Not exactly. A new report by Jumpstart and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy details the many ways that religion and the charitable sector are intertwined. Based on a major national survey, this report finds that three-quarters of all household charitable giving goes to organizations that have religious ties. These span the range from large organizations like the Salvation Army (which, many Americans do not realize, is actually a church) to small soup kitchens run out of church basements.
Not only do Americans give generously to charities with religious affiliations, but the most religious Americans are also the most charitable. In our book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and I show that there is a strong connection between being religious and being charitable. Not surprisingly, the most highly religious Americans contribute their time and treasure to religious causes. But they also give to secular causes—at a higher rate than do the most secular Americans.
Having found that religion and charity go hand-in-hand, Robert Putnam and I sought to understand why. The answer might surprise you. We initially thought that religious beliefs must foster a sense of charity—whether inspiration from biblical stories like the Good Samaritan or, perhaps, a fear of God’s judgment for not acting charitably. However, we could find no evidence linking people’s theological beliefs and their rate of giving—which also helps to explain why the “religion effect” varies little across different religions. The rates for charitable giving according to the Jumpstart survey are: 61 percent of Black Protestants; 64 % of Evangelical Protestants; 67 % of Mainline Protestants, 68 % of Roman Catholics, and 76 % of Jews. By contrast, only 46 % of the not religiously affiliated made any charitable giving.