Charitable giving is a noble character trait deeply ingrained in the American culture and psyche. It is natural for voters to want to know how much candidates tend to contribute on their own. However, the way in which giving, as a reflection of faith, has become an issue in the current campaign borders on the unseemly.
Attempts by candidates to, as it were, out-Christian each other do not reflect well on the meaning and purpose of devotion. They are, instead, distracting campaigns from more meaningful issues that deserve attention.
In a recent question-and-answer session with voters in Iowa, Mike Huckabee criticized those who give less than the biblically proscribed 10 percent of their income — a thinly veiled jab at Ted Cruz, who has acknowledged falling short of that goal.
"My view is this: On a spiritual level, it’s really hard to say that God is first in my life if he’s last in my budget,” the Washington Post quoted Huckabee as saying. He then went on to make a broader statement about what he considers to be the nation’s high tax rates, saying Americans give 50 cents of every dollar to the government to do the charitable work that churches used to do.
It's not clear what he was referring to. Americans do not pay half their income in taxes, nor has government usurped the good work of churches, which still relieve government of the need to provide many services. Charities in this country, including churches, thrive because of voluntary giving.
The National Center for Charitable Statistics says 72 percent of all giving to nonprofit agencies in 2014 came from individuals. Put in a more meaningful context, Americans far and away give more to charity than people in the rest of the world.
The Almanac of American Philanthropy documents this. In 2014, Americans voluntarily gave nearly $360 billion to charity, which was a record. Most of this came from individuals, equating to 70 percent of U.S. households giving an average of $2,600 each. No other nation comes close.
In a review of the almanac for the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby puts this into further perspective. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides more in overseas aid than the Italian government, and yet private members of U.S. churches alone provide four and a half times more than that.
This doesn’t include the 8 billion combined hours of voluntary service Americans provide. As Karl Zinsmeister writes in the book’s introduction, this kind of giving is a big part of “what makes America America.”
Among those candidates who have made their tax returns public, only Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina gave more than 10 percent of their incomes to charity. But, as a Georgetown government professor told the Deseret News, it isn’t likely voters care much.
Charitable giving may be an indication of a person’s character, but for many Americans, giving is a personal matter. It isn’t something trumpeted or discussed.
Setting an acceptable standard for other candidates, boasting about fundraisers for charity that are held in lieu of attendance at debates and all other attempts by candidates to make themselves look more giving than others violates that spirit of what makes America America.