“Our church doesn’t publish how much people have given,” Romney tells Parade. “This is done entirely privately. 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. It’s a very personal thing between ourselves and our commitment to our God and to our church.”
Last January, as he was about to release his 2010 return, Romney told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that he’d be “surprised” if it were a political problem that he has given millions of dollars to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “If people want to discriminate against someone based upon their commitment to tithe, I'd be very surprised. This is a country that believes in the Bible,” he told Chris Wallace.
Romney is not simply a devout Mormon. By virtue of his patrimony and position, he is considered among the anointed. The son of the most prominent Mormon in American politics since Brigham Young, former Michigan governor George Romney, Mitt is also “a seventh-generation direct descendant of one of the faith’s founding 12 apostles,” Sally Denton wrote in Salon last January. The earliest Mormons saw “capturing the presidency as part of the mission of the church.”
LDS founder and prophet Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844 “as an independent commander in chief of an ‘army of God’ advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government in favor of a Mormon-ruled theocracy,” Denton writes. Smith “prophesied that if the U.S. Congress did not accede to his demands . . . ‘they shall be broken up as a government and God shall damn them.’ ” Smith’s theology anticipated “one Mighty and Strong” Mormon leader who would “set in order the house of God.” Romney is the latest prominent Mormon man who could fulfill Smith’s prediction.
Mormons lead an abstemious life, and each family must devote many hours a year to volunteering and must also donate a full 10 percent of their annual income to support the work of the church. Romney served as a former LDS missionary, bishop and stake president.
Separation of church and state is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. tax code affords religious organizations, even those with vast financial empires, tax-free status. Much of the institution’s untaxed wealth comes from contributions by the faithful (who also deduct the amount of their donations on individual tax returns).
Reuters estimates that LDS collects $6 billion a year from American tithing. (The Center on Philanthropy calculates that a total of $95.88 billion in charitable giving in the United States went to religious institutions in 2011.)
Given the Romneys’ staggering wealth, in the last 10 years their tithing would have added up to tens millions of dollars contributed to their church.
And given his high income from his years in private equity, Romney’s tax obligation over the same period to the U.S. Treasury would presumably also add up to a substantial sum.
Senate Democratic leader and fellow Mormon Harry Reid (who would also be expected to contribute 10 percent of his income to LDS) has suggested that Romney is hiding politically damaging evidence that he paid no taxes. Adam Jentleson, Reid’s communications director, says tithing has “nothing to do with why” Reid wants Romney to release his returns.
But Romney’s refusal to release his returns has prompted some others to wonder in print whether the returns would reveal a shortfall in the governor’s tithing.
Pointing out that his donation of $1,525,000 to the church reflected on his 2010 return was a mere 7 percent of the $21,646,507 million in adjusted gross income reported, Nevada political blogger Justin McAffee calculates that if “he made the same amount of income he reported in his 2010 tax return, every year for the past ten years . . . he would have made over $200 million,” and, if the percentage was consistently as low as in 2010, Romney may have “shortchanged the Mormon Church out of $6 million.”
It’s not likely the Mormon church will help the GOP candidate clear things up. As Business Week recently reported, LDS offers scant financial transparency, even to its members: “It’s perhaps unsurprising that Mormonism, an indigenous American religion, would also adopt the country’s secular faith in money. What is remarkable is how varied the church’s business interests are and that so little is known about its financial interests. . . . Despite a recent public-relations campaign aimed at combating the perception that it is ‘secretive,’ the LDS Church remains tight-lipped about its holdings.”
Meantime, resisting historic precedent, strong encouragement from fellow Republicans and daily demands from the Obama campaign, both Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, insist that voters, the press and his opponents know all they need to about his tax liability and compliance.
Romney says he has been fair and honest with both church and state, paying substantial taxes and fully tithing to LDS. Unless he releases the returns, however, voters will have to take his word on faith.
Bonnie Goldstein is on Twitter @KickedByAnAngel