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My big teenage rebellion gesture was running with the Mormons in high school and coming this close to getting baptized. My best friend was a Mormon. Unlike anyone else in my life at the time, her church family was warmly welcoming and always glad to see me. So I went to services for several hours every Sunday, read all the books and pamphlets I could get my hands on, and had long discussions about what being a Mormon meant with the local bishop. He was a kind, intelligent man who saw no contradiction between his faith and a deep love of science. He had no quarrel with evolution, and didn't think the Bible did, either. Please let the record state that my failure to officially join the Mormon church is in no way due to any failing on the part of this good man.

I never did get baptized. I realized that I was using the church as an excuse not to face my fears about sex, career plans, and the possibility of a universe without a god. So I left, and fumbled around for answers as best I could alone.

But I did take away from those years an invisible badge -- a sense of having once been an honorary Mormon. I have a bit of a soft spot for them. I like the fact that you have to be actively trying not to get into heaven -- well, a heaven, anyway -- so far as the Mormons are concerned. Virtuous nonbelievers go to a perfectly okay place. So do otherwise virtuous smokers and drinkers. You practically have to be a professional baby-kicker to go to Mormon hell. And the top-tier Mormon heaven is way more interesting than most Christian paradises. I'm just saying.

I also carry around a certain amount of Mormon trivia. Some of it has to do with institutionalized Mormon sexism that bothered me even while I was attending church -- the minimum age for being allowed to go on a mission is lower for men than it is for women, and women's missions are only 18 months while men's can last two years. Some of this trivia is hazy -- I remember reading one book that told exactly where in the universe the Mormon God lives, but I can't remember which constellation He's in. (I think it might be Orion. Don't quote me on that.)

And I remember one fact that plenty of non-Mormons know, too.

The Los Angeles Times just ran an article featuring an interview with Ann Romney. Mrs. Romney is not thrilled with all the continuing demands that her husband release more of his tax returns. According to the article, she told reporters, "Beyond paying our taxes, we also give 10% of our income to charity."

Ten percent, eh?

Ten is the exact percentage of one's income that Mormons are asked to give to their church every year.

Legally, giving money to a church can be defined as giving to charity.

Emotionally, it's a different story.

If you ask people what pops into their heads when you say the word "charity"...

You know what? Let's take this out of the hypothetical. I just asked several hundred people of varying worldviews and belief systems (thank you, Facebook) what they thought of when I said the word "charity." As in, giving to charity. I specified that they didn't have to like the charitable organization they thought of -- they just had to tell me what they thought of first when they heard that word.

Within a few minutes, I had over a dozen answers. The Red Cross. Unicef. The Humane Society. Doctors Without Borders. Goodwill. The Salvation Army. The American Cancer Society. Kiva. The local SPCA. The local NPR station. We Care Solar. (I hang with classy people, okay)?

One friend mentioned the St. Paul de Vincent Society, which I hadn't heard of and which is religious. Another mentioned St. Baldrick's, which I also hadn't heard of and which only sounds religious.

Still -- not one person, when asked what they thought of when they heard the word "charity," answered with the name of a church. Some of the friends who answered are devoutly observant and donate money to their own church on a regular basis -- and they didn't think to name that religious organization as a "charity," though they can write off their donations as tax deductions.

Giving to one's church is personal. It's a tangible statement of belief. It's also a way of making sure that one quite literally has a church to continue to donate to. Those things don't build themselves, and priests and ministers have to eat.

Saying that you give to charity when you mean you tithe in full may be legally true, but it's misleading at best and frankly kind of slimy.

There's nothing wrong with Mormons supporting the Mormon church. There's something wrong with using the vague phrase "donating to charity" if you're talking about doing nothing more than supporting your own religious organization.

Ann Romney knew very well that she wasn't talking to the IRS when she said that. She was talking, through a reporter, to the American people. And she was trying to make her husband look charitable to them.

I think she knew that wouldn't have worked if she'd been more specific about what kind of donations the Romneys were making. Because the legal idea of charity can be very different from the emotional one.

Yes, let's keep the heat on the Romneys so far as releasing their tax records is concerned. But someone also ought to ask them to narrow down their definition of "charity."

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