Study reveals church-goers give more to churches than people who don’t go to church give to those churches

Here’s a headline from Christianity Today:Religious States Donate More to Charity Than Secular States.”

It’s about a new report from the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The problem with that headline is that, well, that’s not actually what the study says.

From CT’s Melissa Steffan:

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Americans in Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina gave the highest percentages of their discretionary income to charity. Of these, only Utah averaged more than 10 percent.

The correlation between the religious preferences of Americans in those states — high density of Mormons in Utah and Protestant Christians in the Bible Belt South — is notable. The report concludes that donors in the most generous region, the South, “give roughly 5.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity — both to religious and to secular groups — compared with donors in the Northeast, who give 4.0 percent.”

Ah, so then giving to “charity” includes giving “both to religious and secular groups.” Like, say, to your church.

So, did the Chronicle also look at such “charitable” giving if donations to churches are not included? Yes, actually, they did.

However, the data also indicate that “the generosity ranking changes when religion is taken out of the picture. People in the Northeast give the most, providing 1.4 percent of their discretionary income to secular charities, compared with those in the South, who give 0.9 percent.”

In other words, pretty much the opposite of Christianity Today’s triumphalist headline. The study actually shows that the religious are much more likely to give to religion. Church members, apparently, are likelier to donate to their churches than non-church members are.

What a remarkable finding. How surprising. How newsworthy.

Set aside those “charitable” donations to local churches, and the study shows that the churchier regions are generally stingier toward “secular” charities. You know, like those secular categories of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.

Speaking of that passage from Matthew 25, I learned today — also via Steffan at CT’s blog — that Mitt Romney cites Matthew 25:35-36 as a favorite Bible verse:

He quoted Matthew 25:35-36 in the King James Version, which states, “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me.”

That’s … unexpected. I’d have guessed Romney’s favorite was something more like 2 Thessalonians 3:10.

For the record, President Barack Obama mentioned Isaiah 40:31, which was always the senior yearbook quote for at least three students every year at my Christian school:

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

And Obama also cheated by sneaking in a second favorite passage, Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Selah, Selah, Selah.

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  • I know some of those churches do support mission projects that feed the hungry, visit prisoners, and the like, but if they are anything like my church:

    1) Often the money does not come from the church budget, but from fund raisers and additional donations,

    2) The help offered to those in need is used in order to evangelize, not given simply because those folks need it, and 

    3) IMO, they can’t really compete with the help offered by non-profit groups who focus on one particular mission and use professional help along with volunteers to fill that mission.

    A lot of the efforts I see coming from people in my church I see as dabbling. I know they mean well, and they do more good than harm, but I think my 36 years spent as a professional SLP working with special needs children was more of a mission than all the baking I’ve done for church fundraisers.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Raw Story of all places printed the Christianity Today headline and the article itself didn’t point out the obvious fallacy of assuming the churches are identical to charities. My aunt and uncle, for instance tithe to the Catholic Church. Some of that money will eventually make its way to Catholic Charities, and some of that money will be used to provide charity, but only after the parish, diocese, and Vatican take their cut.

  • nerdycellist

    What makes it worse in Romney’s case is that Mormon charity is even less charitable than most other Christian charities; my Episcopal church feeds the homeless and provides meals to those waiting at the county AIDS clinic regardless of creed. Mormon “charity” comes with strings attached and pretty much only goes to other tithe-paying Mormons. My parents went on church welfare to stay off the government dole for a brief period of time when Dad was on disability. They were expected t0 “pay back” by working at the distribution center (which they did). This may be an interesting case of Mormons Take Care of Their Own, but it can hardly count as “charity”.

  • Magic_Cracker

    What you are describing, nerdycellist, sounds like mutual aid to me, which is not a bad thing, but also is not charity.

  • Loki100

    Eliminating a few careful facts to make it seem like people are more generous than they actually are? This reminds me of someone who told me…

    Romney donated his inheritance to charities and started from scratch.

    Of course what they did not tell me was that Romney donated his inheritance to charities because he had already been running Bain Capital for over a decade when he got his inheritance. And the idea that he started from scratch is laughably false.

