Introduction: Religion

America’s major faiths put great emphasis on charitable giving. Christians are taught to look out for those with the least, to be good stewards, and to tithe (or donate ten percent of their income). Jews have the obligation of tzedakah, and Muslims the duty of zakat. In all cases the motivation is to improve the well-being of others, to share bounty with fellow creatures of God, to express devotion. Religious giving is a pillar of belief and conformity with divine intentions, and a means of expanding the community of faith and bringing enlightenment to new corners. 

Religiously motivated generosity combines with American wealth and cultural norms to create potent charitable flows in the U.S., especially compared to other nations. In 2016 Americans donated $123 billion to religion-related causes. That was 32 percent of all charitable giving and more than twice as big as the next favorite cause, education. The deep religious convictions of Americans are a leading reason that we give at a rate two to ten times higher than other developed nations. 

In addition to supporting good works at home, there is a 200-year tradition of U.S. Christians sending donations overseas. This is actually an original aspect of the faith: Christian witness has always moved restlessly toward the weak and unwanted—from ancient Jerusalem to forsaken Greece, then Italy and north Africa during their pagan centuries, next to Dark Ages Europe, eventually over to frontier America, and now across the developing world. 

Interest among U.S. Christians in carrying good works and the Gospel to people in poor lands has clearly risen in recent years. Today’s developing world is thought to be where needs are most urgent, where people are most receptive, where opportunities for improving both external and internal life are most open. This migration of mission work is one reason the number of Christians in Latin America, Asia, and Africa is currently rising ten times faster than population growth. A milestone was passed within the last few years: the majority of the globe’s Christians now live in the less-developed world. As said by one evangelical we quote later in this section, poor countries “are where God is really working” right now.

God is also at work—in partnership with millions of faithful givers—in a great many communities across America, as documented below. 

— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister, Connor Ewing, Evan Sparks, Liz Whyte