Why Does Mitt Cheat His Country But Not His Church?

As tax day approaches, the presidential campaign has looked like this: 1) Buffet rule. 2) Mitt’s taxes 3) Who gives to charity.

In an attempt to shift focus away from Mitt’s efforts to make sure other rich people like him don’t have to pay taxes, John Sununu suggested that Obama and Biden don’t give enough to charity.

When Joe Biden went to New Hampshire on Thursday to attack Mitt Romney’s tax proposals, the Romney campaign greeted Biden by attacking President Barack Obama’s charitable giving rate. On a campaign conference call with reporters, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney backer, said the following:

In their own private lives, it would be nice to see some contributions to charity that are significant out of President Obama and Joe Biden. I think it is an interesting contrast to make with the presidential candidate the Republicans have now put together a nomination for, that is Mitt Romney, former Governor Romney, who gave almost 15% of his income last year to charity.

In response, the White House has released the Obamas’ taxes, showing they donated 22% of their income, a higher percentage than they paid in taxes.

I expect we’ll dwell on this for a while, but the entire tax versus charity debate ignores one thing: 10% of Mitt’s money, by Mormon Church rule, goes to the Church. The only debate (and it is a big debate in some quarters) is whether that 10% is pre- or post-tax. So when Sununu boasts that 15% of Mitt’s income goes to charity, what he really means is Mitt gives 5% after paying the amount required to pay by his Church.

All that got me thinking. Why is it that Mitt cheats his country but not his Church? That is, why is it that Mitt pays his 10% without trying to squirrel money away in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands, but doesn’t pay 32% like other rich people? The money largely goes to pay for similar things: bureaucracy, education, welfare, the extension of soft power around the globe (luckily for the Mormon Church, it can rely on the US for its hard power and so doesn’t have to tax Mitt as much). The Church invests heavily in political donations to make sure gay men and women are treated unequally before the law. The Mormon Church tithe even pays for social and recreational events, the kind of thing Republicans would scream about if Democrats suggested paying for them).

Partly it may be an ideological issue. That is, it’s not so much that Republicans don’t want nice things like education, welfare, and social events. Rather, they want to supply those goods via a range of churches, which not only get to demand moral behavior from members, but also don’t have the authority to limit profit-making ventures (indeed, the Mormon Church is noted for its successful profit-making ventures).

But I also think it’s the means the two institutions use to get people to pay their taxes. It’s not just that the IRS doesn’t check whether the rich pay their fair share; fewer than a half percent of the very rich will be audited. But it’s also the way in which–at least as reported by friends and as I could understand from the outside–the recognition and influence within the Church are doled out to those who perform their tithe generously. Want to be a bishop? Pay your tithe (and it also helps if you’re successful in business). Want to be stake president? Pay your tithe.

In other words, Mitt would never ever have achieved the leadership he did in the Church if not for tithing generously and willingly.

We exact no such requirement from our government leaders. Even Obama’s paying a far lower tax rate than I am, to say nothing of the measly taxes Mitt pays after sending his money off to tax shelters around the globe. And yet we let him run for office as if he’s a citizen in good standing.

If the Mitt campaign thinks it’s fair to consider charitable donations along with taxes (and Mitt has long pointed to the combined number as proof that he’s not stingy), then it’s fair to ask why he cheats his country of taxes but not his Church of tithing.

12 replies
  1. Phil Perspective says:

    I expect we’ll dwell on this for a while, but the entire tax versus charity debate ignores one thing: 10% of Mitt’s money, by Mormon Church rule, goes to the Church.

    I bet it’s pre-tax, as they want the biggest share possible. Especially as it’s easy now to track Mitt’s money(kinda) since he’s a public figure running for public office.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Phil Perspective: The discussions I was a part of when I was in UT suggestd that some people gave pre-tax, some post-tax, and it was another thing the Church would measure your commitment on if they thought you were giving post-tax.

  3. greengiant says:

    Biden was on TV asking the audience, how many of you have Swiss bank accounts?

    Never fails to amaze me how the Republican base can vote for tax minimizers/avaders.

  4. Bob Schacht says:

    @Bay State Librul: I can guess: They had some PR people look over his return before he submitted it, and they told him, “This is gonna look bad,” and “Your overall rate is too low and will attract attention” and stuff like that, so they need a few months to massage his numbers so that he won’t look like such an elite 1%er.

    Bob in AZ

  5. OL says:

    The thing is, if you do not pay tithe you lose status of being a member in good standing and therefore cannot participate in the most important ceremonies in the Mormon Church, including temple endowments / marriage, being sealed to your family for time and all eternity, performing baptisms, which means you are ostracized from the community, constructively shunned, as well. There’s more to it than that, of course, including the body of the idea of eternal progression, but the point is that tithing per se is a bedrock requirement. Being perceived that tithe is God’s law, it has infinitely greater hierarchical importance than Man’s law, so to speak. And also doesn’t generally ameliorate the common business position that if something is “legal” one does not need to be concerned about the moral ethics. That’s why some perceive Cayman Islands as a kind of blessing: Theirs.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @OL: Thanks–that’s sort of what I was trying to get at, though didn’t do nearly as well.

    I was trying to point out how beyond question this is, and sort of wondering what happened to our civic culture that used to say taxes had the same (okay, not as much, but still an unquestioned duty) weight.

  7. redfirecracker says:

    I always thought much of his income is from dividends (that is the VC model) and that dividends are currently taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income… and that was why his tax rate was fairly low.

    I was really impressed by the analysis of the Zimmerman affidavit. I wish that was the case here.

  8. emptywheel says:

    @redfirecracker: Nope, sorry. He also uses a slew of tax shelters to get his income in other countries. He’s a normal rich tax cheat, just like everyone else who cares more about his pocket book than his country.

  9. redfirecracker says:

    When I did my taxes this year I itemized rather than take the standard deduction because that made my tax bill lower. Does that make me a cheater? Does that mean I don’t care about my country?

  10. joberly says:

    Hello, EW: I spent much of the weekend working on taxes, and from time-to-time, I’d compare my married-joint returns to those of Willard M. and Ann D. Romney that the couple released for Tax Year 2010. The first thing that struck me is that the Romneys don’t tithe. Their adjusted gross income (line 37 of their 1040) was $21,646,507. A 10 percent contribution would have been $2.1647M. The Romneys gave $1,525,000 to the LDS and another $167 in cash to some other charity. That’s a rate of 7 percent. They also gave $1,458,807 to the “Tyler Foundation” which is their family-controlled vehicle for making re-grants. That’ almost another 7 percent. Even after-tax, the Romneys gave less than 9 percent to the LDS.

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