A lot of religious giving also doesn’t go toward helping the needy. “The vast majority of religious congregation budget [money] is spent on in-house expenses: clergy, building, materials,” said Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Some congregations have more outreach ministry and social services than others. But in almost all cases, it ends up being a small part of the budget, just because it costs so much to run a congregation.”
Using a national survey of religious congregations in the U.S., the Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves found that 83 percent of congregations have some sort of program to help needy people in their communities. Most often, these efforts provide clothing, food, and temporary shelter, rather than intensive, long-term programs on substance abuse, post-prison rehabilitation, or immigrant resettlement. The median amount congregations spent on social-service programs was $1,500. “Religious congregations do a lot,” said Mary Jo Bane, a professor at Harvard University. But “the scale of what they do is trivial compared to what the government does. Especially if you think about the big government programs like … food stamps and school lunches, or health services through Medicaid, what religious organizations do is teeny tiny.”
If large-scale cuts to domestic social services do make it through the long budget-negotiation process, “there’s an argument to be made [that] … churches, synagogues, etc., might step up,” said Lisa Keister, a professor of sociology at Duke University. Keister has argued that religious engagement is closely associated with financial generosity—in a recent paper, for example, she found that those who attend religious services every week give nearly three times as much as those who don’t.
People of all religious backgrounds are generous, but the style of giving differs by faith and denomination. For example: “Jewish families … tend to be wildly generous,” said Keister. Many conservative Christians tithe 10 percent or more of their income, she said, often giving to their churches, which leaves them with less accumulated wealth. Mormons provide a complex array of social services to people in need, but mostly focus on their own members, said Smith. And Catholics and mainline Protestants are less likely to proselytize while helping others: “Mainline Protestants wouldn’t know how to ‘share the gospel’ if their life depended on it,” he said. “They’re just going to help people, and in their mind, they’re doing it in Jesus’s name.”
For some groups, though, proselytizing may be part and parcel of how they reach out to the needy. Liberals often cite this as a reason why the government should provide social services: In the absence of federal funding, people seeking things like education and housing may be left without a non-sectarian alternative. Tanner waved this concern away, though. “If someone has to listen to preaching to get free food—is it less than optimal? Sure,” he said. “But it’s probably not the thing I’m most worried about.”