Earlier I reviewed American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, a 2010 book by two public intellectuals that presents several important new findings. Now the authors have written, “Charity’s Religious Edge,” as a lengthy editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
They find Americans to be a generous people. They note that contributions to America’s charities are down with one major exception: religion. Taken as a whole, America’s charities report an 11% drop in contributions in the past year alone, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Yet contributions to religious groups dropped by only 0.1% from 2007 to 2009. American Grace says that 80% of all Americans report having made a charitable contribution in the previous year, but religious people gave a lot more. Of the most secular fifth of Americans, two-thirds said they gave money to charity in the previous year. That’s an impressive number, but it pales next to the 94% of the most religious fifth who reported making a charitable donation. The same pattern occurs when they examine how much people give. The story is the same when they consider charitable giving as a fraction of household income. By this measure, religious Americans are four times as generous as their secular neighbors.
To me the most fascinating part of their article is not which American religion is the most charitable (that answer is Mormons, followed by evangelicals). Rather it’s the discovery of what they identify as the “primary driver of religious Americans’ giving.” It’s the social networks formed at one’s church, synagogue or mosque. In other words, religious Americans’ high rate of giving isn’t attributable to the specific religious or political beliefs that they hold, but to the friends with whom they worship. As they interpret it, the more you hang around people who practice generosity, the more generous you also will become.