Are Mormons really “forced” to pay tithing?

by Kurt Schulzke

In a word, no.  But CNN Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff is not one to let a simple “no” spike a profitable political story.  Gilgoff’s 4:50 p.m. Tuesday piece, “Romney tax returns shine light on Mormon tithing,” which attracted 1,067 comments by 6:38 a.m. Wednesday, misleads more than informs.  Among other misstatements by Gilgoff is the following which, if true, might provoke a tax whistleblower run on wealthy Mormons:

Unlike in most Christian traditions, in which the decision about whether to tithe is made individually by each church member, giving to the LDS Church is enforced. Participation in important ceremonies at Mormon temples is contingent on being paid up.

To paraphrase Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, there’s a big difference between partly true and all true.  Gilgoff’s sentence is only partly true.  The issue is important not only for Mitt Romney and his fellow Mormons but also for the U.S. Treasury and prospective tax whistleblowers. If it were all true, every cent of Mormon tithing paid since charitable contributions first became deductible in 1917 could be non-deductible under Internal Revenue Code Section 170(c) (as applied by the IRS and the courts) because contributions are deductible only if made voluntarily (meaning without compulsion) with donative intent (meaning without expectation of receiving value in return).

Which part of Gilgoff’s statement is true?  Only that a member’s eligibility for temple attendance — distinct from entry into chapels for Sunday worship and other mid-week activities — is conditioned on that member’s self-evaluation that he or she has paid a full tithe.  The rest of Gilgoff’s statement — to the effect that members are not free to choose tithing and the Church somehow “enforces” its payment — is categorically false.

The term “full tithe” is somewhat ambiguously defined in the Doctrine & Covenants (one book of LDS scripture) as “one tenth” of the payor’s “interest annually.”  Varying interpretations of “interest annually” are possible but it is generally thought to mean “annual income.”  In clearing a member for temple attendance (in a biennial private interview), the member is asked by his or her bishop if, in the member’s view, he or she is a “full” tithe payer.  A simple “yes” answer is all that is required.

Unlike the governmental tax authorities, the LDS Church studiously avoids attempting to verify a member’s income level or evaluating whether that member has accurately measured or paid a full tithe.  Unlike most other Christian denominations in which contributions are solicited openly during worship services by “passing the plate,” all contributions to the LDS Church are delivered privately to local leaders.  The tithing process is private, absolutely voluntary and self-monitored.  No compulsion or force is involved.  Finally, while LDS temples are gorgeous buildings inside and out, members do not receive tax-relevant benefits by getting inside.  They go to serve and worship, not to be entertained.

Gilgoff’s reportage on how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints uses tithing funds is also misleading and incomplete.  He wrote:

Today, tithing finances the administration of the Salt Lake City, Utah-based LDS Church, the construction of Mormon temples – which are rapidly proliferating as Mormonism grows worldwide – and the church-owned Brigham Young University.

The statement is incomplete and partly false.  It is false in that it implies that Brigham Young University is funded entirely by tithing.  The reality is that a significant proportion of BYU’s funding comes from student tuition payments, external grants, direct contributions by alumni and other non-Church sources and the highly successful BYU football program.*  It is incomplete in that it fails to mention other significant uses of tithing funds.  Gilgoff could have found these on the LDS Church website with a few minutes of research, a basic courtesy owed by every serious journalist to his readers.

More information about tithing, why Mormons pay it, and what the LDS Church does with tithing is readily available on the Church’s website.  For example, anyone can access a full multimedia training video about the Church’s annual “tithing settlement” process.  Journalists who care about journalistic integrity are encouraged to visit LDS.org and to talk with their Mormon friends — surely Mr. Gilgoff has at least one — before spreading potentially harmful misinformation.  Whistleblowers, stand down. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

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*Sports fans may be interested to know that apart from having great athletic teams, BYU self-broadcasts home events gratis through a killer, better-than-ESPN, hi-def system at BYUTV.org.  The production qualities are outstanding.

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