In our opinion: Charitable giving to churches provides a great benefit to society

Published: Friday, Nov. 8 2013 10:44 a.m. MST

In some circles, people are arguing that charitable donations to churches don't provide a benefit to society. That is an ill informed opinion that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

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Not all charitable giving is related to a church or a religious cause, but religion undeniably is a huge motivating factor that spurs people to give. It also is a big reason why individual giving in the United States continues to rise despite a slow economy, with personal giving hitting $223 billion in 2012.

That was by far the largest portion of the $316.23 billion Americans gave overall, with most of the balance coming from corporations. An overwhelming 88 percent of Americans gave to charity last year, according to the Giving USA Foundation and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Many people may not be aware, however, of an ongoing debate about whether giving to a church or religious organization should qualify as charitable to the same degree as giving to a cause. That argument was discussed in a recent Deseret News story on the reasons Americans are so generous.

Citing statistics from ChartyNavigator.org, the story said 32 percent of all giving in 2012, or $101.2 billion, went to religious organizations. Other surveys, most notably one published last year by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, have found that regions of the United States in which a high percentage of people are devoutly religious tend to give far more than people in other areas.

The concerns about giving to churches are not just ill informed. They display a high degree of ignorance about an important part of the nation’s social fabric — one that costs government nothing and yet saves the public from enormous costs. Not only do churches provide direct aid and charity to suffering people, such as through Catholic Charities or the philanthropic, charitable and welfare efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (which owns this newspaper), virtually all religions teach their members to perform acts of charity and kindness on their own. This kind of charity, whether it involves helping a neighbor in need or volunteering at a food bank, is difficult to quantify but impossible to ignore.

In addition to what the non-religious world would characterize as worthwhile giving, churches also provide spiritual benefits that are difficult to measure in dollars. The substance abuser who has a conversion experience and changes his or her life for the better, or the business executive who, because of a sermon or an inner conviction decides to be ethical and honest when tempted to do otherwise provide immeasurable benefits to all of society.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that giving tends to divide along economic lines, with people of modest means giving far more, as a percentage of income, than those of ample means. But it found a twist. Wealthy people who live in zip codes that include people less fortunate than themselves give a larger percentage than those who confine themselves to neighborhoods made up only of other wealthy people.

In other words, when the rich are exposed to people with needs, they become just as charitable as people of more modest means, who tend to be exposed to such people more often.

One of the many benefits churches provide is that they often expose the wealthy to the less fortunate. This connection happens often within the fellowship of church members, and it also happens through the charitable outreach programs churches provide.

Take away religion from the picture and the United States would be less charitable, less productive and less able to deal with social ills.

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