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Posted on Wed, Jun 5, 2013 : 6 a.m.

Faith and money: But, we're generous, aren't we?

By Wayne Baker


This stone collection box has been safeguarding church donations for centuries.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing faith and money.

As Americans, we take pride in our country and our accomplishments — including our generosity. Americans respond generously to aid the victims of natural and man-made calamities, most recently, the Oklahoma tornadoes and Boston bombings.

When it comes to faith and money, however, could pride be greater than actual giving?

This week, we’re looking at various issues around faith and money, drawing on the insightful reporting of journalist David Briggs. He looked into research on faith and giving and, it turns out, the faithful think they are a whole lot more generous than they really are. As Briggs summarizes, “Churchgoers like to think of themselves as generous and cheerful givers, but for many the flesh appears to be weak when it comes to living up to their own standards for charitable giving.”

His conclusion is based on the results of a national “Science of Generosity Survey” conducted by sociologists Christian Smith and Heather Price. About one of four respondents said they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity. But, it turns, out only 3 percent actually gave more than 5 percent.

The kicker is that the most faithful were the ones who were most likely to over-report giving. The most faithful said that religion was very important to them and they frequently went to religious services — but they were tight with their wallets.

In their book, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, sociologists Smith, Michael Emerson and Patricia Snell report that 20 percent of Christians in the United States give no money to charity at all. Most give less than 2 percent of their income to charity.

Are you surprised to learn that Christians overestimate their generosity?

Or that they don’t give much to charity?

What explains this behavior?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.