  • Light_Sleeper

    Sweet! I pay membership dues to various groups I belong to — I will henceforth consider all those funds to be “charity.” Now that I know the criteria, I’m a very munificent guy.

    The Red Cross passes through 90%+ to the needy. *That’s* a charity.

  • Julian Elson

    It seems to me that there are three (maybe four) necessary categories here, perhaps:

    1) Churches, using their funds to administer their services, maintain their facilities, pay their staff, etc, but not helping anyone outside the church.

    2) Secular charities, like Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontières, etc, that help people without having a religious mission.

    3) Religious charities, like the Salvation Army, Catholic Relief Services, the Tzu Chi foundation, etc, that help people outside their institutional bounds, but also are based on “religious” principles and are not “secular.”

    I’m not sure to how the 2.6% that Northeasterners or the 4.3% that Southerners give to “religious” charities is divided between non-charitable churches using funds for administration and religious charities which have both a religious mission and genuinely charitable aspects.

    (To be more complete, it might also be good to note that there are probably some “secular charities” that should be counted more like churches (i.e., the funds are used to help the recipient organization (which is fine, but not charity), not help outsiders: many donations to universities should probably fall into this category. Secular fraternal orders and such likely fall in this category too. This is the fourth category I’m talking about)

    Of course, I could be misinterpreting things, and maybe “religious” donations does refer exclusively to churches in this case, and Catholic Relief Services, Tzu Chi, etc, are all counted as “secular charities.”

  • Daughter

    1) You’re right, often faith-based charities have separate budgets (required for legal reasons) than the church budget, and do their own fundraising. And many of them rely on gov’t funds as a big part of the funds they raise (provided that they offer services in a non-sectarian manner and don’t proselytize. And many do a good job of keeping that separate).

    2) This may depend, but often direct benevolence (e.g., handing cash or check to someone in need, rather than providing a service) is either reserved for members, or contingent upon the person being evangelized.

    3) Not necessarily. Some faith-based programs are quite effective. But often, those tend to be the ones that are non-sectarian in delivery, open to the public, and reliant on public funds.

  • Scott Hanley

    Hmm, I thought Romney’s favorite verse would be Matthew 13:12, 

    “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an
    abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be
    taken away.”

  • seniorcit

    When we tithe to our church, we tithe to benefit ourselves for the most part…..bigger sanctuaries, bigger buildings including gyms, more staff to run the programs in these bigger buildings……(I’m thinking the biblical “bigger barns” here).   And more staff to feed (entertain) us with 3 point sermons which are recorded and available free to visitors at the kiosk in the foyer along with a free book, maybe, just for attending on Sunday.  (The idea is to snag a new, contributing church member.)  The food pantry which is located in one of these bigger buildings provides groceries to church members and attendees when needed on a referral basis.  Heaven help us if we should associate with some of the unregenerate and unwashed at the local secular or ecumenical food bank……we might even be giving food to illegal immigrants, which we all know is against what Jesus wants us to do.  People who make giving to their own church a priority may also give to agencies outside their local church, but these agencies are all chosen with a view to evangelizing the lost……e.g. Bibles for China, radio and teevee evangelists, Christian and Bible colleges which indoctrinate our youth in what is theologically acceptable in our particular denomination and independent mission agencies which send ill trained missionaries to countries where trained health and agricultural workers might be a better choice.  I’m for eliminating the tax deduction for religious giving because I think the government should not be subsidizing (indirectly, even) religion, but imagine the hue and cry that would arise if such a thing were to be seriously contemplated.

  • Dmoore970

    I will say, in fairness to Evangelical Christians, that when I went to New Orleans to help out after Hurricane Katrina (1) Samaritan’s Purse and Campus Crusade for Christ were prominently represented, and (2) food (for both volunteers and residents) was provided by a Southern Baptist disaster relief organization (and it was good).  (I will also say that Habitat for Humanity was the largest contingent there and that Americorps provided the full-time staff as opposed to one-week visitors).

