December 23, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
The University of Chicago's rarely heard alma mater has a redundant line that includes the words “blessings” and “benisons.” I use the latter word increasingly, so: “Christ-mass” benisons to the Christ-massers among you. And all the other benisons to all the other observers of other blessed occasions this season.
I bring up “benisons” because no topic is as relevant or easy to cite in Sightings the week of Christmas as is the issue of shared blessings and giving. The newspapers are full of appeals for seasonal charity. But they are also accounting for the fact that there is much less to account for in 2002. A December 2nd Newsweek headline summarizes: “Fewer Friends in Need: With market sagging and lingering doubts about some charities' finances, donations are dropping sharply this year.”
Daniel McGinn there notes that typically in a recession the drop in charitable giving is 1.1 percent, but last year, despite the post-9/11 outpourings, it was down 2.3 percent -- and this year will be worse. Corporations cut giving by 14.5 percent last year and forecast even less for this year. Foundations can't do as much as in better times. Individuals account for 75 percent of charitable giving, more of it to or through religious causes and agencies than anything else.
Unemployment and recession of whatever length and depth play their part in all of this. Scandals in the Red Cross and in some United Way ventures hurt all the causes. The way that these, and many other charities waste huge amounts of money raising their rather huge sums, did not sit well with many.
Sightings sights religion and sees a long and steep path of decline. Empty tomb, inc., a reliable sorter-out of these matters and the National Council of Churches' Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches found an adjusted-for-inflation decline of 39 percent for beyond-the-local-church giving (missions, charities, seminaries, schools, etc.) Overall, giving to and through religion has dropped from 3.1 percent of income in 1968 to 2.4 percent today. The lights do stay on at most churches and synagogues, but the eyes of members, eyes that are to look with compassion, are dimmer.
Of course, the clergy scandals have hurt some -- drastically in Boston, but hardly at all in Chicago; this is a spotty record and Catholics and others have to rebuild trust. But one has to assume that the replacement of “religion,” with its communal dimension, by “spirituality,” which is usually highly individualized and not focused on projects, is a big factor. Citizens have to face the implications of this shift in 2003 if we want to pretend that we are a compassionate, generous people. Can the findings of empty tomb, inc. instruct us? We can hold out hope. Meanwhile, there is still a week for “individual givers” to give.