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GUEST COLUMN: Giving thanks for the religious propensity to give

By: Karl Zinsmeister
November 23, 2017 Updated: November 23, 2017 at 4:05 am
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Ever since a group of Protestant religious refugees from England by way of Holland landed at Plymouth Rock, religion has been a cornerstone of American identity. It is also the major source of America's unique tradition of heavy, voluntary, private giving.

Three quarters of Americans identify with a particular religion. And we are more serious about our religious practice than the residents of almost any other developed nation. Among other effects, this shows itself in the astonishing generosity of our people.

Americans give far more time and money to their fellow humans than residents of any other country, whether you measure per capita, or as a percentage of what people earn, or in total. Our 2017 giving total will come to roughly $800 billion in combined cash and volunteer labor value.

Christians are taught "to love thy neighbor as thyself," and encouraged to donate 10 percent of their income to others. In Judaism, the tradition of tzedakah promotes charitable assistance. Islam teaches similar duties of zakat.

The density of religious faith in the U.S. is the foremost explanation for our unprecedented donations, year after year. Other influences include our frontier pattern of working together for the common good, the deep tradition of generosity that has grown up among Americans who succeed in business, and the overall wealth thrown off by our free economy.

Our recently released 2017 Compact Edition of The Almanac of American Philanthropy shows that religiously organized good causes are by far our favorite path into giving-accounting directly for a third of all charitable gifts. But religious people also give heavily to causes organized by secular charities. Indeed, religious Americans are much more likely to donate to secular purposes than secular people are, and their average gifts are substantially larger (after all other demographic differences have been held constant).

Per capita giving to any charitable cause is four times higher among Americans who attend religious services 27-52 times per year than it is among Americans who never attend services. The donations of active worshippers go into helping the poor, health care, education, aiding the needy overseas, the arts and spiritual inspiration, and many other causes.

Consider just a few of the largest gifts of the last few years to explicitly religious causes:

In November 2017, one of the most innovative museums in America was launched with close to a half-billion dollars of gift funding from the Green family of Oklahoma. The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., has just opened its doors to one of the world's great collections of Biblical artifacts, exhibits on the impact of the Bible on America and the world, even a state-of-the-art virtual tour across the nation's capital to view passages from Scripture engraved throughout the city.

In 2016, Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot, donated the largest gift ever received by Hillel - a program for teaching Jews about their faith on more than 600 college campuses worldwide. This $38 million gift will train new leaders who can instruct students at crucial ages in community life, personal identity, and moral decision-making.

In 2015, Christine and Stephen Schwarzman gave $40 million to an endowment that lets almost 3,000 children trapped in poor neighborhoods in New York City attend Catholic schools on scholarship. Most of these students are non-Catholic, yet their parents treasure the academic and ethical instruction that allows these schools to graduate good citizens and successful workers at much higher rates.

Also in 2015, businessman B. J. Cassin and other philanthropists launched a fund that will open 125 new religious schools across the country that are devoted to bringing excellent education and character training to thousands of low-income children.

Of course, much commoner than these big gifts are the religiously motivated contributions made every day by millions of average Americans. These actually pool up into totals much larger than the mega-gifts just described.

Religiously inspired generosity is a mass phenomenon in our country. That's how faith-filled donors accomplish remarkable things every day.

This Thanksgiving, as you enjoy your friends and loved ones, you may want to give thanks as well for the generosity of religious Americans who voluntarily share their bounty with fellow citizens. These millions of faithful neighbors, who have no counterpart in other rich countries, lift up legions of fellow human beings with material aid, inspiration, and loving kindness - just because their faith encourages them to.

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Karl Zinsmeister is vice president of publications at The Philanthropy Roundtable and author of The Almanac of American Philanthropy.

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