NOVEMBER 17, 2003
Tipping the Plate
Martin E. Marty
Sighting religion in public demands attention to money and giving, a theme
that is as old as any measure in scriptures. In November we give particular
attention to this subject, as this is the month when charities make their final
pitches for the year and churches engage in "stewardship" and promote
giving. So, how are we doing? Arthur C. Brooks in Policy
Review (No. 121, October/November) reports that "The differences in
charity between secular and religious people are dramatic," with religious
people 25 percent more likely to donate money and 23 percent more likely to
volunteer time. He finds that attending worship also makes a huge difference
in our likelihood of giving. (Sorry, we have no way of measuring how "spirituality"
motivates individuals.) Brooks deals with most of the questions that come to
mind -- questions of class, income, politics, etc. -- so check him out for details.
How much do the religious give? The people at GenerousGiving.org see some decline (adjusted for inflation) in the last couple of years. Overall, 70 percent of Americans "gave," and 60 percent of their giving was to religious agencies, especially church-and-synagogue. They gave on average $1,075 per household, across class lines. (As usual, the poorer gave more than the richer; those who do not benefit from "tax cuts" more than those who profit wildly from them). I suppose this comes out to about $20 per week for all causes, including church.
Whoever does what Jesus-in-the-gospels did, and examines the collection plate as it goes by, still will find plenty of "mites" or one-dollar bills. The move from pocket change to dollar-bills, I am told, began post-Depression and especially after World War II. A book titled How Much Is That In Real Money? would help us calculate that, today, one would have to give ten-dollar bills and up to match the 1945 dollar.
How does church giving compare to other "giving" and paying? For example, tipping. The Chicago Tribune last Friday (November 7) featured "Tipping," and posted amounts that are regular, or seem to be in place. For example, women do, or should, tip their manicurist $4 and, on a $40 haircut, $8-$10. The hotel concierge who gets you good tickets deserves $20. The one that I thought too low was "Chambermaid: $1 to $5 a night is appropriate but not required." Spend $100-$300 for a hotel overnight, and leave $1 to the new immigrant in Housekeeping who deals with all the "remains" of the day (and night)? Unfair. But I digress.
My bottom line: our giving to all causes, beginning with church, per capita among givers -- and without averaging in non-givers in the population -- is closer to "tipping" than "sacrifice" or "generous giving." Tell us that church-giving is restricted to "the private sector" and you underestimate the "public works" that go on in the average congregation. Care of the aged, the addicted, the homeless, the ill, and the lonely is in the charter and, I presume, usually in the practice of such.
Critique of my own annual "Stewardship Sermon" just preached:
A) It may be class-biased; most Americans don't have a hotel whose personnel one tips; no sommeliers, maitre d's, concierges, etc.
B) You can't shame people into giving, and the lines above imply a need to shame. So, shame on me. Still, isn't our record a shame?
Here endeth the sermon. Next week we'll be objective and distant again.