[This is another old parish newsletter article.]
I have always believed in noble pagans. Our Lord says to old Nicodemus in St. John 3:5 that the ‘wind bloweth where it listeth’. ‘Spirit’ would be an equally good translation for the word that the King James Version renders as ‘wind’. The Holy Spirit is free, and it seems to me likely that he gives uncovenanted virtue and grace outside the visible boundaries of the Church and her sacramental system. We all know non-Christians who are admirable people with virtues that we wish we had. That fact does not at all mean that it is a matter of indifference whether or not one acknowledges Jesus Christ explicitly. In fact doing so is vitally important. Nonetheless, I have a rather optimistic view of the possibilities of pagan virtue.
But then perhaps I am overly optimistic. Perhaps I should not have been surprised at all by the article Dot Montgomery gave me this summer by Larry Witham (Washington Times, July 1-7) on charitable giving. A study based on in-depth interviews with 4,000 adults in representative American households concluded that those who give to their churches and religious congregations not only give more than the non-religious to charities in general, but also give much more to secular charities. In fact those who give to religious charities (meaning churches or religious organizations, but NOT including religious-affiliated schools or hospitals) give 87.5% of all charitable contributions in the country and three-quarters of contributions to the secular charities.
Those who contribute to religious charities contribute an average of $2,100 per year to all their supported charities. Those who contribute only to secular charities (about 30% of American households) give an average of $623 per year. Those who contribute only to religious charities (about 10% of American households) give an average of $1,154 per year. Another 10% of households make no charitable contributions at all. If these folk were lumped with the other secularists or ‘do not contribute to churches’ group, the secular figures would look even more meager. These figures for money gifts also hold roughly true for volunteering. 54% of regular public worshippers also volunteer their time to charities, while only 32% of Americans who do not worship publicly volunteer. Those who make religious charitable gifts are as likely to volunteer for secular charities as are those who do not worship and who give only to secular charities.
The study was released by Independent Sector, a nonprofit research group, and the National Council of Churches. Bob Edgar with the NCC, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, took the words right out of my mouth: the gap is ‘larger than I had anticipated.’ The basic survey results held true in all regions and among all income groups. I would guess, given the size of the gap, that even tweaking the figures or questioning the methods of the survey would not alter the basic picture presented.
And what is that basic picture? There may well be noble pagans and virtuous atheists, but they are thin on the ground in America these days. The private generosity of Americans is extraordinary. It also seems mostly to be motivated by the religious faith of Americans. The recent murder of four Baptist hospital workers in Yemen reminds us that the hospitals of the world, even in non-Christian lands, are largely the fruit of Christian charity and Christian missionaries. In Hindu India a very large proportion of education is provided by the 1 or 2% of the population which is Christian. Of course there are real Islamic charities (as opposed to the ones we read about which channel money to terrorists). Of course there are secular and Buddhist and Hindu charities. But charity is largely a religious, and even Christian, phenomenon.