Religious People Donate More to Church and Charity

New study looks into America’s great generosity divide.

(photo: Shutterstock)

A recent study reveals that states where religious participation is highest give the greatest percentage of their discretionary income to charitable organizations. Conversely, states that are less religious give less.

“How America Gives,” by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, is based on Internal Revenue Service records of people who itemized deductions in 2008, the most recent year statistics were available. It revealed that the most generous states were Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina.

The least generous states were New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Utah residents gave 10.6% of their discretionary income to charity. New Hampshire residents gave 2.5%.

The results of the study are consistent with a variety of other research conducted on the subject. Sociologists Mark Regnerus and David Sikkink reached similar conclusions in their “Religious Identity and Influence Survey.” David Campbell and Robert Putnam did as well in their book American Grace.

Contrary to what one might expect, the report found that the wealthy were not the most generous. Middle-class Americans give a much larger share of their discretionary income to charities than the wealthy. Households earning $50,000 to $75,000 give an average of 7.6%, compared with an average of 4.2% for people who make $100,000 or more.

“Religious people give more,” said Arthur Brooks, author of Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. “That doesn’t mean those who belong to a congregation. It’s all about how they practice.”

Brooks noted one problem with the study.

“If you’re only using the IRS data, you’re only getting about 30% of the population, and you’re getting the richest portion — those making $50,000 or more annually,” said Brooks. “This biases the data.”

As a result of that bias, Brooks explained that when taxes and incidental expenses are removed, as was done in the Chronicle study, “you get a flip that makes it look as if those in the Northeast are generous with their secular giving, but if you look at other survey data, you don’t see that flip at all.”

Brooks noted that the trend that religious and conservatives give more also holds true among the poor.

“Religious people give more to everything, including the arts and the environment,” he said. “They are the reason America is a charitable country compared to every other country.”


Political Differences

Another interesting finding of the report was the difference between “liberal” and “conservative” philanthropists.

The report found that the eight states where residents gave the highest share of income to charity voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, while the seven lowest-ranking states supported Barack Obama.

“Liberals give less,” said Brooks.

“Liberals are the least likely to help the poor,” agreed Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. “That’s the inescapable conclusion of this new study.”

It’s not the first time a study of charitable giving has noted the political difference.

In their 2010 study “Religious Attitudes and Charitable Donations,” authors Robert Eger of Florida State University and Bruce McDonald of Indiana University found the same. They cited two reasons that individuals who self-identified as “religiously conservative” were more likely to make religious charitable contributions than those who identified themselves as “religiously liberal.”

“First, self-identified conservatives are … more likely to be involved within religious institutions, activities and commitments, such as regular church participation and stable family structures, each of which lends itself to increased volunteerism and donations,” concluded the report. “Second, self-identified religiously liberal individuals are less likely involved in religious institutions and thus less likely to donate to religious organizations.”


Catholic Giving

Observers have long noted the difference between Protestants vs. Catholics in the realm of charitable giving.

A 2001 study found that Protestants in the U.S. donated an average of $1,093 to their churches in 2001, whereas the average amount given by Catholics to their churches was $495.

“The average annual Catholic household weekly offertory is $10 per week,” said Mary Gautier, senior research associate with Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. “That’s what is given to the parish, not diocesan appeals or Catholic Charities.”

A 2011 Lilly Endowment-funded CARA study titled “Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes” found that the annual weekly offertory has increased between 2000 and 2010. The total offertory is 23% larger than it was in 2000.

Adjusted for inflation, while Catholic households gave a total of $6.9 billion to their parishes in 2000, they donated $8.5 billion in 2010. The average weekly parish offertory is $9,191.

One surprise in that study was that parishioners in smaller parishes, those with 200 or fewer registered households, give more on average than those in larger parishes. The average weekly household offertory in a small parish is $12 vs. $7.81 at a parish with more than 1,201 registered households.

The difference between Protestant and Catholic giving is attributed to several factors. Among some Protestant and Mormon teachings, there is an obligation for members to tithe 10% to their church to remain members in good standing. Those faith traditions draw from Old Testament laws to emphasize a 10% annual donation, or tithe, to the church in recognition that everything one possesses belongs to God and giving back to God and others is a way of saying thanks.

Catholics, however, are not under a strict obligation to tithe 10%.

“The absolute necessity of it is relatively less stressed in Catholicism,” writes Catholic author and apologist Dave Armstrong at his website Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. “The New Covenant is not about laws, but about relationship and the Holy Spirit and 100% commitment to following Jesus as a disciple from the heart. So it goes beyond tithing. If tithing were still required, it surely would have been spelled out in the New Testament. But it is not.”

The Catechism states that, “The faithful have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities” (2034).

“Tithing is fine as a voluntary adopted policy of an individual; just not as a mandatory requirement, as if the New Testament teaches that,” added Armstrong.

While Catholics are not under an obligation, most dioceses, such as the Archdiocese of St. Louis, recommend that the faithful consider giving 5% to one’s local parish and 5% to other charities.

Brooks believes it’s a myth that Catholics give less than their Protestant brothers and sisters. Among Catholics who regularly attend church vs. all who self-identify as Catholics, Brooks says there’s little difference in giving between Catholics and Protestants.

“Among faithful Protestants, 92% donate to charity every year,” said Brooks. “Among faithful Catholics, it’s 91%.”

Tim Drake is the Register’s senior writer.

A shorter version of this story appeared on Tim’s blog.