  •  I was thinking along the same lines as you, I think, Julian Elson. I’d really like to see a breakdown of what counts as church and what as secular.Though in the fourth category, I did wonder how that would break down. Like is a scholarship fund at a university charity? (I would say yes). What about giving to a university generally knowing that they provide scholarships and such, but also knowing they want to build a new running track?As another example one of “my” charities as an environmental advocacy. The money goes to paying staff and research and such, which allows them to work to to protect the coastal environment of my province. Is that a charity? I think so, obviously, as I give them my money, but it’s not feeding the hungry in any direct kind of way (indirectly I believe it’s helping to prevent oil spills etc, which protects the environment and economy of the coast and therefore keeps people in food).It seems to head into grey area fairly quickly.

  • Yes, but I also remember hearing the story of how the Southern Baptist volunteers refused to hand out water, because the water was donated by Anheuser-Busch.

  • Daughter

    Another thing to note is that secular and religious charities often work together, as do secular and religious organizations.

    To give a small example, back-to-school fairs are going on all over my city right now, providing back packs, school clothes and school supplies to kids in need. Most of them are co-sponsored by a secular charity and a church. The secular charity solicits the donations and funds for the event, advertises it and oversee its, while the church provides the space to hold the event and volunteers. 

  • The Southern Baptists dispute those stories:

  • AuntVixen

    Ten percent of everything I (a singer who is not remotely Catholic) earn singing Mass, I donate to Planned Parenthood.  (Except the time they paid me several months in advance and I donated 5% to Planned Parenthood and 5% to the Human Rights Campaign.)

    This kind of tithing pleases me very much.

  • LOL, love the  2 Thessalonians 3:10 quote suggested as more suited to Romney. Also, not surprising his actual favorite quote is about getting, not giving.

  • LL

    RE Fred’s post: Yeah, that’s what I figured. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the concept of “tithing” (unless some churchgoer here convinces me otherwise), but it’s not exactly the same as giving to “charity.” There seems to be a bit of coercion at work in tithing, ie, many people do it because they don’t want the church leadership to think badly of them, rather than giving because they really want to. My mother counts the money that comes in (she’s her church’s secretary) and I assume (though I don’t know this for a fact) that she knows who gives what. I doubt that she judges harshly those who can’t give as much, she’s not exactly pulling in mad bank herself. That I know of. 

    Also, you don’t have to tell me or anybody else who has worked in restaurants or as a delivery person (I’ve done both) that churchy people tend to be a bit miserly outside of church. They are the worst tippers, generally. The only people who tip as badly are police officers. This is my experience from working in Oklahoma, maybe someone else’s is different in a different part of the country. 

  • B

    I agree: the lines aren’t clear-cut at all, but I do think that giving can be broken down into two rough categories:  things that benefit a group/organization/service of which you’re a part or have benefited from, and things that primarily benefit others.  Both of these can be either religious or secular in nature.

    For example, I pledge to my UU Fellowship and I have memberships to a few cultural organizations.  If I itemized deductions at least some of that money would be considered a deductible donation to charity, but I don’t consider it a charitable donation — certainly not in the sense that giving money to Oxfam is.  The former is helping to support an organization that benefits me, the latter isn’t.

    Of course there are boundary cases (if I have Disease X and give money to the National Disease X Society, for example).  It’s not clean-cut.

  • Amaryllis


    But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
    they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint.

    This is kind of a tangent, but I noticed a link in the sidebar yesterday to a site which claims to group comic-book characters by religious affiliation.

    Turns out that Superman is a Methodist– who knew? (Yeah, you all knew, I guess.) And Batman is a lapsed Episcopalian.

    I’ve never heard of nine-tenths of these characters, so I’ll have to take their word for it.

  • Daughter

    I think your breakdown is a good one. And in the latter category, I’d still say it’s charity. You’re not a member of National Disease X Society, and its benefits may only affect you indirectly or at sometime unforseen time in the future (say, if they discover a cure for Disease X).

  • aaronpxian

    When they do reports like this, do they include organizations like the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, Answers in Genesis, etc?

  • B

    Well, they sent me a card, and I do benefit from their informational programs at times.  But I agree that it seems more like “charitable giving” to me than becoming a member of the local art museum does.

