Ask people their opinions and they will freely give them. Ask about money and you will get a more guarded response. Many Americans are downright secretive about what they do with their money. That secretiveness itself suggests that uncomfortable truths may be discovered by following the money.

Jesus thought so. He assessed people's lives less by what they said ("Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say?") than by how they responded to him and, in particular, by how they handled money. ("One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.") "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also," Jesus predicted.

That is why I have been studying financial data—to try to listen to money talk about what kind of people we are. Particularly, I have tried to consider how Americans give money away. Charitable giving is as close as we can get to truly free financial behavior. You are not obligated to give (and lots of people don't). You aren't buying anything you need, like food or transportation or housing, or even anything you enjoy, like vacations or premium cable channels. You get nothing out of giving except the satisfaction of your soul. And so, giving shows something about a person's soul.

Rich Americans
I grew up with a mythology of American small-town life that included "the rich banker." In my child's mind, society was composed of scatterings of poor folks (usually across the tracks), a wide band of hard-working ordinary people, and a very few unusual individuals who were rich. The rich were different from you and me: they lived in a nicer house, wore better clothes, and most of all, didn't have to worry about the price of things.

As a child I understood that there were good rich people and bad rich people, and the difference was generosity. I never knew whether a neighboring carpenter or a farmer was particularly charitable. With ordinary people, generosity or stinginess didn't stand out much. Yet people talked about generous rich people with respect and appreciation. Stingy and grasping rich people, however, like Old Man Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, were scorned.

Guess what? We have become the rich bankers. Compared to most of the rest of the world, ordinary Americans have an abundance. Compared to our own grandparents, we are rich. Sylvia and John Ronsvalle, who have spent years studying church finances, compute that the average American today earns almost four times what the average American earned in 1921, after adjusting for inflation and taxes. Real incomes have nearly doubled just since the late 1950s. Today's ordinary middle-class citizens live like the rich banker in their grandparents' town. We wear better clothes. We own bigger houses (with more closets to put things in). We eat out at restaurants.

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How generous are we with our new riches? By comparison with other nations, Americans are very generous. "Total giving to charitable organizations of all kinds, both in absolute figures and as a proportion of income, is higher in the United States than in virtually any other advanced industrial society," writes Robert Wuthnow in God and Mammon in America. (The only possible exception is Israel.)

We have been generous because of our riches, no doubt, but also because of our unique American approach to giving. American colonists reacted against the European system of involuntary tithes. They proposed something new: that churches and charitable institutions be sustained entirely by voluntary gifts. This perilous approach has produced uniquely strong charitable institutions, and a peculiar charitable instinct. It is doubtful that a middle-class European, concerned about health care, would think to respond by giving a donation to a hospital. In America, voluntary giving has long been a major alternative to government action, supporting, for example, some of our best universities and hospitals. We have a thriving independent sector in education, health care, social welfare, the arts, environmental causes, and, of course, in religion.

How generous are Americans? By comparison with biblical standards, not very. The IRS reports that those who itemize deductions on their income tax returns have claimed, since 1975, that between 1.6 percent and 2.16 percent of their income went to charitable concerns. Gallup polls taken every two years for the organization Independent Sector have found charitable donations to run between 1.5 percent and 2 percent of income. Giving USA, an authoritative report published by American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel (AAFRC), says that giving has ranged between 1.7 percent and 1.95 percent of personal income over the last 20 years.

We are, then, a relatively generous people, but not nearly so generous as we might be with our increased wealth. Thirty-one percent of American households say they give no money away at all.

You may remember an occasional newspaper article claiming either that charitable giving is up (we're becoming better people) or that charitable giving is down (we're headed for a moral crisis). Every year or two a major report is issued by the two major sources, the Independent Sector (Gallup), which asks a sample of people how much they gave, and the AAFRC, which asks charitable organizations how much they received. These reports invariably result in "trend" pieces in the major newspapers. A wise interpreter will read the fine print. For example, in October of last year, many publications reported (citing Gallup) that charitable contributions were up 10 percent. But that increase was only for those who gave—and since fewer people gave anything, overall contributions rose only 1 percent annually. That represented a slight decrease in the proportion of income given away.

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In the long term, American giving seems to stay about the same, proportionally. According to Giving USA, "Giving has represented about two percent of gross domestic product for four decades."

