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This could be the worst moment in our lifetimes to discover that American Christians give away relatively little of their money.

The economy is in the midst of the worst downturn in at least 17 years and the most serious U.S. banking crisis in at least 20. It has the potential to be as painful as the Great Depression. Banks are failing. Workers are losing their jobs. Homeowners are losing their homes.

But this may actually be the best time for an emerging study that delivers the bad news. Over the next few months or years, as our economy travels down a long road of recovery, our neighbors may need much more assistance than we've grown accustomed to providing. And like skyrocketing home prices, the lack of generosity among American Christians is a trend that cannot continue without doing serious harm.

More than one out of four American Protestants give away no money at all—"not even a token $5 per year," say sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell in a new study on Christian giving, Passing the Plate (Oxford University Press).

Of all Christian groups, evangelical Protestants score best: only 10 percent give nothing away. Evangelicals tend to be the most generous, but they do not outperform their peers enough to wear a badge of honor. Thirty-six percent report that they give away less than two percent of their income. Only about 27 percent tithe.

Economists sometimes view recessions as necessary purgings of excessive behavior, correcting irrational investments in stocks in the 1920s or tulips in 17th-century Holland. Perhaps the current correction, as families learn to live on less and depend on each other more, will make American Christians more generous. It would be a correction long overdue.

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