July 27, 2009
— Martin E. Marty
Giving USA Foundation last month reported on "giving, U.S.A." under a headline, "Giving in worst economic climate since Great Depression exceeds $300 billion for second year in a row," but "a 2 percent drop in current dollars over 2007," as well as "the first decline...since 1987" and the second since the Foundation started keeping score in 1956 has occurred. "Two-thirds of public charities receiving donations saw decreases in 2008. The exceptions were Religion" along with "Public-Society Benefit and International Affairs." Ms. Del Martin of the Foundation, speaking of the religiously motivated, said "It would have been easy to say 'not this year' when appeals came their way, and we definitely did see belt-tightening...[N]on profits have had to do more with less over the past year, but it could have been a lot worse."
However, human services charities "are among the first to reporting increasing needs for their services in 2008," and most expect things to get worse in 2009. The sector named "Religion," in the first year of the new hard times, reported that "giving to religion increased an estimated 5.5 percent (1.6 percent adjusted for inflation.)" Also, "religious gifts account for an estimated one-half of all individual giving, not counting gifts made through bequests (5.6 percent) or family foundations (about 3 percent.)"
No one on the giving front is relaxing, or being and sounding optimistic, but the record so far gives some reasons for hope and provides some impetus for digging in and digging deeper so that this vital sector can play its role, locally and nationally, especially on the "human services" front. It is always the first to get cut or chopped down by (especially) the most financially strapped state governments.
I've read many articles in which authors look to the Great Depression to find out about giving, coping, enduring, et cetera. I've also been asked about it, since a chunk of my The Noise of Conflict, 1919-1941, volume two of Modern American Religion, deals with what people wrote and did "last time around." I quoted an important Research Memorandum on Religion in the Depression by Chicago Theological Seminary Professor Samuel C. Kincheloe, as good a reference as any.
One difference between that depression and all previous American depressions, according to an editorial in The Christian Century from September 18, 1935, cited by Kincheloe, was that it was "the first time men have not blamed God for hard times." My reading "this time around" suggests that the judgment holds true and gets seconded. Yes, some judgmental evangelists who argue that God sends Hurricane Katrina and tsunamis say that God gets the credit for the current crisis, but almost everyone else finds plenty of blameworthy activity going around. Different ones of God's creatures get the blame, depending upon who is assessing the damages and pointing to the damagers.
Human flaws and follies, globalization trends, bad banking practices, and much more are shamed and blamed, and they bring hard times and judgment on themselves - or, better, "ourselves." There is plenty of room for work by theological ethicists and preachers, but while chest-pounding and finger-pointing go on, it would seem that the signals from Giving USA are important as reminders for what to do continually.
I, or "this writer," as we used to say, do/does not think that charitable giving and churchly acts of mercy will take the place of or do more than supplement what has to be done through government and secular agencies. But the durability, dedication, and partial steps religious groups and individuals manifest remain vital in the larger economy of nations.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.