WASHINGTON (RNS) —When Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney re-leased his federal tax returns for the past two years, he disclosed he and his wife, Ann, gave about 10 percent of their income to their church. In other words, they tithe.
In that respect, the Romneys are typical Mormons—members of a church exceptionally serious about the biblical mandate to give away one-tenth of one's income.
But compared to other religious Americans, the Romneys and other Mormons are fairly atypical when it comes to passing the plate. Across the rest of the religious landscape, tithing often is preached but rarely realized.
Research into church donations shows a wide range of giving, with Mormons among the most generous relative to income, followed by conservative Christians, mainline Protestants and Catholics last.
Over the past 34 years, Americans' generosity to all churches has been in steady decline, in good times and in bad, said Sylvia Ronsvalle, whose Illinois-based Empty Tomb Inc. tracks donations to Protestant churches.
Ronsvalle's research shows that since 1968, contributions slowly have slumped from 3.11 percent of income to 2.38 percent, despite gains in prosperity.
In her view, churches have failed "to call people to invest in a much larger vision." She believes that explains why giving to missions, distant antipoverty programs or faraway ministries has sunk faster than giving for the needs of local congregations.
A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found 79 percent of Mormons said they tithed to their church, a much higher percentage than in the Catholic and Protestant world.
The former Massachusetts governor and his wife slightly underpaid their tithe in 2010 but intend to make it up when their final 2011 income becomes clear, a spokesman for Romney's campaign told The Associated Press.
Under pressure to disclose, Romney recently released his federal returns, showing he is likely to pay an effective federal tax rate of about 15 percent on $45 million in income over two years.
The returns also showed the Romneys already have donated $2.6 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the 2011 tax year. That brings their church donations to $4.1 million on two years' estimated income of $42.6 million. They made other charitable contributions of $3 million as well.
Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich's 2010 return showed charitable donations of $81,000, or about 2.5 percent of his $3.2 million income. About $9,500 went to the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington; the balance of his charitable giving was not disclosed.
President Obama's return showed donations of $245,000, or about 14 percent of his $1.8 million income. The 36 contributions went to a wide range of secular and faith-based health, educational and community development groups.
A broad study called the U.S. Congregational Life Survey found only about one-third of Catholics, half of mainline Protestants and two-thirds of conservative Christians reached even the 5 percent level of giving.
Researcher Cynthia Woolever said mainline Protestants in her study gave slightly more than evangelicals in absolute dollars, but less as a percentage of income.
Her study did not include Jewish or Muslim congregations because of their smaller numbers.
Ronsvalle and others said generosity tends to be higher among evangelicals because of their regard for the authority of Scripture, where the command repeatedly is found, from Genesis 14, describing Abram's gift to God of "a tenth of everything" to Malachi 3, in which God promises blessings on those who tithe.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, has said he "reverse tithes," giving away 90 percent of his income, including all the profits from his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life.
Catholics appear at the far end of the spectrum, Woolever said, because the Catholic Church does not stress tithing. In addition, she said, Catholic congregations tend to be larger, diluting the sense of individual responsibility for financial support.
No one passes a collection basket at Mormon services. Instead, offerings are mailed or sent in outside of the weekly meeting rite. Mormon leaders keep an accounting, and once a year, Mormon families are invited to sit briefly with their bishop, the head of their congregation, and discuss their donations.