No modern presidential candidate has made a show of his church donations in the way Mitt Romney has made a show of his Mormon tithing. And before Mike Huckabee crossed the line when he criticized Joe Biden, a candidate's charitable giving has never been considered fair game in the political arena. Now that both men are inviting us to focus on the topic, let's consider what religious donations mean.
In Romney's case, his donations to the Mormon church are routinely raised to deflect concern about his devotion to tax evasion schemes that allow him to pay at a rate below 15 percent, which is far lower than the rate paid by typical middle class Americans. The idea here is that since he gives to his church, he's generously engaged with others, and sacrificing in a meaningful way for the common good.
He is not.
Unlike dollars paid into the general tax fund, which are divvied-up to pay for national defense, education, etc., dollars paid to a church cannot be traced. No accounting is required, and no mechanism exists for donors to demand one. However, what little we know about how churches spend money shows that donations are deployed primarily to benefit the churches themselves. They are used to erect and maintain buildings, buy assets (like the new $2 billion Mormon shopping mall in Utah), pay for staff and recruit more members. Indeed, if what you seek with your charity is to help others in need, giving to a church could be the worst choice you might make.
The best estimates available put church spending on basic, non-religious charitable activities -- where non-members are eligible for service -- in the single digits. This is true for Mormons, Catholics and others. Paltry as these effort may be, faith-based organizations often get much more credit for these activities than they deserve. This is because a substantial portion of the financing for church affiliated service organizations is provided by state, local and federal governments. Our tax dollars, for example, pay for much of the work done by Catholic Charities, although churchmen like to take the credit. Churches also benefit from about $70 billion worth of tax break per year. (Like the special tax treatment given to investors, religious tax exemptions give religiously based enterprises a government-sponsored competitive advantage over others in the marketplace.)
The pitiful truth of church spending on pure charity would not surprise anyone who has ever visited the offices of a typical bishop (or other administrative leader) and then the site of an ordinary church social service operation. Whether you are at the Archdiocese of New York or Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City, church leaders will welcome you into plush offices that are well appointed and technologically up-to-date. (Lunch, if it's served, will be good.) Church service organizations are, without fail, provided in far grittier settings by workers who are underpaid, over-burdened and often seem poorly nourished. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between the caregivers and the folks seeking help.
Given their low priority placed on helping others with no religious strings attached, it's hard to understand how donating money to a church qualifies anyone as a humanitarian act. In fact, donations made to churches mainly serve to reinforce the private segment of society that you have either joined voluntarily or entered as a birthright. (In almost all cases the members of these subgroups consider themselves better than others and entitled to special treatment in the afterlife.) Considered this way, tithing not so much an investment in humanity as it is an affirmation of people like yourself, and a down payment on your eternal fate. And anyone who mentions religious giving in the context of taxes, is making an argument for private engagement over the truly public good.
Finally, in Mitt Romney's case, church giving is not a simple matter of generosity. Unlike other churches (including Joe Biden's Catholic church) the Mormon faith denies full status to anyone who fails to donate enough of his or her annual salary. Mormonism is, in this way, a pay-to-play religion. Without paying the tithe, a believer may not enter a Mormon temple or participate fully in the activities of the faith. This is why Mormon giving is so much higher, per capita.
Like so much of what politicians say, a close examination of giving to churches reveals nuances and meanings that contradict the easy claims of superiority. Mitt Romney's donations to a self-interested group that requires such giving if you are to be a full-fledged member say nothing about a his worthiness to hold public office, let alone his goodness. Similarly, Joe Biden's lesser claim to charitable giving tells us little about his character or qualifications. Perhaps the politicians who went before were smart to keep their mouths shut on this topic.