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October 1, 2003

Religious Faith and Charitable Giving

Believers give more to secular charities than non-believers do

There is a time when a Christian must sell all and give to the poor, as they did in the Apostles times. There is a time allsoe when Christians (though they give not all yet) must give beyond their abillity, as they of Macedonia, Cor. 2, 6. Likewise community of perills calls for extraordinary liberality, and soe doth community in some speciall service for the Churche. Lastly, when there is no other means whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability rather than tempt God in putting him upon help by miraculous or extraordinary meanes.

— John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630)


Over the past decade, a number of policy scholars have examined parallel bedrock constituencies in America’s political parties. On one side, the Republicans rely on the near-monolithic support of Christian conservatives, a fact that has been documented ad nauseam by political commentators and the mainstream press for more than 20 years. Less well understood, but equally important, is the role of liberal secularists in shaping the policies of the American left. These people are the religious and political inverse of Christian conservatives: They vote for liberal political candidates and hold left-wing views on issues like school prayer and the death penalty. But most saliently, religion does not play a significant role in their lives. As political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio recently demonstrated in the Public Interest (“Our Secularist Democratic Party,” Fall 2002), liberal secularists are at least as influential in molding the platform of the Democratic Party as are Christian conservatives for the Republicans.

Secularism is historically anomalous in the American cultural mainstream. The links between civic and religious life were persistent across the American political spectrum for hundreds of years. Indeed, John Winthrop’s seventeenth-century statement quoted above would probably not have sounded particularly zealous throughout most of the twentieth century. As many public opinion scholars have documented, however, a dramatic philosophical shift occurred in the 1960s, leaving us to this day with a pervasive secular rhetoric on the political left. Consider how retrograde the words of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address would sound today: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

An unanswered question is one of causality: Do secularists tend toward the political left, or do political liberals tend to be secular? On the one hand, secularism might be the only hard-headed option for those who see, as Karl Marx did, that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” On the other hand, secularists might find sanctuary in liberalism’s tolerance for their somewhat unpopular views. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that being a secularist in America was no easy life (at least in 1835): “In the United States, if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that very sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, everyone abandons him, and he remains alone.” Nor is secularism a popular stance among the public at large today: According to a March 2002 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, more than half of Americans have an unfavorable view of nonbelievers.

Reasonable people will disagree as to whether this animus owes to simple religious intolerance, or rather to behavioral differences between the groups. Perceived differences leading to hostility might include disproportionately high rates of behaviors discouraged by religious norms (for example, adultery) or low rates of virtuous actions encouraged by them (for example, charity).

This essay focuses on the latter. Using data from a large survey conducted in 2000, I investigate differences in charitable giving and volunteering between secular and religious people. I look for explanations for these differences in the current debates about social capital, the role of government in social policy, and the separation of church and state. Finally, I explore the implications of charitable giving differences for policy and politics.1


Giving and volunteering, by the numbers

How do religious and secular people vary in their charitable behavior? To answer this, I turn to data collected expressly to explore patterns in American civic life. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (sccbs) was undertaken in 2000 by researchers at universities throughout the United States and the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. The data consist of nearly 30,000 observations drawn from 50 communities across the United States and ask individuals about their “civic behavior,” including their giving and volunteering during the year preceding the survey.

From these data, I have constructed two measures of religious participation. First, the group I refer to as “religious” are the respondents that report attending religious services every week or more often. This is 33 percent of the sample. Second, the group I call “secular” report attending religious services less than a few times per year or explicitly say they have no religion. These people are 26 percent of the sample (implying that those who practice their religion occasionally make up 41 percent of the sample). The sccbs asked respondents whether and how much they gave and volunteered to “religious causes” or “non-religious charities” over the previous 12 months. Across the whole population, 81 percent gave, while 57 percent volunteered.

The differences in charity between secular and religious people are dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions.

Socioeconomically, the religious and secular groups are similar in some ways and different in others. For example, there is little difference between the groups in income (both have average household incomes around $49,000) or education level (20 percent of each group holds a college degree). On the other hand, the secular group is disproportionately male (49 percent to 32 percent), unmarried (58 percent to 40 percent), and young (42 to 49 years old, on average). In addition, the sccbs data show that religion and secularism break down on ideological lines: Religious people are 38 percentage points more likely to say they are conservative than to say they are liberal (57 percent to 19 percent). In contrast, secular people are 13 points more likely to say they are liberal than to say they are conservative (42 percent to 29 percent).

