Should ministers be selective about their charitable giving, or should they assume an attitude of non-judgmental liberality? A new study on the generosity of Americans might shed light on this question. The study reveals that residents of more religious states donate more to charity than residents of more secular states. It turns out, however, that religious people are not necessarily more generous than secular people–they just spend their money differently.
According to the study, conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, people who live in U.S. states where religious observance is higher (particularly in the South) donate more to charity than people who live in states where religious observance is lower (particularly in the northeast and Pacific Northwest). The most generous states included Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina, while the least generous Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Washington state, and Oregon. Additionally, the religiosity of states was strongly correlated with their prevailing political ideology. Eight of the ten most generous states voted for Republican candidate John McCain in the 2008 general election, while nine of the least generous voted for Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
In fact, people who live in religious states might not actually be as generous as they seem. It turns out that a lot of the “charities” included in the study were churches, not necessarily explicit social welfare programs. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa points out that people can “choose…the beneficiaries of their charity donations,” but they “do not have any control over whom the money they pay in taxes benefit[s].” For example, a person can choose whether to donate money to mothers on welfare, but not whether their taxes benefit such individuals. Echoing Kanazawa, Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College, argues that people in less religious states are just as generous because they are more willing to pay higher taxes for the common good–the liberal way of “being altruistic.” Thus, charities give people like ordained ministers the option of discriminating against certain groups–taxes do not.
Does this mean we should stop donating to charities and dump all our resources into higher taxes? Certainly not! It just means we should take a more critical perspective on our motives–and our prejudices. We would argue that to become a minister, a sense of fairness and compassion is incredibly beneficial, as are the abilities to be good stewards of our funds and communities. When giving to a religious organization we should consider what portion of the funds are to aid the hungry and the impoverished, and what amounts might be spent on non-charitable ends such as curtailing rights of other groups. Likewise we should take account of what our taxes go towards, from programs to help the elderly and the poor, or to wasteful programs, or some with which we take issue. Of course, regardless of any issues we take with any government funded programs, as Americans we continue to pay our taxes, but knowing where the money is allocated can help you as a minister determine how you want to give of your time and money both politically, and for charity.
For Universal Life Church ministers, charity lies at the core of our mission, but discriminatory charity ought not. If we truly are all children of the same universe, this means withholding judgement and lending a helping hand, which means recognizing that we “belong with everyone else,” and that we are “citizens in the common good,” as Wolfe put it. And in the words of Jesus, it may also require us to “[r]ender unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.”