The Bible tells us that, when it comes to giving, our right hand should not know what our left hand is doing. The charitable giving of Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain is in almost complete obedience to that principle-though probably not in the way Jesus intended.
First, the raw numbers: In 2007, Obama had an adjusted gross income of $4,139,965. His charitable gifts for that year amounted to $240,370, or about 5.8 percent of his income. McCain's income for the year was less than a tenth of Obama's, at $386,527. Yet he has charitable giving of $105,467, or 27.3 percent of his income.
But, of course, these statistics do not tell the story.
For one thing, 2007 was-financially speaking-a good year for Barack and Michelle Obama. Royalties from his book The Audacity of Hope pumped up his income more quickly than his giving habits could match. In 2006, for example, they earned just under $1 million, and they gave about $60,000 to charity, or 6.1 percent. McCain, by contrast, earned about the same in 2006: $338,809. His charitable giving of $96,758 was 28.6 percent of his income.
So, if the example of the Widow's Mite is our guide, it is tempting to say that McCain's outsized percentage of income makes him more generous than Obama.
Not so fast. While the Obamas file a married joint return, John McCain files his tax returns separately from his wife Cindy, the heir to a beer distributing company. Cindy McCain's stake in the company has not been fully disclosed, but most estimates list her net worth at least at $100 million. She famously declared that she would "never" release her tax returns, saying she had nothing to hide, but she wanted to protect the privacy of her children. However, when it became obvious that McCain would be the nominee, in May, she did release portions of her 2006 return, revealing an income of more than $6 million. Based on what she released, it is impossible to gauge the full extent of her charitable giving, but it appears to be around 1 percent-a number she may be asked to explain if she becomes first lady and makes "the encouragement of charitable giving" one of her key causes, as she told ABC News she would.
Like lots of families with significant wealth, the McCains have a family foundation: The John and Cindy McCain Family Foundation. In 2006, the foundation gave away $187,639. About half of that went to private schools that the McCains' children attended.
So what is the bottom line? From a Christian perspective, and after looking at their entire financial picture, neither the Obamas nor the McCains approach the biblical standard of the tithe: giving away 10 percent of income. And neither the Obamas nor the McCains seem to place special emphasis on faith-based giving. The overwhelming majority of the giving of both families went to non-religious organizations. The McCains do not appear to regularly support any local church. The Obamas' contributions to Trinity United Church of Christ totaled almost $50,000 during 2006 and 2007. But now those who support Obama, as well as those who find fault with the liberation theology of Trinity's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, wish he could take those contributions back.
In the end, it is perhaps no surprise that neither candidate has been anxious to dwell upon charity. When the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, Scripture describes that as a good thing, a guard against pride. In the case of Obama and McCain, it appears that neither the head nor the heart are very well informed, either.
-reporting and analysis by Rod Pitzer