Giving may be affected temporarily by the strength of the economy, by tax policy, by scandals among charities, and by the kinds of appeals made. Yet none of these circumstances seems to make nearly as much difference as the character of the donors.

The character of the donor
Research shows that there is a particular kind of person who gives generously to charity. The same person also volunteers in the community, as part of his or her lifestyle. Ninety percent of volunteers contribute to charity, their households giving 2.6 percent of their income—considerably more than the national average. The volunteer-donor is a distinctly American character, whom our communities depend on.

People who give generously to charity are not necessarily those who can afford it. In fact, the weakest givers (giving the lowest proportion of their income) are those making from $40,000 to $100,000 per year. The two groups that give the highest percentages of their income to charity or church are those who make less than $20,000 a year and those who make more than $100,000. People generally give more as they make more, but they often give a lower percentage of their income.

Nor are generous donors mostly older people. The stereotype is that younger generations—the boomers and the busters—are selfish. Yet Gallup found that the most generous donors were those in the 35-44 and 55-64 age groups. (Their proportional giving was exceeded only by the 75+ age group.) The Barna Research Group, in a study done for the Russ Reid Company, found that half of all donors were in their thirties and forties. "The common wisdom that Baby-Boomers and Baby-Busters are selfish and don't give to charity is a myth," the report stated.

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So what kind of people give? One of the clearest findings of all research on giving and volunteering is that the volunteer-donor is likely to be an active Christian. More than income, age, race, or education, faith predicts giving and volunteering.

People who attend religious services weekly, while they are a minority of Americans (38 percent), give two-thirds of all charitable contributions in the entire nation, according to the Independent Sector Gallup Poll. Weekly attenders contribute 3.4 percent of their household income, while those who attend only a few times a year average 1.4 percent, and those who do not attend at all give 1.1 percent. Unquestionably, an active faith is the most important characteristic of those who give (as it is for those who volunteer).

Well over half of all charitable giving in America goes to religious institutions, including churches. Some might suggest that Christians and other religious people naturally support their own faith but contribute little to the wider community. But research has shown this to be untrue. Religious people give to churches (which pass on a great deal to the community), and then give to other, nonreligious organizations as well. Two-thirds of contributions for nonreligious charitable enterprises, researcher Virginia Hodgkinson discovered, come from church members.

Conservative or evangelical Christians are the most generous contributors and volunteers. Robert Wuthnow reveals data that "religious conservatives are more likely to make the connection" between faith and money than religious moderates and liberals. He notes, "Apparently belief in biblical inspiration is too general or vague to make much of a difference. What does make a difference is believing that the Bible should be taken literally." Dean Hoge adds that "those who say their primary duty is to help others to commit their lives to Jesus Christ gave more than any others. In general, the more orthodox the member's belief and faith, the higher the giving—except among Catholics." (In general, Catholic giving lags well behind Protestant giving.)

Wuthnow provides fascinating information on how much church members' contributions to charitable causes can be predicted to increase annually according to the following behavioral changes:

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—increase attendance from yearly to monthly or from monthly to weekly, increase giving $456;
—become regular participants in a Sunday-school class, $1,319;
—become members of a fellowship group, $762;
—hear a sermon about personal finances, $537.

All this should cheer evangelicals and conservatives (and Sunday-school superintendents). Furthermore, writes Wuthnow, "Contrary to popular impressions that associate such thinking with religious liberalism," religious conservatives are much more likely to think about their responsibility to the poor.

American Christians are the core reason why Americans can be described as "generous." American Christians care about their communities and feel responsible to the poor. They show it with their money and their time.

On the other hand, their generosity is rarely heroic. It very rarely approaches the 10 percent standard often taught to Christians, and it rarely interferes with "the good life." Only a few denominations—for instance, the Wesleyan Church, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Assemblies of God—report contributions over 5 percent of annual personal income. Wuthnow found that weekly churchgoers were more likely to admire "people who make a lot of money by working hard" than "people who take a lower-paying job in order to help others," or "people who give a lot of money to charitable causes." Hard work and financial success seem to form a larger part of the Christian volunteer-donor's mindset than do truly sacrificial living or giving.

(First of two parts; click here to read part 2)

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