Tithing: In the news (ask Mitt Romney) but also in Old Testament
Politics and religion, sometimes antagonistic but often entwined, share a common need. Whether through campaign contributions or tithing, both need to raise money.
GOP presidential aspirant Mitt Romney combined the two realms this week when he released his tax returns showing that he and his wife, like most Mormons, engaged in tithing, the practice of donating 10% to a church. According to his documents, the Romneys will have paid $6.2 million in taxes for the 2010 and 2011 tax years while donating $7 million to all charities. The tax returns show that the Romneys during the last two years have donated more than $4 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the formal name for the Mormon Church.
In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Romney explained: “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% of my income to the church. And I followed through on that commitment.”
Romney is hardly alone in his donation policy. A recent survey on Mormons in America by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 79% of the Mormons surveyed said they paid a tithe to their church, while just 19% said they didn’t.
“Our major source of revenue is the ancient law of the tithe,” Gordon B. Hinckley, a past president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a statement. “Our people are expected to pay 10% of their income to move forward the work of the Church. The remarkable and wonderful thing is that they do it. Tithing is not so much a matter of dollars as it is a matter of faith. It becomes a privilege and an opportunity, not a burden.”
The historic injunction to pay to the church falls on accepting Mormon ears.
According to the Pew survey, 82% of Mormons said religion is important in their lives, 83% said they pray every day and 77% said they attend weekly services. The survey was released Jan. 12 and is based on interviews with 1,019 Mormons conducted from Oct. 25 through Nov. 16, 2011.
About 69% said they do all three, a higher level of religious commitment than exhibited by white evangelical Protestants -- who share many of the same political attitudes but who sharply differ on theology.
Though Christians, Jews and Muslims share a common cultural and geographic start, they approach the question of giving differently. Tithing is mentioned in the Old Testament, but the emphasis on it faded over the years. Jews and Muslims have religious injunctions to give charity to the poor, though the amount is less than 10%. The usual Muslim payment is about 2.5%, known as the zakat.
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.
Christianity has had a more complex history of trying to secure funding.
Through the Middle Ages and into more modern times, funding for many churches was often tied to European states that levied special taxes to support specific, often state-sanctioned churches. It perhaps isn't surprising that many European countries also had confessional political parties tied to specific religions (for example, Christian Democrats), further mixing the realms.
It wasn’t until the United States’ early days that the idea of disestablishment, the official separation of church and state, took hold and was enshrined in the Constitution.
The tithing tradition seems to have withered. Researchers have found that although about 80% of Americans profess to be Christians, and many say they believe in tithing, consistent tithers are a small group -- about 3% of adults, according to a 2006 Los Angeles 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.
-- Michael Muskal