Mitt Romney's newly released tax returns provide more than an accounting of the Republican presidential candidate's remarkable personal wealth. The documents also give a rare glimpse into tithing to the Mormon church by one its most prominent members.
Romney reports he will give a total of $4.13 million to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over two years as part of his overall charitable donations. The former Massachusetts governor reported income of about $43 million for the two years. Separately, over the past decade, Romney and his wife, Ann, have given more than $4.7 million to the denomination through the Tyler Charitable Foundation, a multimillion-dollar trust the couple leads.
The LDS church famously seeks a high level of commitment from its members — in prayer, study, service to others and charity. A lifelong Mormon, Romney served as a missionary in France as a young man and as a top Latter-day Saint leader in the Boston area.
However, the Republican candidate's commitment to the church is a double-edged sword in the contest for the presidential nomination. Many GOP voters are Christians who do not consider Mormons to be part of historic Christianity. Romney supporters worry that details of his church donations contained in the tax returns could fuel opposition to him based on his religion.
"I feel 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.
The annual 10 percent donation is a Bible mandate taught throughout Christianity. (Evangelical pastor Rick Warren, author of the bestselling book "The Purpose Driven Life," is known to "reverse tithe," keeping 10 percent of his earnings for his family while giving away 90 percent.)
Particular to Mormon teaching, Latter-day Saints must pay the tithe to remain a church member in good standing and participate in temple rituals. The Doctrine & Covenants, a collection of revelations from church founder Joseph Smith, says of tithing that Mormons "shall observe this law, or they shall not be found worthy to abide among you." Nearly 80 percent of Latter-day Saints said they paid a tithe in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Mormon giving is shaped by an ethic of self-reliance from the church's pioneer heritage, and by the history of anti-Mormon persecution over religious beliefs and past support for polygamy, which the church renounced in 1890.
Smith was assassinated by a mob in 1844. The earliest Mormons were driven from their homes, often under violent attack. Settlers in the Salt Lake Valley faced food shortages, disease and other hardships. Out of these experiences, the church developed its own massive welfare system, which it still operates today, providing food and other goods from its own factories and farms.
"They had to learn very early on in their history to provide for the material needs of their own people," Givens said.
In addition to the tithe, Mormons also give what they call a "fast offering." One day a month, Mormons fast, then donate the money they would have spent on the food to their local church leaders. The funds are used to help anyone struggling in the community because of unemployment, illness or other difficulty.
In addition, Latter-day Saints are expected to donate to a variety of church charities, including a low-interest education loan fund, a publishing fund for the Book of Mormon, and the church's international disaster relief and aid fund — the denomination's equivalent to the Red Cross — which responds to tragedies such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The giving process is private, making the details of Romney's charitable donations that much more noteworthy. No collection plates are passed during worship services. No financial records are used. Mormons are expected to give according to their conscience. Once a year, local LDS bishops hold tithing settlement meetings with families to ask if they've paid their full 10 percent. The church, based in Salt Lake City, releases no specifics of what it collects in tithes annually, although the amount by some estimates is several billion dollars.
On his tax returns, Romney reported that he gave the church $1.53 million in 2010 on income of $21.7 million, and in 2011 estimates he'll donate $2.6 million to the church, on expected income of $21 million. 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. 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."
In an interview on "Fox News Sunday," one day after his loss in South Carolina, Romney said he'd be surprised "if people want to discriminate against someone based upon their commitment to tithe."
"The Bible speaks about providing tithes and offerings. I made a commitment to my church a long, long time ago that I would give 10 percent of my income to the church. And I followed through on that commitment," Romney said. "And, hopefully, as people look at various individuals running for president, they'd be pleased with someone who made a promise to God and kept that promise."