The run-up to Christmas, with its street-corner Salvation Army kettles and church food drives, would seem a lousy time to find out that Christian charity in America is not what it’s supposed to be. But in the recently released Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, sociologists Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell argue that too many American Christians—”the most affluent single group of Christians in two thousand years of church history”—are guilty of Scrooge-like stinginess. At least one in five American Christians, they write, gives no money at all to charities. In some churches, the miserliness rate is even higher. More than 28 percent of Catholics, for example, don’t donate to charity. Bah, humbug, indeed.
Not surprisingly, numbers of that kind left some Christian commentators dismayed. “Scrooge Lives,” proclaimed the December Christianity Today in a cover story about tight-fisted Christians. “The level of self-centered materialism described here is truly staggering,” wrote one reviewer. “The book should drive us to our knees.”
But are Christians really so stingy? Looked at comparatively, Christians could be commended for their relative generosity instead of rebuked as misers. Their charitable giving stacks up pretty well against that of nonbelievers, who appear to be even tighter with their charitable dollars. More than half of nonreligious Americans contributed no money or property to charity, according to Passing the Plate, and the percentage of income donated to charity by the average nonbeliever was less than 1 percent, compared with nearly 3 percent for American Christians. And some categories of Christians distinguished themselves as givers. The average evangelical Protestant, for example, gave a sturdy 8.2 percent of annual income, according to surveys cited in the book.
Financial matters are so deeply ingrained in church life that it’s no surprise that faith-based giving—and particularly the lack of it—would be a hot topic. Responsibility for the needy and the obligation to help the church do good work in the world are fundamental Christian precepts. Collection plates and sermons about stewardship are staples of the churchgoing experience, and the pleas for money only increase as Christmas approaches. Yet even when Christians do give generously, their money doesn’t always make it to charitable causes. Most of the money gathered in churches on Sunday is spent inside those same churches on operating expenses likes staff salaries and facility maintenance. The authors of Passing the Plate write that “the vast majority of the money that American Christians do give to religion is spent in and for their own local communities of faith—little is spent on missions, development and poverty relief outside of local congregations.”
Raising money has been a preoccupation of American church leaders from the start. It became especially urgent after churches were disestablished as organs of the state, cutting them off from public support. (The last state to disestablish its official church was Massachusetts, which cut its ties with the Congregational Church in 1833.) In the wave of diversification and privatization that followed, churches found themselves competing for believers—and their money. Some churches raised funds by renting pews to worshippers; others imposed property taxes. Every generation of church leadership seemed to introduce its own fundraising innovations. The collection envelope, introduced in the late 19th-century church, promised to promote regular giving. The Catholic parish of my childhood subsisted in part on bingo nights and pancake breakfasts. Churches are still innovating today, with some installing ATM-like “giving kiosks” that allow worshippers to donate by swiping debit or credit cards on their way into church—charge your donation and earn bonus air miles!
Despite all the exhortations, though, it seems that relatively few Christians—even those who give regularly—have followed church teachings on exactly how much to give. Most American Christians belong to churches that promote tithing—giving 10 percent of income to the church. Tithing’s roots extend back to the Old Testament commandment to give one-tenth of agricultural produce as a sacred offering. Though it’s often associated with conservative and evangelical Protestant churches, tithing is also taught, for example, in the more liberal Episcopal Church, which teaches members “to practice tithing as a minimum standard of giving.” Yet fewer than one in 10 Christians gives as much as a tithe of their income. The 2.9 percent of income given by the average Christian may seem reasonably generous, but it falls significantly short of what many Christian churches desire.
If tithing is so widely taught, why is it so seldom practiced? In his history In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar, James Hudnut-Beumler argues that preaching tithing was one of a series of rhetorical strategies pastors developed in the 19th century—a “rhetoric of righteousness” that aimed to inspire and compel giving by believers. But then and now, most Christians have been unmoved by the command to tithe. Some reject the practice as legalistic or coercive or based on a flawed understanding of the Bible. Smith, Emerson, and Snell report that 76 percent of churchgoing Christians in one study said they wouldn’t tithe even if required to by their church. Fifty-nine percent thought that a church has no right to ask its members to give specific amounts of money.
The resistance to tithing is just one indication of the distance between pulpit and pew on financial matters. According to Passing the Plate, one reason Christians don’t give more is that “they lack a complete confidence in the trustworthiness of the churches” to which they donate. In one study, more than half of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, and Baptists said that they lacked confidence in the “handling and allocation of funds” by leaders of their denomination.
They might have more confidence if they had more say in how those funds are spent. Directing churchgoers’ donations toward maintaining their own church buildings may be part of the problem. Paying the heating bill may be necessary, but it’s not the sort of cause likely to inspire great generosity. On the other hand, the Chicago Tribune recently reported on one congregation that pledges to direct all the money it collects at church services to charitable causes—sponsors cover basic church expenses. The church’s Web site even solicits suggestions on how the congregation’s money should be spent. Part of what makes that approach intriguing is that it allows churchgoers to follow the money they put in the collection plate and focuses their giving on the world beyond the church walls. It’s more about inspiring giving than requiring giving.
American churches have always had a talent for innovating new ways to open wallets, to yoke the material to the sacred. Eighteenth-century evangelist George Whitefield was called a “peddler of divinity” by one of his contemporaries. Never more than in a consumerist society, making the case for giving puts pastors and preachers in something like a salesman’s role. But the numbers suggest that too many of the people in the pews aren’t buying the pitch. Maybe today’s stingy Christians are really just dissatisfied customers.