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Giving to Change the World

Christian Smith is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Michael O. Emerson is the Allyn R. and Gladys M. Cline Professor of Sociology and Founding Director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life at Rice University. Patricia Snell is Programs and Research Specialist for the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. They are the authors of Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money. The following is an excerpt from chapter one, in which the authors explain how little American Christians really give, and looks at what could be done if Christians were more generous in their giving.

Let us begin on a positive note. The up-side potential for good in U.S. Christian giving is immense, almost unimaginable. If American Christians were to give from their income generously—not lavishly, mind you, only generously—they could transform the world, starting right away. Ordinary American Christians have within their power the capacity to foster massive and unprecedented spiritual, social, cultural, and economic change that closely reflects their values and interests. In order to achieve such dramatic, world-transforming change, ordinary American Christians simply need to do one thing: start giving reasonably generously from their incomes, let us say 10 percent of post-tax income. Fostering such changes could begin immediately. It would not require getting Congress or the United Nations to act. It would not require a military mobilization or waiting for a majority turnover in the Supreme Court. It would only require ordinary Christians from one country to start doing something that seems entirely within their power and that most of them, according to the teachings of their own faith traditions, ought to already be doing anyway: giving generously from the financial resources with which they have been blessed.

Fully grasping the capacity of ordinary American Christians to transform the world through generous financial giving requires comprehending the vast financial resources that are in fact at their disposal. Americans, curiously, often do not view themselves as living in abundance. Most Americans—even among the upper middle class—often see themselves as “just getting by.” But any comparative study of the number of Christian believers in different countries of the world and of the financial incomes at their disposal reveals that ordinary American Christians as a group are sitting on utterly enormous monetary resources, both relatively and absolutely. In 2005, the United States contained approximately 226,624,000 professing Christians, adults and their children, of various levels of commitment. About 140,070,000 Americans are members of Christian churches. About 138,090,000 Americans report attending Christian church at least two times a month or more often or describe themselves as strong or very strong Christians. At least 192,080,000 Americans are Christians who report that their faith is very or even extremely important in their lives. About 149,822,000 Americans report that religion provides a great deal of guidance in their day-to-day life. In short, well more than one hundred million Americans are professing and practicing Christians. The 2005 average U.S. household income was $47,290 for Protestants and $52,918 for Catholics. For regularly churchgoing Protestants and Catholics, average annual household income was even more, $50,138 and $57,791, respectively. Calculated out, self-identified Christians in the United States earned a total collective income in 2005 in the trillions of dollars. Christians in the United States who are actually members of churches earned a total collective 2005 income of more than $2 trillion. Christians in the United States who actually attend church twice a month or more often or who consider themselves strong or very strong Christians earned a total collective 2005 income of also more than $2 trillion. Needless to say, more than $2 trillion earned every year is a huge amount of money. It is more than the total Gross Domestic Products of every nation in the world except, at most, the six wealthiest—United States, Japan, Germany, China, the United Kingdom, and France.

Let us imagine, then, that, from their abundance, American Christians began to give an average of 10 percent of their after-tax personal income to causes of their choosing. To sustain this average, let us assume for now that Christians in more fortunate financial circumstances would give more than 10 percent in order to compensate for others in truly difficult financial circumstances who genuinely could not afford, at least during tight spells, to give 10 percent. What specifically might American Christians accomplish with their shared resources? The short answer is: enough to transform the world.

Committed Christians, for Starters

Realistically, things might be more complex than what we just described, since not all Americans who consider themselves Christians may not be actually serious enough about their faith to start giving away 10 percent of their income. Because different kinds of professing Christians might give or not give more money when the financial “rubber hits the road,” the answer to how much more money U.S. Christians could generate if they tithed depends in part on which Christians we are talking about. Let us begin, then, with a conservative estimation, imagining that only those American Christians would begin to give 10 percent of their after-tax income who either attend church regularly (a few times a month or more frequently) or profess to be “strong” or “very strong” Christians. Let us call these “committed” Christians. Below, we will consider how much more money less committed Christians could contribute by increasing their giving. But for now let us only consider what might happen if only the more highly religious American Christians—who already give at higher levels—would begin to give 10 percent of their after-tax incomes. What might they accomplish with those financial resources? What difference might their generosity make in the world?

We estimate that if committed Christians in the United States gave 10 percent of their after-tax income—fully but no more than 10 percent—that would provide an extra $46 billion per year of resources with which to fund needs and priorities. That represents nearly an additional 25 percent of what all Americans—Christians or otherwise—currently give in all types of private philanthropy. We will adjust this number upward below, but for now it provides a good starting point… If the households representing more committed American Christians—again, those who attend church a few times a month or more frequently or who say they are strong or very strong Christians—were to begin giving 10 percent of their after-tax income, what might that accomplish?

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