WASHINGTON -- "Wouldn't it be interesting," Charles Demere muses, "to ask people to fill in that blank? 'Money is ... Money is ...' You'd learn a lot about them, don't you think?"
Demere, 69, a semi-retired Episcopal priest, is sitting over a simple lunch of black beans and rice at Potter's House, a church cafe-bookshop in Washington's Adams-Morgan neighborhood. The subject at hand is one of life's two sure things -- taxes -- and this leads invariably to the meaning of money.
He plays his own game. "Money is ... a taboo," he decides. "We don't know how to talk about it and think about it. We're scared of it. I think money has a grip on everyone. Including me."
Yet today, as Americans rush to file their income-tax returns and grouse about the taxes they have to pay, Demere is doing something quite different. He is saying his refund is too big, and he wants to give some of it back.
Not to the U.S. Treasury, mind you. Demere, who lives in St. Mary's City, is one of more than 100 wealthy Americans pledging an estimated $1 million to causes of their choosing -- from foundations committed to tax equity to local community groups that have seen their tax support eroded in recent years.
The donations are based on their savings under last summer's Taxpayers Relief Act, which cut the capital-gains tax from 28 percent to 20 percent.
Those pledging all or part of their capital-gains cuts include such old-money scions as George Pillsbury, but also young entrepreneurs like Allen Anderson and Michele McGeoy, who made their millions in computer software.
"It's not this kind of altruistic, aren't-we-noble kind of thing," says Chuck Collins, co-director of United for a Fair Economy, the Boston-based group that helped organize the pledge. "People like Charles believe it's really a sort of selfish thing they're doing. It's in their self-interest not to allow the polarization of wealth and income to get worse and worse, and that's what's happening."
The pledge was Demere's idea, concocted last December when 80-some people met in New York to start a group called Responsible Wealth. His brainstorm came at the meeting's end.
Collins remembers the scene this way: "He stood up and he said, 'I'm going to pledge my capital-gains cut' -- in his words, his 'undeserving' tax cut -- 'to fund education and organizing to fund a more fair tax system.'
"We took Charles' pledge right there. Then 20 more people stood up and said, 'Me, too.' "
For Demere, the amount is relatively modest -- the cut in capital-gains tax saved him $5,000 in 1997, according to his accountant's calculations. That's not much to a man who estimates he routinely gives away half of his annual income of $600,000.
Demere's money is family money. "My father was a regular Horatio Alger, started an oil company with one barrel and a truck."
Demere grew up in Savannah, Ga., the youngest of three sons. He dates his awareness of life's inequity to a day in his childhood, when he invited a friend over for waffles. The friend, who was African-American, had to eat his waffle in the kitchen, while Demere ate in the dining room. The young Demere saw not only racism at work, but economic and class inequality as well.
After college at Yale -- where William F. Buckley was a fellow student in his economics class -- Demere attended the seminary and became an Episcopal priest. He and his wife live comfortably, but simply, and they don't scorn all the breaks in the tax code: He started a foundation in the early 1960s, for example, with stock proceeds from his father's oil company.
"So you see, I believe in saving on taxes when it's legitimate," he says.
At the same time, he refuses to pay the federal excise tax on his phone bill; the IRS has yet to take action against him.
He also has tried to choose socially responsible investment funds, only to find that it's impossible to find a truly pure mutual fund.
The first one he was in, for example, had stock in Wal-Mart, which he considers "one of the most demonic things in our country, a wolf in sheep's clothing. They destroy the mom-and-pop stores in the communities they move into."
He says this very mildly. Demere says everything mildly, in a soft, gentle voice. He stuttered as a young man and people tried to dissuade him from being a minister. But there's no trace of a stutter in his voice now.
In the Bible, he says, there were 11 occasions that he has counted when Jesus met men of power. Only once did Jesus instruct the man he met to give up all he had. So he need not give up all his money, only spend it wisely to make the world a better place.
Toward that end, Demere pockets even found money, pooling it toward something he calls the Lord's Kitty, then writing small checks at the end of the year.
"I see money as an opportunity," he says. "But I still have a little guilt, a little burden."
Pub Date: 4/15/98