Clintons Provide Moral Example with Charitable Giving


Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton, reported late Friday afternoon that they made since 2000 more than $109 million and gave $10.25 million to charity.

They averaged over this period 9.5 percent to charity, almost the Bible's gold standard of a tithe or 10 percent.

Thanks to the blog by Paul Caron, a tax professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, readers may see exactly and clearly what the Clintons reported in earnings and what they gave to charity.

In 2007, they gave 14.7 percent to charity, compared to 10 percent in 2006, 9.7 percent in 2005 and 12.7 percent in 2004. They fell well short of tithing in 2002 when they contributed slightly more than 1 percent in charitable gifts.

They deserve applause from people of faith for walking the talk about charity.

John Wesley would surely be proud of Sen. Clinton, who credits the Methodist Church with her moral vision. After all, the founder of Methodism taught earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can. It looks like the Clintons have listened to Wesley.

In Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, President Clinton writes that people give for a combination of reasons: "We give because we think it will help people today or give our children a better future; because we feel morally obligated to do so out of religious or ethical convictions."

Conversely, people decline to give because "[t]hey don't believe what they could do would make a difference, either because their resources are limited or they're convinced efforts to change other people's lives and conditions are futile. They don't feel morally obligated to give."

While the Clintons disclosed an overall pattern of generous giving, such is not the case with Sen. Barack Obama, who reported less than 1 percent of his income went to charity between 2000 and 2004.

For a leader who credits his conversion to Christianity, moral tutelage and book title to his pastor, he gave in 2005 only $5,000 to Trinity United Church of Christ out of an income of over $1.6 million. That year his total charitable giving did improve to 4.7 percent and to 6.1 percent in 2006. His 2007 tax returns have not been made public.

Claiming attendance at North Phoenix Baptist Church, Sen. John McCain has not released his tax returns, although his campaign has promised to release them after April 15, the day taxes are due to the federal government.

McCain has reportedly not released financial information in the past 26 years. The Tax History Project shows no reports.

Obama's charitable stinginess and McCain's lack of transparency are not exceptions among Christian politicians--regrettably.

Ten years ago, I wrote a column about charitable giving among the nation's highest elected leaders, all of whom were Baptists--President Clinton, Vice President Gore, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Clinton's 1997 tax return showed an income of $569,511 and remarkable level of charitable donations of $270,725.

Gore reported an income of $197,729 and a miserly $353 to charity, which drew horrific criticism.

After numerous transferred calls in Gingrich's office, BCE's staff was unable to determine if the House Speaker gave anything to charity from an income of $171,500.

"Contributions to charity is a private matter," said Lott's staff, a clever way to avoid disclosing whether he gave anything to charity.

A year later, Texas Governor George W. Bush, who would play up Christian faith in his presidential campaign, reported $18.4 million income. He gave only $334,425 to charity or less than 2 percent.

Is there a moral to this tale of charitable giving?

One is that politicians who parade their virtue and church commitment need to lead by example, not just talk the talk about the nobility of charity. What they give is a window to the state of their soul, their moral character. Their failure of give generously undermines their moral authority.

A second moral is the necessity of listening to political leaders with discernment. Christians should never be political lemmings. Christians need to do the right thing regardless what our leaders do. Our compass should be the biblical witness, not the flawed politicians upon whom we too often project undeserved moral qualities.

The biblical witness teaches tithing. Church members should strive to give a tithe without making it a legalistic rule, a giving ceiling or expecting a providential windfall, as promised by some prosperity preachers. We give because it is the right thing to do.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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