Overview:

Will Christians step into the gap to pick up the pieces after the rejection of Roe protections? A tweet insists that Christians have already been doing so. I’m skeptical.

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Amid all the debris from the recent Supreme Court’s discarding of the Roe protections for abortion, I came across a smug Christian tweet.

Many are saying that now Roe is overturned Christians need to care for pregnant women, foster and adopt children, provide counseling, etc. In other words, they are saying that now Roe is overturned Christians need to keep doing all the stuff they have been doing all along.

Are there millions of Christians helping care for needy Americans? I’m sure there are. America has lots of social problems—homelessness, lack of decent jobs, drug addiction, poor nutrition, poverty, poor education and more—and I appreciate all donations of time and money Christians make to this cause.

My complaint with this tweet is that it suggests that donations through churches have been both adequate and substantial. They are not.

Follow the money

Americans are generous. We give almost half a trillion dollars in philanthropy every year. Of that, religion gets $136 billion. And of that, churches get about a third and religious organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision get the rest.

I’d like to focus on donations to churches because the offering plate that Christians see at every service is a tangible symbol of their ongoing contribution to their church’s budget (even though most donations probably come as checks in the mail or electronic transfers). Let’s round up and say that U.S. churches get $50 billion per year.

The problem is that churches are terrible examples of charities. A well-run charity spends about ten percent of its income on administration and fundraising (overhead), with the rest spent on programs (operating the soup kitchen or after-school tutoring program or whatever the charity does).

The church’s “program” is conducting church services. Shoehorning a church into the mold of a charity makes a poor fit. Churches have enormous overhead—far more than ten percent. A study done by Christianity Today estimated 43 percent of the church budget for salaries alone. In terms of mission and finances, a church is more like a country club than a charity.

How much income passes through this inefficient machine to operate the charity on the other side—five percent? Two percent? We don’t know because almost all churches hide behind a loophole that requires all U.S. nonprofits to open their financial records to show how they spend their money, except for churches.

What about the larger fraction of the $136 billion that goes to religious nonprofits? Some goes to no-strings-attached good works—clothing or feeding the needy, for example—but this category also includes missionary programs convinced that people in central Africa are desperate for Bibles but are good in the malaria, jobs, and peace departments.

Based on the scanty information we have, I’m going to estimate that the church offering plate produces $1 billion per year in good works in the U.S. Again, that’s a lot more than nothing, and I applaud Christians for it. But to return to the original tweet, how big a contribution is that?

Is charity local?

Many Christians hold the quaint notion that local charity will cover local needs. This works if there are plenty of wealthy congregations in an area but not so well if a poor region is trying to help its poor residents.

Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia

I remember driving through the poor, predominantly Black neighborhood of Church Hill in Richmond, Virginia. I was struck by how many churches there were—the map above shows twenty churches in about one square mile. Who supports all these churches? The residents who attend them, of course, and they probably have much better things to spend money on. Many parishioners in these congregations are the needy.

My complaint with this tweet is that it suggests that donations through churches have been both adequate and substantial. They are not.

Government charity

The other source of money to help those in need—a much larger source—are the federal, state, and local governments. Remember that “government” is not some foreign overlord but is another word for us. It’s a lot more us than a church is—there are 380,000 churches in the U.S., and none of them are me.

Let’s run through the biggest government contributions to social welfare. Social Security provides over one trillion dollars per year as income to retired and disabled people.

Medicare provides $776 billion per year for medical insurance for 60 million Americans, mostly older people.

Medicaid provides $600 billion per year for medical insurance for 74 million low-income people.

State and local governments invest $57 billion in housing and community development. Temporary Aid for Needy Families (colloquially called “welfare”) is another joint project. Its annual budget is $31 billion.

States’ biggest contribution is education to give people skills to make a living: $316 billion per year for public school and $167 billion for higher education.

Do the math—that’s a lot more than the perhaps $1 billion that comes from the church offering plate. Christian charity is great, but let’s not delude ourselves with how large it is or how the needy are helped in this country.

There’s more to say in part 2.

The God of the Bible
is pleased by obedience,
not by independence.
That’s why his people
are called “followers.”
— Neil Carter, OnlySky columnist

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...