It is possible, of course, that the charity differences between secular and religious people are due to these nonreligious socioeconomic differences. To investigate this possibility, I used a statistical procedure called probit regression to examine the role of religious practice in isolation from all other relevant demographic characteristics: political beliefs, income (and hence, indirectly, the tax incentives for giving), education level, gender, age, race, marital status, and area of residence. The data show that if two people — one religious and the other secular — are identical in every other way, the secular person is 23 percentage points less likely to give than the religious person and 26 points less likely to volunteer.

Note that neither political ideology nor income is responsible for much of the charitable differences between secular and religious people. For example, religious liberals are 19 points more likely than secular liberals to give to charity, while religious conservatives are 28 points more likely than secular conservatives to do so. In other words, religious conservatives (who give and volunteer at rates of 91 percent and 67 percent) appear to differ from secular liberals (who give and volunteer at rates of 72 percent and 52 percent) more due to religion than to politics. Similarly, giving differences do not disappear when income is neutralized. This should not be particularly surprising, however, because the sccbs data show practically no income differences between the groups. Furthermore, research on philanthropy has consistently shown that the poor tend to give more frequently — and a higher percentage of their incomes — than the middle class. For example, economist Charles Clotfelter and others have shown that the poor tend to give a proportion of their income to charity that is comparable to the giving proportion of the very wealthy — and nearly twice that of the middle class.2 (This seems to be true only for the working poor, however. Welfare support appears to depress giving substantially.3)

Charity differences between religious and secular people persist if we look at the actual amounts of donations and volunteering. Indeed, measures of the dollars given and occasions volunteered per year produce a yawning gap between the groups. The average annual giving among the religious is $2,210, whereas it is $642 among the secular. Similarly, religious people volunteer an average of 12 times per year, while secular people volunteer an average of 5.8 times. To put this into perspective, religious people are 33 percent of the population but make 52 percent of donations and 45 percent of times volunteered. Secular people are 26 percent of the population but contribute 13 percent of the dollars and 17 percent of the times volunteered.

These differences hardly change when we consider them in isolation from the other demographics, using a statistical technique called tobit regression. Religious practice by itself is associated with $1,388 more given per year than we would expect to see from a secular person (with the same political views, income, education, age, race, and other characteristics), as well as with 6.5 more occasions of volunteering.

Some people might object to my conflation here of religious and nonreligious charity. One might argue, for example, that religious charity is more likely to take place for non-altruistic reasons than is nonreligious giving and volunteering: Religious people might give because of social pressure, for personal gain (such as stashing away rewards in Heaven), or to finance the services that they themselves consume, such as sacramental activities. Therefore, disparities in charity might disappear when we only consider explicitly nonreligious giving and volunteering. The sccbs data do not support this hypothesis, however: Religious people are more generous than secular people with nonreligious causes as well as with religious ones. While 68 percent of the total population gives (and 51 percent volunteers) to nonreligious causes each year, religious people are 10 points more likely to give to these causes than secularists (71 percent to 61 percent) and 21 points more likely to volunteer (60 percent to 39 percent). For example, religious people are 7 points more likely than secularists to volunteer for neighborhood and civic groups, 20 points more likely to volunteer to help the poor or elderly, and 26 points more likely to volunteer for school or youth programs. It seems fair to say that religion engenders charity in general — including nonreligious charity.

One might also posit that informal giving (say, to family and friends) by secularists could offset charity to established causes by religious people. My own research, however, makes this look improbable. Using 1999 data on individuals from the Bureau of Labor Standards, I found that, for most people, formal and informal charity are not substitutes for each other. On the contrary, people who give formally are 21 percentage points more likely than those who do not to also give informally. That is, informal giving does not explain the underlying discrepancy; it compounds it.4


Charity, religion, and the state

How can we explain the dramatic charitable differences between secular and religious people? Two lines of reasoning tie the findings above to current policy debates. First, secularists may prefer government solutions to social problems over private (charity-supported) ones, and thus give and volunteer less than religious people. Second, religion may be a key ingredient in promoting social capital, which in turn encourages giving and volunteering.

