In their 2010 tax returns, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama reported that they each gave roughly the same percentage of their income to charity. But most of Mr. Romney’s giving went to his church while President Obama’s money went mainly to a secular cause, the Fisher House Foundation, which provides housing for families of vets in a hospital.
Does their difference in the type of giving reflect any pattern of charity in America? Only in this regard, as reflected in a new study by The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Americans differ widely in their giving, in both motives and goals.
The study, released Monday, found people living in the most religious areas of the United States give more to charity as a percentage of their discretionary income than do people in other parts of the country. But this greater generosity is likely due to a tradition of tithing in the Bible Belt and also states like Utah and Idaho that have high numbers of Mormons. In contrast, people living in less religious areas, mainly in the Northeast, give a higher percentage of their income to secular causes.
“Religion has a big influence on giving patterns,” stated the Chronicle. “When religious giving isn’t counted, the geography of giving is very different.”
These differences may help explain a political divide in America over the role of government in providing social services. Many people who give to secular causes may see taxes as a type of voluntary giving. Many others who give for religious reasons may prefer less taxation and less government in favor of religious-based charity.
But the study points to another insight: The rich who live in close proximity to the less wealthy give more than the rich who don’t.
The average giving of those making more than $200,000 was 4.2 percent. But for the wealthy who live in areas where more than 40 percent of people earn that high income, the average giving drops to 2.8 percent.
In other words, the wealthy who insulate themselves from diverse communities and avoid seeing the needs of their less-well-off neighbors aren’t as generous.
Scholars have long looked for clues on why people give. Certainly seeing disadvantaged people every day can evoke empathy. But researchers are not sure exactly how religion influences giving. Is it an understanding of God that drives individuals to act or do they give simply as part of belonging to a moral community?
In a 2010 book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” scholars Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell rely on statistics to make a case that people who go to church are more giving in their civic community because they simply have a high number of friends in their church.
The authors write: “By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans – they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”
But adds Dr. Putnam: “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”
In a separate study, Putnam and fellow sociologist Chaeyoon Lim cite a survey that shows the number of friends is far more important to a person’s life satisfaction than attending a religious congregation regularly while having few or no friends.
Other scholars doubt the assumption that the moral teachings of a religion have little to do with the level of giving. They point out that stronger religious belief can lead to stronger participation in the social activities of a church.
The exact cause that compels people to give may remain an unknown to scholars. But Putnam admits that there is a “pervasive robust correlation between religion and good neighborliness.”
Or as he put it in his famous 2000 book, “Bowling Alone”: “Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in American life.”