from their very first allowance," Givens told Gilgoff. "And there's never any variation on the 10 percent, whether you're on welfare or you're a millionaire."
For members of the LDS Church, Givens continued, "tithing is an article of faith, not an economic principal." He went on to call it "an important differentiator between devout Mormons and nominal Mormons."
Michael Otterson, director of Public Affairs for the LDS Church and a frequent guest contributor to the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog site, used the sudden interest in LDS tithing to talk about the history, the doctrine and the uses of tithing in the church.
"The principle is simple to understand and administer," Otterson wrote. "Each member, knowing their accountability to God, decides for themselves what 'one tenth of their increase' means, when and how to pay it. For people on regular salaries, it is usually a tenth of their income and paid weekly or monthly. It is an honor system that works very well, because each member has a sense of consecrating a portion of his or her means to God's work."
He quotes the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who once observed that "the Lord's plan for financing the church is captured in just 35 words of modern scripture."
"We know that these funds are sacred," President Hinckley said. "We have a compelling trust to use them carefully and wisely…. I keep on the credenza in my office this genuine widow's mite …. I keep it as a reminder of the sacrifice it represents, that we are dealing with the consecration of the widow as well as the offering of the wealthy."
Otterson outlined some of the ways in which tithing dollars are used, pointing out that simply providing for the needs of 30,000 LDS congregations worldwide — including meetinghouses and temples — required a large part of the church's tithing income.
"In addition to their tithes," Otterson said, "most faithful members make other voluntary contributions to humanitarian aid and to the monthly 'fast offering.' Fast offerings are the result of fasting for two successive meals on the first Sunday of each month and donating the cost of the meals. Local bishops then use these funds to help the poor and needy."
Otterson concludes by saying that "tithing and other financial offerings are less about finances and more about personal attitude and commitment."
"It is difficult to pay tithing and be selfish at the same time," he writes. "For the millions of people who participate, there is something in the act of voluntary giving that is innately enriching to the human soul."