Secularists are distinct from religious people in their view on the government’s role in providing social welfare. According to the National Opinion Research Center’s 1996 General Social Survey, secularists support greater public spending for social programs — even if it means higher taxation — at slightly higher rates than religious people do. This support might logically correspond with disfavor for private, charitable alternatives to public-sector social welfare provision. To understand why, consider the attitudes evident in this recent passage from the opinion magazine the Nation: “A program that deals with drug addiction as sinful behavior curable through Bible classes — and much touted by the supporters of faith-based approaches to social problems . . . actually costs more to deliver than conventional drug treatment.”5 Obviously, the religious person interested in the spiritual needs of a drug addict as well as his or her physical problems will see the efficacy of a faith-based drug rehabilitation program (and hence the need for private charity to the program) differently than the secular person who is interested only in the non-faith outcomes. In effect, neither party is necessarily incorrect. The secularist views fostering the faith of a drug addict as a waste of resources, while the religious person sees it as essential to true rehabilitation. It is hardly surprising that the faith-based approach to combating addiction costs more: It has a bigger task to accomplish. Consequently, the secularist may find a mechanism that does not subsidize any spirituality, such as a government program, to be more effective than a solution based on private giving.

To be more precise, secularist support for government social spending would probably not extend all the way to the use of tax revenues to subsidize social services by faith-based organizations. Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” is a popular metaphor invoked in constitutional arguments against phenomena such as private-school vouchers or the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Notwithstanding Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s comment on this very metaphor (in his 1985 dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree) that “[i]t is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of constitutional history,” Jefferson’s “wall” remains fairly sacrosanct in secular ideology. Justice Rehnquist and other scholars believe that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has been twisted by secularists to prevent all links between government and religion instead of simply preventing the preferential treatment of certain religions. The framers did not, according to Rehnquist, see the First Amendment as “requiring neutrality between religion and irreligion.”

Some scholars have gone so far as to assert that separationism has an unseemly past in which bigoted groups throughout history have employed it simply to restrict the role of unfavored religious groups in public life. In his Separation of Church and State (Harvard University Press, 2002), University of Chicago law professor Philip Hamburger, for example, documents the strict invocation of the Establishment Clause by nativist Protestants in the nineteenth century to limit the freedoms of immigrant Catholics. He finds this analogous to the current constitutional arguments by secularists who are hostile to organized religion per se. Judge Robert Bork, writing in the Public Interest (“Getting Over the Wall,” Fall 2002), blames this prejudice-based use of the First Amendment for what he labels “the current madness, in which it is held to be a forbidden establishment of religion if a student is offended by hearing others say ‘under God’ as part of the pledge of allegiance.”

A key distinction in secular versus religious support for social programs, therefore, is between private charity and tax support for nonreligious public programs, which have proliferated contemporaneously with the rise of secularism. It would be unreasonable to deny the many important advances that the expansion of these programs has stimulated over the past 35 years, from establishing greater civil rights to alleviating indigence among the elderly. On the other hand, the unintended side effects of some government social programs — such as lowering incentives to find market work or avoid births out of wedlock — have become a staple in the neoconservative diet. In the words of Irving Kristol, writing in the Wall Street Journal (June 14, 1993), “The problem with our current welfare programs is not that they are costly — which they are — but that they have such perverse consequences for people they are supposed to benefit.”

Decreases in private charity might represent a similar perverse consequence of secularists’ embrace of government spending: A belief in the superiority of nonreligious public funding over private support for social causes might logically discourage one’s own private giving and volunteering. Will I tend to give and volunteer to feed the hungry if I believe the government should be paying for these services, I pay my taxes, and I favor higher taxes still? Perhaps not. And if charitable behavior is habitual (which researchers believe it is), this belief could bleed over into areas in which government funding is not even a realistic alternative. For example, once there is no “culture of giving” in my household, I might be less likely to feel an obligation to volunteer for local civic organizations. Harvard’s Robert Putnam, in the January 1995 article in the Journal of Democracy that became the basis for Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000), cites parent-teacher associations (ptas) as an example of the kind of organization that suffers in a society in which charitable, civic involvement is declining: “The [pta] has been an especially important form of civic engagement in twentieth-century America. . . . It is, therefore, dismaying to discover that participation in parent-teacher organizations has dropped drastically over the last generation.”