    Another example of charity-that-sorta-is-but-sorta-isn’t… every year I join the Diver’s Alert Network even if I’m not planning on doing any scuba diving that year.  If I don’t dive I don’t get any tangible benefits myself (except the nice magazine) but it is an orgazination that exists for the benefit of the scuba diving community, of which I’m still kind of a part.

    Mind you, I’m not saying that contributing to such organizations isn’t a good thing, just that it seems different in my mind than giving to an organization that’s primarily benefiting  a group of which I’m not a part.  Also, there are religious and secular examples of both kinds of groups.

  • Tonio

    The page for Superman includes panels from For All Seasons. Can anyone here identify the denomination from the minister’s clothing and the architectural style of the church?

  • Daughter

     Good question. It sounds like the survey relied on self-reporting, which means that any organization the donor considers charitable would be counted.

    If the surveyors asked about donations that people reported on their taxes for deductions*, then I don’t think it includes lobbying organizations like FRC or the AFA. Answers in Genesis would still count, however–while their mission might be distasteful to many of us, it’s not explicitly political.

    * I doubt they looked at donations reported on tax returns, because that would leave out charitable givers who didn’t itemize their deductions.

  • Lori


    My mother counts the money that comes in (she’s her church’s secretary)
    and I assume (though I don’t know this for a fact) that she knows who
    gives what. 

    IME how much she knows depends on several factors about the church she attends. Is tithing totally optional or are people asked to pledge at the start of the year and then fulfill that pledge? Are people basically sent a bill  and expected to pay it? Does the culture of the church encourage giving by check or electronic funds transfer or do people mostly give cash?

    Tithing is one of those things that every church talks about to some extent, but there are many variations in how churches handle their budgets.

  •  Well on the page itself they did mention a few times the actual sect of Methodist as being the church, but as a NEastern UMC member, I don’t recognize the pastoral collar (not to say that we don’t use it, I just don’t happen to have seen it in my limited lifespan). And the door’s wrong. We have red doors. And the cross over the door isn’t the cross I’m used to associating with Methodists (it’s the one with the two tongues of flame around it).

  • “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
    they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint.”

    Drowning Man is my favorite track from War.

  • Minjae_Lee

    Yeah, those damn Mormons expect you to do something for the money – they should just hand it out.  How dare they expect me to work for it?!!!

  • AnonymousSam

    That is the meaning of the word “charity.”

  • Lindenharp

     The biggest clue might be the name.  I’d hazard a guess that Pastor Lindquist is a Lutheran.

  • reynard61

    “This is kind of a tangent, but I noticed a link in the sidebar yesterday to a site which claims to group comic-book characters by religious affiliation.”

    I find it more than a little amusing that the so-called “Legion of Gypsy (Roma) Super-Heroes” does not include the DC Comics character. I also find it downright stupefying that they would list Richard Nixon both as a “hero” *and* as a Quaker. Nixon’s *mother* was a practicing Quaker, but; Nixon’s own claims notwithstanding; he was most certainly not!

    Also, in the “Legion of Fundamentalist Environmentalist and Gaian Super-Heroes”, it lists Ra’s al Ghul and Poison Ivy. Since when are those two “heros”??? While al Ghul is somewhat ambiguous in his villainy (ISTR that he’s actually helped Batman solve a case or two — so long as doing so helped his own agenda), Poison Ivy has never shown any qualms about hers. Frankly, I’d take any information on this particular site with a grain of salt.

  • Matri

    Well technically, Ivy could be classified as an Environmentalist.

    Granted, one with complete control of giant, fast-growing, semi-sentient mutant plants…

  • Tonio

    You mean because the last name is Swedish?

  • Amaryllis

    I didn’t spend too much time on the site, but if we go by the Batman example, they seem to be crediting characters as their religion of origin, I guess you’d say. Lapsed Episcopalian, lapsed Quaker, they still count.

    As for “hero,” perhaps they’re going by the old-fashioned sense– someone with abilities above the usual, abilities of supernatural or otherworldly origin, or at least not attainable by the common run of humanity. Regardless of how the character actually uses those powers.

    It seems that comic-book Nixon was a member of something called “The X-Presidents,” former presidents with superpowers. (I’m guessing, somehow, that this was a parody series.)

