Romney's tithing: A closer look

Most of the reporting on the release of Mitt Romney's tax returns has focused on the taxes paid by the Republican presidential frontrunner — and rightly so.

Still, a number of leading news organizations – including The Associated Press, the Christian Science Monitor, CNN and the Los Angeles Times — have touched on Romney's tithing. Feel free to check out the preceding links and weigh in with any critiques or questions on the coverage.

I want to focus, however, on a local newspaper report that I came across. It's a front-page story from the Sacramento Bee:

Mitt Romney's tax returns reveal that the Republican presidential candidate does something fewer Americans do these days: He tithes.

Romney's 2009 and 2010 tax returns, released Tuesday, show that he and his wife, Ann, gave 10 percent of their income, about $4.1 million, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The couple reported income of about $43 million for the two years.

LDS church members must tithe to participate in temple rituals. Nearly 80 percent of Mormons tithe, a poll released this month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows.

While tithing among Mormons is high, it is at an all-time low – less than 3 percent – among many faith groups, according to an October report by Empty Tomb, a Christian research organization. The theology behind tithing is also being questioned, with many saying the mandate to contribute 10 percent is not biblical.

I'm a big fan of this kind of approach: An enterprising journalist takes a major national news item and uses it as a peg to explore the larger picture — in this case, tithing trends among America's faith groups.

My overall reaction after reading the entire story was positive. In a relatively tight space (850 words), the writer included a variety of sources and statistics and even cited Scripture. The piece seemed to be written in an evenhanded manner, which GetReligion readers know is not always the case.

Still, after I printed out the story, I found a handful of questions or concerns to raise. If I had been the editor, my markup on the reporter's draft would have included these notes:

1. Nice job on a timely subject. The lede is catchy. I'm confident we can sell this for 1-A.

2. Can you explain the figures in the second graf? By my calculation, $4.1 million of $43 million is 9.5 percent, not 10 percent. Has there been any explanation of the apparent discrepancy?

3. Concerning this graf:

"The New Testament says a Christian is saved under grace and it does not teach tithing," said Russell Kelly who argues against it on his website, www.shouldthechurchteachtithing. com. "A lot of people would rather stay home than go to church and hear about it. All it does is make them feel as if they're cursed for not giving 10 percent."

Who is Kelly? Is he a preacher? A lay member? What's his denominational background? Where's he located? What kind of following does he have? His quotes are terrific, but I think we need a better explanation of why we have appointed him as an expert on this subject.

4. Concerning this graf:

Evangelist Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," for example, reportedly keeps 10 percent of his earnings and gives away 90 percent.

Is there a reason you call Warren an "evangelist" and not a "megachurch pastor" or something specific like that? There's a professor named Terry Mattingly with a renowned religion news critique website. He might blow a gasket if we call Warren an "evangelist."

Also, what do you mean by "reportedly"? Who reported it? What's the source? We'll leave the "reportedly" crutch to our TV news friends.

5. Concerning this graf:

Tithing and collecting money is a sensitive issue in many churches. Many churches no longer pass collection plates during worship services. Instead they have boxes or baskets sitting at the back of the church. At the end of the service, they ask believers to give what they can.

Is there a source on this? How do you know this? If there are "many" churches doing this, can you call one in the area and get a quote about it? A specific example might work better than a broad claim with no statistical evidence.

6. A broad question: All the sources besides the Mormons seem on the surface to be evangelical Christians? My understanding is that giving is even less at Catholic Churches. Can you check your stats and call a local parish and add a Catholic perspective?

7. Another broad question: You mention that 58 percent of evangelical pastors do not believe the Christian Bible (Christian Bible?) requires tithing. Is there a reason we don't reflect any of the 42 percent who apparently do believe it's required?

Again, nice job. As always, don't be overwhelmed by my red marks. Most of my questions are pretty easy to address. I know space is tight, and you're already at 850 words. How about you see what you can find out and check back with me ASAP?

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