The run-up to Christmas, with its street-corner Salvation Army kettles and church food drives, would seem a lousy time to find out that Christian charity in America is not what it's supposed to be. But in the recently released Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money, sociologists Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell argue that too many American Christians—"the most affluent single group of Christians in two thousand years of church history"—are guilty of Scrooge-like stinginess. At least one in five American Christians, they write, gives no money at all to charities. In some churches, the miserliness rate is even higher. More than 28 percent of Catholics, for example, don't donate to charity. Bah, humbug, indeed.
Not surprisingly, numbers of that kind left some Christian commentators dismayed. "Scrooge Lives," proclaimed the December Christianity Today in a cover story about tight-fisted Christians. "The level of self-centered materialism described here is truly staggering," wrote one reviewer. "The book should drive us to our knees."
But are Christians really so stingy? Looked at comparatively, Christians could be commended for their relative generosity instead of rebuked as misers. Their charitable giving stacks up pretty well against that of nonbelievers, who appear to be even tighter with their charitable dollars. More than half of nonreligious Americans contributed no money or property to charity, according to Passing the Plate, and the percentage of income donated to charity by the average nonbeliever was less than 1 percent, compared with nearly 3 percent for American Christians. And some categories of Christians distinguished themselves as givers. The average evangelical Protestant, for example, gave a sturdy 8.2 percent of annual income, according to surveys cited in the book.
Financial matters are so deeply ingrained in church life that it's no surprise that faith-based giving—and particularly the lack of it—would be a hot topic. Responsibility for the needy and the obligation to help the church do good work in the world are fundamental Christian precepts. Collection plates and sermons about stewardship are staples of the churchgoing experience, and the pleas for money only increase as Christmas approaches. Yet even when Christians do give generously, their money doesn't always make it to charitable causes. Most of the money gathered in churches on Sunday is spent inside those same churches on operating expenses likes staff salaries and facility maintenance. The authors of Passing the Plate write that "the vast majority of the money that American Christians do give to religion is spent in and for their own local communities of faith—little is spent on missions, development and poverty relief outside of local congregations."
Raising money has been a preoccupation of American church leaders from the start. It became especially urgent after churches were disestablished as organs of the state, cutting them off from public support. (The last state to disestablish its official church was Massachusetts, which cut its ties with the Congregational Church in 1833.) In the wave of diversification and privatization that followed, churches found themselves competing for believers—and their money. Some churches raised funds by renting pews to worshippers; others imposed property taxes. Every generation of church leadership seemed to introduce its own fundraising innovations. The collection envelope, introduced in the late 19th-century church, promised to promote regular giving. The Catholic parish of my childhood subsisted in part on bingo nights and pancake breakfasts. Churches are still innovating today, with some installing ATM-like "giving kiosks" that allow worshippers to donate by swiping debit or credit cards on their way into church—charge your donation and earn bonus air miles!