Giving Up, Giving Down

Monday, June 30, 2014 - 7:16am
Giving Up, Giving Down

New research shows that charitable giving for religious organizations declined in the past few years. This trend, Martin Marty suggests, both reflects American’s dwindling interest in religious institutions and offers an opportunity for religious organizations to appeal to "the better angels of their nature."

Commentary by:
Martin E. Marty,  Special Contributor for Sightings
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Volunteers prepare food baskets to give away to needy people at Elijah's Pantry in Chicago, Illinois.

Credit: Scott Olson License: Getty Images.

Charitable giving is up for three causes: arts and the humanities (6.3%), education (7.4%), and animals and the environment (6%). But giving to religious organizations was down 1.6% from 2012 to 2013.

Good news for those who have positive views of religion was the notice that “the religious sector continues to collect a greater proportion of total charitable giving—31 percent—than any other” according to a Giving USA report. Less good news is the notice of even a slight decline.

Responsible commentators know how difficult it is to get, define, and interpret statistics in these areas. Lauren Markoe for Religion News Service (RNS) quotes generalizing experts about the big picture: “Behind the sad state for religious groups, experts say, is American’s declining interest in religious institutions.”

No argument there. But Markoe balances this quote with comment from a specific expert, Rick Dunham, CEO of Dunham+Company, who knows enough to remark that “many religiously oriented charities are often counted in other sectors, such as education and human services.” Further, giving is “shifting from houses of worship to religiously affiliated charities that are counted in other sectors.”

Extended families like mine give charitably through alumni associations of any number of church-related colleges and universities and, like so many others, give directly to human services organizations, which are profoundly inspired by religious motivations but which don’t show up on congregational or denominational giving reports.

As such needs grow and at a time when the need to give to build new churches or synagogues is less urgent than in the boom-years, people of faith have not deserted the cause even as some of their cohort have stopped going to worship.

The first twenty comments to the RNS story were almost all from anti-religious commentators, who are so often first on the scene with issues like this. Some declare themselves to be atheists, and bring religious passion to their anti-religious declarations.

They think that churches or synagogues or mosques, should not be tax-exempt because they are simply marketers at best and scam artists at worst. They do not see religious organizations providing education of the kind they would approve, or human services at all. Churches, etc., are not going to engage in strategies or public relations moves which will win positive notice from such observers from a distance or through rear-view mirrors.

The larger public, however, evidently has some understanding of the positives effected by individuals gathered in groups devoted to common texts and themes and causes. What keeps that 31% share of the charitable giving is not simply that some people like to build buildings and know they have to heat or cool them. They know that in the vast majority of cases these congregations perform often otherwise-overlooked services in child-care, inspiring young people to engage in works of mercy and mutual care of the aged, including by the aged, which make up large percentages of these giving gatherings.

One hopes that they are open to learning from down trends, no matter what their cause, so that more of them can confess to the shortcomings of religious groups, and join other citizens in responding to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of their nature.” And that they reject the themes which often inspire religious groups to engage in hateful dismissals of “the other” in a time when those better angels might still hover.

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Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the Divinity School at The University of Chicago. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

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As a member of a nationally prominent research group since 2006, I have watched, with amazement and amusement, the surveys sent to me. The wording of the questions & to which members of the panel the surveys are sent can skew the result in a mighty fashion. Therefore, I question results of the survey that is being referenced.

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