Give Thanks for the Humanitarian Habits of Religious People

Give Thanks for the Humanitarian Habits of Religious People
Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star via AP
Give Thanks for the Humanitarian Habits of Religious People
Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star via AP
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A majority of all Americans now tell pollsters that efforts to help the poor, comfort the needy, and otherwise serve the common good would be just as prevalent “if there were no people of faith or religious organizations to do them.” Sorry, folks. As a factual matter, that is emphatically untrue.

When investigators document how people spend their hours and their money, religious Americans look very different from others. For example, the Pew Research Center finds that 45% Americans who attend services weekly and pray daily have done volunteer work during the previous week. Among other Americans, 28% have volunteered.

Religious people are more involved in community groups, according to that survey and many others. They have stronger links with their neighbors. Among individuals who worship weekly, 47% gather with extended family at least once a month; for the rest of our population, it’s 30%. Of all the “associational” activity that takes place in the U.S., almost half is church-related, according to sociologist Robert Putnam. 

“As a whole,” notes theologian Tim Keller, “… secularism is not good for society.” Secularism “makes people very fragmented. They might talk about community, but they aren’t sacrificing their own personal goals for community, as religion requires you to do.”

Like no other influence, religious practice links us in webs of mutual knowledge, responsibility, and support. Seven out of 10 weekly church attenders consider “work to help the needy” an “essential part” of their faith. Most of them put their money and time where their mouth is: 65% have donated funds, goods, or their own labor to the poor within the previous week. 

The behavioral variable most consistently associated with generous giving is religious practice. Philanthropic studies show that religious Americans give away two to four times as much of their income every year as those with no religious affiliation. 

And people with religious motivations don’t give just to faith-based causes — they are also much likelier to give to secular causes than the nonreligious. Two-thirds of people who worship at least twice a month give to secular causes, compared to less than half of non-attenders, and the average secular gift by a church attender is 20% bigger.

There are many branches of social healing where people of faith dominate:

  • Religious Americans adopt children at 2½ times the overall national rate, host foster kids three years longer than other families, and play a particularly large role in adopting and fostering hard-to-place kids.
  • The bulk of volunteers mentoring prisoners and their families are Christians.
  • Local church congregations, aided by umbrella groups like Catholic Charities, provide most of the day-to-day help that resettles refugees and asylees arriving in the U.S.
  • A 2017 study found that 58% of the emergency shelter beds in 11 surveyed cities are maintained by faith-based providers — who also deliver many of the addiction, health-care, education, and job services the homeless need to become self-supporting.
  • Religious hospitals care for one out of every five U.S. hospital patients. 
  • The educational alternative that draws most headlines today is charter schooling, which serves 3 million children. Much less often acknowledged is the fact that 3.8 million children are educated every year in religious schools in the U.S. Students in these religious schools experience less violence and bullying, exhibit better citizenship skills, and produce average SAT scores 141 points higher than public-school students.
  • Local congregations provide 130,000 alcohol-recovery programs.
  • Local congregations provide 120,000 programs that assist the unemployed.
  • Local congregations provide 26,000 programs to help people living with HIV/AIDS — one ministry for every 46 people infected with the virus. 
  • Churches recruit a large portion of the volunteers needed to operate organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, America's thousands of food pantries and feeding programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and other volunteer-dependent charities.

Given all this evidence linking religious practice with generosity and wholesome behavior, recent patterns of religious decline are worrisome. A third of 18-to-29-year-olds are now religiously unaffiliated, and only a quarter attend services weekly. If that doesn’t change, the private philanthropic actions that improve America in so many ways will sag badly in the future. 

Indeed, the latest research already shows that U.S. giving is eroding in tandem with declining religious practice. Our unusual religiosity and extraordinary generosity are closely linked, and if faith in America continues to shrivel, our habits of mutual aid will spiral further downward.

Surely, most Americans would like to avoid that harsher, less benevolent, more dysfunctional future. If we hope to head that off, a good place to start this Thanksgiving holiday would be to show more respect for the many societal contributions of religious believers.

Former White House domestic policy adviser Karl Zinsmeister is editor in chief of Philanthropy magazine, where he presented in-depth research on this topic in the Winter 2019 issue.

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