Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money

February 12, 2009

There are at least two ways of doing social science. The traditional way is to observe a phenomenon, often a problem or a puzzle, and then explain it. For example, why are divorce rates in society X rising? Social science offers a hypothesis to account for the data.

The other, trendier way is simply to bestow a name on a phenomenon, which need not be a problem or a puzzle. Rather than explaining why divorce rates are rising, social science informs us that we now live in, let us say, an age of "short-termism". Thus, sociologist Manuel Castells announces that we reside today in a "networked society".

Happily, Passing the Plate is social science of the traditional kind. Prominent sociologists Christian Smith and Michael Emerson seek to explain why American Christians donate much less money to their churches than their incomes would allow - in many cases little or nothing, in a few the hallowed 10 per cent.

The authors offer nine hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. Among them:

Hypothesis 1: American Christians simply do not possess the discretionary financial income to give 10 per cent of their income because of the many fixed costs of living in US society.

Hypothesis 2: many American Christians, whatever their objective financial capacities, subjectively believe that they do not possess the resources to give 10 per cent of their income.

Hypothesis 5: most American Christians do not give their money generously because they are suspicious of waste and abuse by non-profit administrators.

Hypothesis 6: they do not give generously because their churches hold low expectations of financial giving.

Hypothesis 9: they give relatively little because much of their giving tends to be occasional and situational, not a consistent, structured, routine practice.

The hypotheses are then tested against the array of data amassed. The results: no for 1, yes for 2, yes (with qualifications) for 5, yes for 6 and yes for 9. Of the nine hypotheses, five hold, either outright or qualified. There are, then, multiple reasons that American Christians give so little. There is no one overriding reason.

Smith and Emerson reject the easiest explanation: that humans are by nature selfish. After all, American Christians are often generous - for example, in response to humanitarian crises. More important, any appeal to human nature assumes that humans act directly on their instincts. In fact, they are the product of their societies - a point made classically in the analysis of suicide rates by sociology's founding father, Emile Durkheim.

Smith and Emerson grant that "the capacity if not tendency to be selfish and greedy may be universal among human beings". But these inclinations "are always worked out through specific causal mechanisms operating in the context of particular cultural and social systems that can reinforce, resist or override them".

The authors conclude that American Christians are divided between their Christian conviction that God obliges them to donate and their American conviction that any donation should be voluntary rather than required. But leaving American Christians as inconsistent is no more satisfying than saying that modern believers inconsistently accept both science and religion.

Moreover, it is not easy to match up ideological issues with the hypotheses, most of which deal with practical impediments to giving. In fact, the authors declare that, as sociologists, they emphasise social facts - "people's 'social locations', institutional settings, available cultural vocabularies, economic contexts and social role constraints" - as much as values.

Delightfully free of bloated postmodern rhetoric and clunky sociologese (save for lapses such as "we fielded focused survey questions"), this book does admirably what the social scientific study of religion ought to do: it explains something.

Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money

By Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson with Patricia Snell. Oxford University Press. 288pp, £13.99. ISBN 9780195337112. Published 16 October 2008

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