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Helping the poor: Charitable contributions critiqued

Published: Thursday, Feb. 2 2012 7:04 p.m. MST

Mitt Romney's 'poor people' gaffe will undoubtedly be fodder for late night comedy sets and opponents' attack ads for months to come.

Yet even when Romney contributes to charitable causes, debate ensues.

As reported by Bloomberg News, Romney's tax documents showed he donated about 16.4 percent to charitable causes in a two-year period, as well as paid around 14 percent in taxes. Romney came under fire for his low tax-rate which was a product of his income coming in the form of investments rather than wages.

However, even his charitable donations were questioned. The New Republic's Alec MacGillis condemned those pointing out how much Romney contributed to charity to defend his low tax-rate.

"The right is so scrambled over how to defend Romney's sub-14 percent federal income tax rate that it is now arguing that his charitable contributions -- the vast majority of which went to the Mormon church, which got $4 million from Romney over the past two years -- should count as part of his contribution to the common good," MacGillis said. "So: this April, no need to pay the IRS the full tab. Just let them know about your donations to worthy causes like, say, your needy prep school or Ivy League alma mater or the Heritage Foundation or, as in the case of Romney, a church that spends lots of money on really tall spires and anti-gay marriage referenda, and demonstrates its contribution to society by prohibiting non-members from entering its temples."

Yet New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat classified MacGillis' analysis of Romney's contributions as an overstatement. Although the LDS Church contributed $180,000 in nonmonetary or in-kind contributions like video production and church employee time during the Prop. 8 debate in California and has restrictions on Mormon temple attendance, Douthat pointed out the contributions made to the church play a considerable role in Utah's strikingly low poverty and unemployment rates. The church welfare system produces an approximate $200 million annually in Utah.

And even though Douthat maintained the charitable movements of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints focus more on members of the faith, he said this makes the contributions more effective because of government's regulations.

"When government expands, it’s often at the expense of alternative expressions of community, alternative groups that seek to serve the common good," Douthat said. "Unlike most communal organizations, the government has coercive power — the power to regulate, to mandate and to tax. These advantages make it all too easy for the state to gradually crowd out its rivals. The more things we 'do together' as a government, in many cases, the fewer things we’re allowed to do together in other spheres."

The Catholic Church is one institution that’s feeling the heat from government regulations surrounding the new health care law. Despite not supporting the use of contraceptives, the Obama Administration exempted churches from having to cover their use in their insurance policies, yet universities, social-service agencies or hospitals operated by the Catholic Church have no such exemption.

"In effect, the Department of Health and Human Services is telling religious groups that if they don’t want to pay for practices they consider immoral, they should stick to serving their own co-religionists rather than the wider public," Douthat said. "Sectarian self-segregation is O.K., but good Samaritanism is not. The rule suggests a preposterous scenario in which a Catholic hospital avoids paying for sterilizations and the morning-after pill by closing its doors to atheists and Muslims, and hanging out a sign saying 'no Protestants need apply.'"

Despite criticism of his Administration's decisions concerning religious institutions, President Obama told those at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast he was committed to the poor and destitute across the globe because of the values of his Christian faith.

"It's about the Biblical call to care for the least of these, the poor, for those on the margins of our society," Obama said. "To answer the responsibility we're given in Proverbs to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute... [These values], they're the ones that have defined my own faith journey."

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