Ron Lora: Religious Americans are generous – nationwide and here at home


Ron Lora - Guest Columnist



As a member of three church congregations during the past four decades, my gut feeling has been that religiously motivated people give more to charity than do secular or non-church affiliated people. I find that assumption confirmed in a series of reports by the National Study of American Religious Giving, the last of which was published in December 2014. The third report, “Connected to Give: Faith Communities,” reflects findings from a national survey of more than 5000 Americans.

Among the findings: Americans who think of themselves as religious or spiritual give at higher rates than do those who consider themselves as neither religious nor spiritual. Seventy-three percent of American charitable giving, with a median gift amount of $660, goes to organizations with religious ties, the report reads. The majority of those contributions [in 2012] went to “congregations” (churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, including radio and TV ministries), while a lesser, though significant, amount went to other institutions with a religious identity, which could include well-run and valued non-profit agencies such as Catholic Charities and private educational institutions such as Bluffton University.

Among Americans giving to organizations that are neither congregations nor religiously identified, the median gift amount was $250.

Not surprisingly, regular religious services attendance matches positively with the likelihood of giving. Thirty-six percent of Americans attend religious services at least once per month, among which nearly 80 percent contribute to congregations or charitable organizations. The rate drops to 55 percent among those attending infrequently or not at all.

The authors demonstrate that it appears not to matter among religious traditions, whether Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, Roman Catholics or Jews – they tend to give at similar rates.

In this, as is sometimes the case with research projects, investigators fail to address some reasonable concerns. For example, it is common that more than half of contributions to churches necessarily go for salaries, upkeep, and maintenance. That can be seen as self-serving in that contributors are ‘benefiting’ themselves and their own religious group. I participate in that arrangement with my own church membership – and choose to do so. In addition, I receive a tax deduction. But if a large percentage of congregational giving goes not to “spread the word,” as evangelicals phrase it, then religious giving numbers are inflated and the gap between religious and non-religious people narrows some.

The American Religious Giving study includes radio and television ministries as “congregational” institutions. Their leaders continually ask for financial support, for their costs in terms of salaries, maintenance, and promotional activities are extremely high. Several years ago TV evangelist Robert H. Schuller’s flashy Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA, was sold into bankruptcy after facing staggering costs and declining income. His son revealed that sibling rivalry was a key factor also, among whom job security was an issue. Something of the same can be said of other gargantuan programs whose ministers live in multimillion dollar palaces. It remains an open question as to whether they are built to serve human ego instead of God. Yet contributions to such ventures are counted as “religious” giving.

Closer to home, a small case: Years ago the representative of a radio program made several visits to an elderly relative of mine, asking her to support his program of “Christian outreach.” Nothing was ever said about social justice and the Christian call to feed the poor, central concerns of Jesus’ mission. He mostly wanted to stay on the air. The question persists: What percent of financial contributions to such programs may properly be termed as religious giving?

Too often the matter of religious giving is quantified in terms of cash donations. Missed are all those who give generously by volunteering time in helping others, the very root of religion: for example, in Lima, the children’s programs of numerous churches and Salvation Army efforts to meet human needs, soup kitchens such as Our Daily Bread, and homeless shelters and low-cost housing services; in Bluffton it might be volunteering at the Et Cetera Shop, Bluffton Food Bank, Mennonite Memorial Home, or serving in the nationwide clean-up and restoring efforts of Mennonite Disaster Service.

Whatever reasonable questions may be raised about studies of religious giving, religious faith remains an indispensable force that inspires Americans’ generosity to others.

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Ron Lora

Guest Columnist

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. Contact him at rlora38@gmail.com.

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. Contact him at rlora38@gmail.com.

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