Mitt Romney's recent tax returns, which show he donated $4 million to the Mormon church during 2010 and 2011, shed light on an interesting truth about his faith.
Mormons give to their churches at a much higher rate than other Christian denominations, three times as much in some cases. Romney's donation averaged nearly 10 percent of his $43 million income for that two-year period. Many churches encourage their congregations to give one-tenth of their incomes. It's called a tithe and the Old Testament, they say, encourages the practice.
But fewer people who identify with specific religions tithe and those who do are donating less.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon church is formally known, appear to be the exception. They are required to give 10 percent of their incomes to remain in good standing and almost 80 percent donate, according to a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
A 2004 study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University showed that Mormons give 6 percent of their incomes on average. Pentecostals, Evangelicals and some Protestants give between 2 and 3 percent to religion while Jews give 1.4 percent. Catholics donate the least — less than 1 percent.
Like other religious institutions, Mormons must rely on honesty for the full 10 percent donation. So how do Mormon leaders achieve the kind of participation they appear to be getting?
The answer lies partly in an annual obligation called a "tithing settlement." Each year, Mormon bishops meet privately with each church member.
Ryan Cragun, a former Mormon and an expert on the Mormon religion at the University of Tampa, began tithing when he was 6 years old and working in his uncle's cherry orchard in Utah. At the end of each year, the bishop would invite his family for a meeting in his office. The bishop would slide a piece of paper with an accounting of how much the family had paid in tithes for that year across his desk.
"Are you a full tithe payer?" the bishop would ask.
"It's not technically a high-pressure situation," said Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology. "But there's absolutely pressure because Mormons believe that this person they are sitting across from receives direct revelations from God and would know if they are lying."
Later when he was in grad school, he had to pay 10 percent of his $11,000 stipend, even though it necessitated digging into his savings.
In most faiths, tithing is a personal decision made when someone writes out a check or puts cash into a basket. There is little direct pressure from a church leader on individual churchgoers.
"At best the pastor or authority in charge will use Scripture, especially in the sermon, to encourage people to tithe," said Evelyn L. Parker, a professor of practical theology at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
For Mormons, however, a failure to tithe technically means they may not enter the temple where sacraments are performed.
In most churches, tithes support the workings of the congregation — from building maintenance and salaries to ministries like food banks and missionary trips. In most religions, a tithe can be made to any charity. But Mormons must give 10 percent to the church.
Across the country in recent years, the downward trend in giving has meant that some churches are closing and others are experiencing layoffs. Locally, most religious leaders said they were making do with less, though they declined to discuss specific figures.
At Church of the Ascension in Clearwater, many staff members agreed to a voluntary reduction in pay. Then church leaders sent out a letter asking for more help, which they got. It didn't mean that their salaries were restored, though.
"We are straightforward about things here," said associate rector and youth minister Mike Branscombe. "We're not afraid to express the need and ask people to make an extra gift."
At Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, the 4,000-member congregation stopped transporting kids to its day care and eliminated a couple of staff positions.
Many congregations are coming up with inventive ways to fill the gap. They've instituted electronic payroll deductions for tithes. People can even give to their church with a phone-app offering plate. And many church leaders are spending more time talking about giving.
"I can go in and preach a message on giving and the offering goes way up," said Mount Zion Pastor Louis Murphy. "So I made up my mind to preach on giving once a month."
But what of the Mormon church? They've lost homes and jobs like everyone else, haven't they?
"Tithing has stayed pretty consistent," said Nathan Emery, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' St. Petersburg stake, a group of churches representing about 4,100 members in Pinellas and part of Pasco counties.
Tithes cover the needs of individual churches. Mormons also skip two meals a month and donate the money saved as a "fast offering." These funds are distributed to needy causes, including families struggling to pay the bills.
Those have declined, Emery said. But when that's down in one area, the church in Salk Lake City supplements with help from churches that received more than enough support, often in another state. Meaning that not only are Mormons the biggest givers, they are also the most immune to financial hardship.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Times staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8640.