Participation in the pta might seem trivial, but as Putnam and others believe, its falling fortunes are symptomatic of a deeper problem: a decrease in “social capital,” the stock of trust and social cohesiveness that promotes giving, volunteering, and participation in civil society. Social capital is generally accumulated as part of nonmarket, nonstate interactions between individuals. While difficult to pin down and measure in the way we might measure, say, human or financial capital, its proponents ascribe tremendous importance to it in ensuring a vital society. In the words of Francis Fukuyama, “Social capital is important to the efficient functioning of modern economies, and is the sine qua non of stable liberal democracy.”6 This statement is fully in line with the writing of Tocqueville, who believed that American voluntary associations (and by extension, we might imagine, financial support of voluntary activities) were the bridge between dehumanizing individualism and a strong, cohesive, democratic population.

What fosters the community sentiments that lead to the civic behavior that is so indispensable in governing ourselves? In Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985), sociologist Robert Bellah and his co-authors assert that “religion provides a conception, even if rudimentary, of how one should live . . . one’s obligation to God involves one’s life at work as well as in the family, what one does as a citizen as well as how one treats one’s friends.” That is, secularism, in addition to stimulating enthusiasm for government as an alternative to civil society, may be antithetical to civil society’s key ingredient.


Charity and political parties

Decent scholarship has demonstrated the disproportionate influence the secular left has over the modern Democratic Party. My research establishes a link between secular views and strikingly low levels of charitable giving and volunteering. While differences in charitable behavior are not particularly apparent between left and right per se, my findings do suggest that, if secularists play an increasing role in the direction of the Democratic Party, indifference (or even hostility) to private charity will probably rise within that party.

If this prediction seems hyperbolic, one should only look at the nations of Western Europe, often considered the ideological models for the American left, and in which religious practice and charity levels are generally far lower than those in America. Take Spain as an example: As this traditionally Catholic country ran full tilt toward socialism starting in 1982, the concomitant attitude of the Spanish governments toward organized religion and private philanthropy became unsympathetic. Charities and churches were viewed as usurping centralized power in social welfare and, even worse, as devolving funding decisions to individual (often wealthy, conservative) donors. The result was a tax system and other public policies that did not encourage private charity or a healthy nonprofit and voluntary sector. (The socialists were ultimately voted out of power by Jose María Aznar’s center-right Popular Party, and Spanish tax law has recently become more accommodating to private charitable activity.) Today, the average Spaniard is 20 percentage points less likely than the average American to classify himself as “religious,” gives less than half as much to charity, and volunteers about one-fifth as often.7 And Spain has the highest level of charitable giving per capita in Western Europe (and has church attendance rates that are among the highest as well).

While many Spaniards would argue that current religious and charitable practices are a rebound legacy of the 40-year right-wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the fact is that Spanish rates are trending toward the rest of Western Europe, almost all of which has not so recently suffered under a dictator who imposed hardcore religious and social norms on the population. What Spain has most in common today with the rest of Europe is a tendency toward a leftist, secular outlook and — not coincidentally, it appears — a falling concern for religion and charity.

Whether this tendency is a virtue or a vice is a subjective matter. Progressive Europe holds the secular left viewpoint as a mark of distinction, often consciously placing it in counterpoint to America’s supposed unsophistication. “Mr. and Mrs. Average [America] share an uncomplicated faith with its roots in the puritanism of their forebears,” reported the bbc recently.8 Similarly, Régis Debray (a former advisor to French President François Mitterand) wrote in the New York Times (February 23, 2003):

Europe defends a secular vision of the world. It does not separate matters of urgency from long-term considerations. The United States compensates for its shortsightedness, its tendency to improvise, with an altogether biblical self-assurance in its transcendent destiny.

Notwithstanding the eloquence of Debray’s obvious distaste for Americans in general, he uses inappropriately broad brush strokes in describing us. Indeed, approximately 70 million Americans can be classified as secularists along the lines that I have outlined here. Whether or not these people politically resemble our European friends more than the rest of America is a question for other writers. What we may conclude here, however, is that this group represents an exemplary model of European charity.

Perhaps it does not matter whether the Democrats become the party of “un-charity.” The fight for political appeal may not depend on the perception that one party promotes individual sacrifice while the other does not. Popular support may only depend on tangible policies: the minimum wage, welfare reform, abortion rights, “faith-based initiatives,” school vouchers, and a host of other issues that focus on how the government affects us as citizens, not how we voluntarily affect one another. This is an empirical question: Do we see our politics as a reflection of our values or simply as a means to leverage a set of policies favorable to our wishes?

