The unfortunate thing about the Chronicle of Philanthropy's report, released this week, on charitable giving in the United States is that it immediately became political. That is perhaps understandable given that a major national election is less than three months away, but it obscures at least one important piece of information.
Americans are incredibly generous, and that generosity is tied, in large part, to religious beliefs.
Despite international criticisms about American capitalists, greed and the corruption sometimes generated by the profit motive, when the world is in trouble it looks to the United States, and not just to its government. The Chronicle of Philanthropy report said Americans as a whole gave $135.8 billion to charity last year, according to an analysis of federal income tax returns. Much of this came from people of modest means, who give a higher percentage of their income than the wealthy.
Government likely couldn't muster the political will to tax people enough to equal that amount of giving, and if it did, it couldn't give it to churches, where much of the donations go and a large share of charitable work is performed. The beauty of giving in the United States is that it is voluntary, and that it reflects an inward sense of responsibility to the less fortunate among the givers. That speaks to character.
Analyses of the report have focused to a large extent on the comparative differences in giving between states that tend to vote Republican and those that vote Democratic. People in conservative states give more. But there is evidence that this difference has less to do with politics than with religion. People who believe in God and in a divine charge to care for others give generously.
Utah leads the nation in giving, with its residents donating an average of 10.6 percent of their disposable income to charity, including churches. The Salt Lake City metro area — the state's most diverse area in terms of political preference — was the sixth most generous metropolitan area in the nation, with residents giving an average of 9 percent of their discretionary income. The Provo-Orem metro area, however, ranked first, with its residents giving an impressive 13.9 percent. Given that the figures are averages, this shows a willingness among many to give far beyond the 10 percent tithing requested of many churches. Logan finished third among metro areas.
This is an admirable record and it ought to make Utah an attractive place to relocate. People who give generously demonstrate a deep sense of caring toward their communities and the welfare of those around them. Generous giving relieves the burden of government services, which is especially important during difficult economic times.
The takeaway from this report should have little to do with scoring political points. It should, however, inform the policies politicians pursue. The United States and its subdivisions should do all they can to encourage religious participation through tax exemptions, favorable zoning laws and other measures that increase the freedoms Americans have to worship and practice their beliefs. The world cannot afford any measure that might dampen the vital spirit of generosity in this country.