Religion in America: Charitable Contributions.

When I was 12, my soccer teammate Ian Miller died in a sledding accident in Pennsylvania’s bradford county.

He was headed down a hill on a saucer sled, lost control and ran into a ski-lift beam. He was gone by the time his parents arrived in the emergency room. When the medical staff removed his boot, they found a bible verse inside. It was from the book of James, chapter 1, verse 12–“consider it pure joy, my brothers, when facing trials of many kinds. For when your faith succeeds in facing such trials, the result is the ability to endure. ”

His parents took the verse as instruction, and founded a charity in his name called In Ian’s Boots, which delivers used shoes and boots to people across the world. They’ve been in operation for almost 5 years now, and have found great success, helping hundreds of different organizations across the world.

I don’t remember too much about Ian. We didn’t hang out very much off of the field, and although he was incredibly personable, we really didn’t know each other that well. But we were teammates, and therefore friends. But I feel like I know him better now because of the time I’ve spent working with In Ian’s Boots.

Which, of course, wouldn’t have been created without the strong faith of his parents and, obviously, Ian himself.

Take a look at the main tenants of any major worldwide religion and it’s likely you’ll see something about donating time or money, often 10 percent of your income, to the poor. Jesus preached about it, Muslims are directed to give away a little over two percent of their salary, and in Judaism, the word Tzedakah, which translates roughly to the duty¬†a Jewish person has to support and donate to the poor, is considered an obligation.

Generosity and empathy are important parts of every religious doctrine, and this has translated into a heavy religious influence in America’s prominent charities and nonprofits. Take a look at the largest 100 charities in America¬†(out of the over 86,000 foundations in the country), and you’ll notice a smattering of religion-related organizations, including the Catholic Medical Mission Board and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. In the list’s top ten, there are at least two charities–The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities USA–with explicitly religious mission statements.

Religious Americans, it has been found, give a great deal of money to charitable causes, mainly in the form of church tithes–meaning that they donate via their religious congregation.

On the other end of the give-receive charity divide, religious organizations, historically and currently, accept the most donations of any foundation category, accounting for 33 percent of all charitable donations in 2015. This is an often controversial topic in the world of donation and charitable organization–churches and other religious congregations are tax-exempt. In some cases, clergy members are even exempt from paying taxes on common utilities such as cable and property. And, according to the afore-linked article, 71 percent of church expenditures are spent on operational costs instead of actually helping the poor or needy. The red cross, the article reports, spends upwards of 90 percent of the money it receives on the poor and needy.

This, then, is the great divide in religious giving. While religious Americans are more likely to give, and give often, the organizations that they give to most often don’t always spend their money in the way that many believe they do.

I don’t believe it’s wrong for churches to spend large amounts of money on their day-to-day operational costs, as long as they are transparent with their financial allocations. I don’t think that I’m informed enough to offer an opinion on the ethics exempting churches and other religious organizations from taxes, although I believe that these two concepts, money allocation and taxation, are related, and that the taxation stance should be based off of money allocation.

But I am sure that religion plays an important role in the charitable conscience of America, even if it’s just to remind citizens to think of others. Many Americans give to charities as an effect of their religious beliefs or through religious-affiliated charities, and for this reason, religious influence does a lot of good.



One thought on “Religion in America: Charitable Contributions.

  1. Jim, I really enjoyed the points you brought up in this post regarding the often synonymous nature of religion and money. When many think of the Salvation Army, an image of a Santa, ringing a bell, and walking the busy streets of New York City is called to mind. This may seem secular enough to some, but the organization has clear links to the Bible and obviously, some ideas about heaven and salvation. Just watch Guys and Dolls. Religious themes are predominant in the charity world, but at times, even unbeknownst to the donor.

    On the other hand, you note the largely unregulated nature of charitable giving that is religiously affiliated. We, as a nation, pride ourselves in separating church and state. We allow citizens to serve their communities as they see fit based upon their faith and values. And in many respects, it can allow well-intentioned organizations to do real good in the world. I, myself, have some background in Catholic Relief Services, and have also met students who give their time, talent, and treasure through groups such as the Jewish Hillel. However, by government taking a hands off approach to charities, there are some who take advantage of the situation. I would highly recommend the Jon Oliver video on Televangelists. He discusses the relative ease with which ‘churches’ can be founded, and thereby take in revenue. It shocked me how little has been done historically to prove the authenticity of a religious organization, and also how gullible those most vulnerable can be in giving away their money. There are also issues in the case of some non-religious charities, such as the Susan G. Komen group, which have been shown in past years as using a much smaller portion of their proceeds toward furthering their cause than many assume. Regardless of creed or cause, we all need to be circumspect when giving away our money, even to supposedly benevolent organizations.

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