As Harry Reid keeps turning the screws on Mitt Romney, some are speculating that Mitt Romney is refusing to release his tax returns because they would reveal he has not been tithing a full ten percent of his income to his church as his faith instructs him to do. (As AlterNet's Joshua Holland put it, "perhaps he doesn’t want to piss off Mormons.")
That theory might be correct, but it has its problems: there's no independent reason to believe it's true, which makes it seem a little like an anti-Mormon dogwhistle; it's not particularly relevant politically (most voters will care more about the dollar amount Romney gives, which will be large in any event, than about the percentage); and, most importantly, it's inconsistent with what we know about Romney, which is that he appears to be deeply sincere about his faith and its obligations.
But Romney's very religious sincerity raises one possibility that hasn't been considered: what if Romney's tax returns show, not that he underpaid his tithe, but that he substantially overpaid it?
The Romneys' tithing commitment is precise: 10%, no more, no less. Mitt: "I made a commitment to my church a long, long time ago that I would give 10 percent of my income to the church, and I’ve followed through on that commitment." Ann: “[w]e give ten percent of our income to our church every year.” A Romney spokesman has explained that the Romneys even pay extra in one year if their estimate was low the year before, to come as close as possible to that 10% target, and that they keep their other charitable contributions separate. Thus, multiplying their tithe by ten gives a good indication of how much income the Romneys received in any given year.
Even more specifically, as Kai Petainen has thoughtfully explained, in the two returns the Romneys have produced, they appear to have calculated their tithe as a percentage of their taxable income. That fact gives rise to the question I find politically interesting: what if, through tax loopholes and offshore banking, the Romneys managed in some years to drop their nominal taxable income to a figure so low that, in good conscience, they can't bring themselves to base their tithe on it?
If their accountants tweaked and offshored their 1040, line 37 down to zero, but the Romneys continued to live their usual $25 million/year lifestyle, would they tithe nothing? Or, as Mormon doctrine instructs, would they “decide for themselves what 'one tenth of their increase' means... and ... pay it”?
God's tax code doesn't have as many loopholes as the Internal Revenue Service's. And my guess is that in the event of a discrepancy between the two, the Romneys would base their tithe on God's tax law, not man's.
Which, of course, would be to the Romneys' credit personally. Paying more than the minimum to charitable causes unquestionably qualifies as a Good Thing. But here's the rub: citizens have civic obligations, too, and Mitt is running to be Citizen in Chief (and an anti-tax C-I-C to boot), and tax-paying voters might catch a whiff of hypocrisy if Romney's hidden tax returns reveal that he based his tithe on a larger income than he admitted to the IRS.
The issue here isn't legality; Romney has the best accountants money can buy, and his returns unquestionably will comply with every jot and tittle of the tax code. We're talking morality. Romney decries the tax code as too burdensome on millionaires like him, and is fighting to retain the Bush-era tax cuts on the richest Americans. That argument would crumble if he were forced to admit that his actual taxes (his “tithe” to his nation) are based on an “income” that is so patently false, so artificially (albeit lawfully) low, that he was ashamed, before God if not before voters, to pretend it was accurate, and based his church tithe on a higher, more truthful amount to mollify his conscience.
If the candidate does produce the missing tax returns, we should pay close attention to whether his tithe is consistent with his stated income. If his tithe is higher than his stated income would suggest, Romney should be asked to explain to voters why millionaires like him should be allowed to pretend they're overburdened paupers who already contribute mightily to our nation's coffers -- when, at least before their God, they themselves have to admit they're not doing enough.