Summary and Keywords
Giving to religion makes up the largest percentage of American charity and philanthropy. Religious charities also make up the largest percent of U.S. nonprofits. Beyond the numbers, however, religious charity and philanthropy has shaped America’s religious and cultural contexts and served as a bedrock to American civil society. With a more vibrant nonprofit sector than any other Western nation, America’s religious and charitable sector is unique in many ways. Under a disestablished church and an open religious marketplace, religious institutions able to raise their own support often grew while institutions or denominations locked into funding models reliant on state support stagnated. In the 19th century, religious voluntary associations competed with one another for dominance even as their growing numbers began to shape a Protestant consensus that sought to guide religious initiatives and moral reforms that defined the young nation while distinguishing themselves from others. Minority religions also had traditions of religious giving, and they employed these traditions and practices not only to care for their own communities but to carve out their own space within the American landscape.
While terms such as charity, philanthropy, and benevolence were often used interchangeably throughout much of American religious history, religious giving primarily focused on charity as care for those within one’s religious community as well as a priority of giving to the poor. By the late 19th century, a rise of rationalized, professional, and sometimes secular philanthropy countered the traditional focus of religious giving through more systematic charitable organizations. The rise of major donors and foundations added a new wrinkle as they sought to reshape the focus of philanthropy and garnered increased attention even as small, individual givers still served as the bedrock of religious philanthropy. In addition to congregations, mission societies, humanitarian organizations, as well as parachurch agencies dominated this ever-evolving landscape. Religious giving became a diffuse, competitive marketplace that often shaped the winners, losers, and trends within American religion. The story of religious philanthropy, however, is not simply the one-way transfer of time and money from individuals to institutions. Rather the exchange between how religious individuals and institutions have engaged the shaping of civic society; moral outlooks; and the formation of boundaries, communities, and traditions of charity and philanthropy are an important aspect of American religious history. Religious philanthropy has accomplished great good even if it occasionally promoted distasteful actions. Across history and across a broad religious spectrum, religious philanthropy has always remained a vital part of both American ideals as well as the actual practices of the nation-state and civil society.
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