On the other hand, a growing un-charity might bode ill for American progressive politics. In his The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen, the iconoclastic economist from the early twentieth century, wrote that the “residue of the religious life — the sense of communion with the environment, or with the generic life process — as well as the impulse of charity or of sociability, act in a pervasive way to shape men’s habits of thought for the economic purpose.” Tocqueville made roughly the same point even more vividly in Democracy in America (1835): “Men are . . . immeasurably interested in acquiring fixed ideas of God, of the soul, and of their general duties to their Creator and their fellow men; for doubt on these first principles would abandon all their actions to chance and would condemn them in some way to disorder and impotence.” Certainly, Tocqueville and Veblen are not alone in the belief that economic and cultural health are dependent on the related values of religion and charity. And it is not hard to imagine a growing popular distaste for a political wing distinguished by its lack of giving spirit and religious spirituality.

Some religious liberals — who currently give and volunteer at rates comparable to religious conservatives — may ultimately sense they face a choice between politics and charity, and many may choose the latter. (This danger is reminiscent of the well-documented Democratic hemorrhage of Catholic voters over the past 20 years, commonly attributed to the increasingly strict party line against pro-life viewpoints.) Indeed, the importance of charity to a religious lifestyle might be one “missing link” in explaining why fewer and fewer religious people have tended to classify themselves as Democrats over the past 30 years — from 37 percent in 1972, to 31 percent in 1983, to 25 percent in 1998.

While it appears inseparable from religion, charitable activity does not inherently privilege a particular political ideology. On the one hand, charity often functions as an alternative to “big government” or explicitly injects religious faith into social programs. On the other hand, as scholar Peter Frumkin notes in On Being Nonprofit (Harvard University Press, 2002), much charitable activity is harmonious with social advocacy and functions in partnership with government. Thus, it is not axiomatic that the increasing role of secularists in American progressive politics should necessarily drive charity — and hence charitable people — out of the Democratic Party. The key for Democrats is to focus on the ways in which faith-based charity and secular social agendas converge and to make peace with those who see a higher authority over man than the federal government or United Nations.


Learning to give, or not

The personal characteristics that distinguish us from one another can be classified as socially exogenous (e.g., race, place of birth) or socially endogenous (e.g., political beliefs, marital status). Economist Glenn Loury argues that when we mistake the latter for the former, we tend to absolve ourselves of responsibility for a characteristic’s ill-effects, leading to prejudice and improper public policy. For example, in The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2002), Loury argues that high crime rates associated with African Americans are the result of unhealthy race relations (which are socially endogenous) but are perceived by many whites as innate to blacks (socially exogenous), discouraging support for policies that seek to ameliorate these problems.

This line of reasoning may partially illuminate popular prejudice against secularists in America (assuming that some of this prejudice is due to a problematic lack of personal charity) and suggest solutions. On the one hand, the problem might seem exogenous: Faith and charity may be part and parcel of the same God-given impulse. In the words of the Koran, “O you who believe! when you consult the Apostle, then offer something in charity before your consultation; that is better for you and purer; but if you do not find, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful” (58.12).

On the other hand, the connection between religiosity and generosity might be more earth-bound: It might be that religion simply has a strong pedagogical (endogenous) influence over giving and volunteering. Houses of worship might teach their congregants the religious duty to give, and about both the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. Simply put, people may be more likely to learn charity inside a church, synagogue, or mosque than outside. If charity is indeed a learned behavior, it may be that houses of worship are only one means (albeit an especially efficacious one) to teach it. Secularists interested in increasing charitable giving and volunteering among their ranks might spend some effort thinking of alternative ways to foster these habits.

1 For their helpful comments on this essay, I am grateful to Louis Bolce, Gerald De Maio, Jeff Straussman, and Scott Allard.

2 Charles T. Clotfelter, Federal Tax Policy and Charitable Giving (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

3 Arthur C. Brooks, “Welfare Receipt and Private Charity,” Public Budgeting and Finance (Fall 2002).

4 Arthur C. Brooks, “The Effects of Public Policy on Private Charity,” Administration & Society (forthcoming in 2004).

5 Gara LaMarche, “Compassionate Aversionism,” Nation (April 19, 2001).

6 Francis Fukuyama, “Social Capital and Civil Society” (International Monetary Fund, 2000).

7 These data come from the 1998 International Social Survey Programme. See also Lester M. Salamon et al., Global Civil Society, (Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, 1999).

8 Justin Webb, “America’s Deep Christian Faith,” BBC News World Edition (March 14, 2003).