By Frank Wessling
We are the generous people. We church-going folks along with our neighbors who attend synagogue, temple and mosque are the open, engaged, active people practicing that liberality of spirit which makes good neighbors and good citizens.
This should not be a surprise, although some sources say that church members are just the opposite: closed in, too judgmental, so conservative that we look reactionary. New evidence shows how unreal this criticism is.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy looked at money-giving patterns across the United States and found higher levels in states with the highest religious practice. This study received some attention in the news recently because of a political angle: states with high religiosity have been voting Republican for several years. That makes for interesting twists in interpreting the data, but it should not turn our attention from the central, important point: religious people everywhere tend to be givers, of themselves along with their money, as will be noted below.
The Chronicle analyzed tax returns for people reporting $50,000 income and higher in 2008, the latest available for such study. Lower income returns did not have enough consistent itemized data to be comparable. The states with highest charitable giving were Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina. Utah’s heavily Mormon population is influenced by that church’s requirement of a 10 percent tithe.
The New England states give the least per capita, with New Hampshire last. This region of the country, along with the West Coast, is low in religiosity and more reliably Democratic in its voting.
Republicans generous, Democrats stingy: is that the picture? Not necessarily. The greater giving in “more religious” states means more giving to churches because there is more church membership and activity in those states. But church giving does not exhaust charity. When church giving is left out of charitable contributions, the great political divide disappears.
Still, religious people seem to give more, including more of their money across the full range of incomes, according to a longer study by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. In four years of research for his book, “American Grace,” Putnam found that regular church or synagogue attendance meant higher contributions to all charity, religious and secular.
But the greater giving of self is what Putnam found most distinguishes religious people in America. If you are religious you are more often found doing voluntary work for a charity, donating blood, helping a neighbor with chores or shopping, spending time with someone in need, helping a homeless person, even noting and giving back excess change when a store clerk makes a mistake.
Folks with regular church attendance are also most likely to be involved in civic groups and fraternal associations, where they tend to be the officers and committee members.
In all of this quiet, hidden generosity which flavors the life of a community, religious people are leaders.
What is proved here? Perhaps only that being religious is a sign of being fully human; doing our best to reach out with all of the energy compressed by the Creator in human form. Religious faith asks us to risk a radical openness beyond ourselves, beyond where we are and what we know. Apparently, such faith is still very much alive among us.
By Frank Wessling