    Someday, when I have both the time and the nerve, I’m going to go back and find out about the Feminist Supremacists and the Radical Vegans.

  • Light_Sleeper

    Likely so. FRC is a 501(c)(3). Under our tax code, hate speech is charitable endeavor.

  • A fair number of Germans are also Lutherans, and a sizable number speak  a dialect called Low German, which resembles Dutch and Danish more than High German does.

  • Lindenharp

     Yes, exactly.  A Swedish-American clergyman could belong to any denomination, but the odds are good that he would be Lutheran.

    I did some searching of churches in Google Images, but didn’t find anything conclusive.  There were Lutheran churches that resembled that picture, but also other Protestant churches.  I think church architecture is more influenced by geography and local aesthetics than by denomination.  And the basic clerical collar is very widely used.

    It may be that the writer didn’t have a specific denomination in mind.  It could be Generic Midwestern American Protestant.  Or an independent, non-denominational church.

  • Tonio

    Does anyone else find it amusing that many comic characters are more or less retconned into non-Jewish religions even though many of their creators were Jewish? The characters typically weren’t created with specific religious affiliations, usually so they would have a mass-market appeal, plus anti-Semitism was more publicly acceptable in previous decades. The Up Up and Oy Vey theory is that the secret identities were influenced by the experience of living in the Jewish equivalent of the closet.

  • Tricksterson

    “Mr/Ms Sleeper?  The IRS is on line one.  They want to talk to you.”

  • Tricksterson

    On the other hand my family goes regularly to a food pantry run by Lutherans (No idea if it’s ELCA , Missouri Synod or some other group) and and would have had trouble more than once making it if it wasn’t for the food they provide.  Yes they have a regular prayer meeting before handing out the donations but with the exception of two times (both by the same person) noone has ever pressured us or anyone else into attending although there is an open invitation.

  • we will not fear, though the earth should change

    I really like this line.
    I understand it was probably originally meant in a much more narrow sense than I’m reading it, more like “though the earth move” or something like that.

  • Scott__F

    I have done some thinking on this and concluded that while a large proportion of the tithe is for stained glass windows and fried chicken, at least a portion is going to consul members of the congregation who have lost a spouse, struggle with a stressful situation, etc.  It is crass to discount the good done for these people just because they happen to belong to your church. 

    Do I think this is consumes a large percentage of church giving? No. Frankly I think the worship and country-club activities use up most of the budget.

  • Tricksterson

    The Wonder Twins are Mormon?  IIRC they’re from another planet.

  • Tricksterson

    Since it was made by the same guys  who created “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” that would be a big yes.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Those people would probably be better off seeking help from a trained counselor with education and experience regarding mental health issues than they are seeking help from random members of the congregation. Any money you want going towards mental health counseling for your congregation, you’d be better off donating to the Mental Health Association or its local affiliate, or using to lobby your state or the federal government to increase its funding for mental health issues.

    (The leader of the congregation counts as a random member, since ze got to be the leader by demonstrating charisma and public-speaking skills and/or by demonstrating knowledge of theology and possibly, depending on the sect, of the holy text and the language and context in which it was written, not by demonstrating knowledge of mental health issues and how to handle them.)

  • veejayem

    That’s an interesting link, Amaryllis. But surely the Roma are an ethnic group rather than a religion?

  • Tricksterson

    So when you dissect the study properly the sumup is that it’s pretty much meaningless overall?

  • Daughter

    Some ministers are trained in counseling. Many pastoral education programs require it.

    However, I think the bigger point is that the counseling services provided by a church still aren’t charity. They’re a membership benefit.

  • They had to work to “pay back” the money from when someone was disabled.

    I can’t work. Maybe I will be able to in the future, thanks to Obamacare.  But there is a possibility that the surgery Obama is making it possible for me to get won’t be enough for me to be able to work. So then what?

    And there are plenty of people in the world besides me who can’t work because of disability. And plenty of people in the world who can’t work for money because no one will give them a paying job. So then what?

    This could all be you, by the way. The way in which I became disabled is unpredictable and unpreventable.