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Mitt Romney's tithing: Do voters see it as very generous or very Mormon?

The strength of Romney's religious conviction now has a dollar sign attached to it. Will his tithing invigorate the unease that many Americans feel toward the Mormon church?

By Staff writer / January 25, 2012

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Orlando, Florida on Wednesday.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Los Angeles

As Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s voluminous tax returns sink into the American psyche, some line items stand out for sheer size, most notably his contributions to the Mormon church.

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According to his 2010 tax returns and 2011 estimate, the former Massachusetts governor donated a total of $4.13 million to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over those years.

Tithing at a 10 percent level of income is required of observant Mormons. Church founder Joseph Smith wrote that members of the faith “shall observe this law, or they shall not be found worthy to abide among you.”

A slew of poll results over the past year, from Gallup and the Pew Center to CNN and ABC, have all shown that Americans’ attitudes toward Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith may play a decisive role in his campaign.

Now that the strength of his religious conviction has a dollar sign attached to it, the question arises: Will his tithing invigorate the uneasiness that many Americans, including evangelicals and some other Protestants, have toward the Mormon church and its adherents?

Some evangelicals who question the legitimacy of the religion, doubting its Christian credentials, may warm to Romney’s generosity, says Michele Dillon, sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Others, she adds by e-mail, “especially some who are already highly skeptical of Mormonism, will probably use his generous tithing as further evidence that Mormons, in these voters' minds, are too much in the clutches of their church, and who knows what he might do to advance some alleged ‘Mormon agenda’ if elected?"

The eye-popping number may be just the push that the issue needs to move to center stage in Romney’s campaign, says presidential historian Charles Dunn.

“Romney needs to tackle this issue head-on,” says the author of  “The Presidency in the 21st Century.” He likens this moment for the candidate to the question that faced John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race when Baptists and other Protestant groups questioned whether his Catholic faith would divide his loyalties.

Kennedy opted to take the discussion directly to the Southern Baptists, speaking at their convention.

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