Religious ‘Charity’

Published originally as an answer to the following question for Vox Populi 14:

3. Religious believers seem to take it upon themselves to build hospitals and operate a lot of charities, and then use this as evidence that the religions are more moral. What is your interpretation? CHARITY.mp3

Philanthropy and management of services are two different questions. First of all, I think that the running of a charitable organization is a skill that requires extensive training separate from that for running a profit-making enterprise. Those who run charitable and nonprofit organizations should be required to to be highly qualified. I question whether or not, many of the religious charities are being run by people who have sufficient management experience. [Many are volunteers.]

I would support a strong separation between the raising of funds and the management of the funds. I think most philanthropists are people who have already figured out how to make a lot of money. And they start various foundations of private charities mainly as tax shelters, and I think that’s a good thing. There is a certain amount of benefit to the idea of having tax exemptions for organizations that can prove that they are providing a service the government would otherwise have to provide.

So I would say that often times religious charities are a compromise. They may not be run as well as they could be run, number one. Number two, when they disburse their money it’s not a disinterested gift that they’re giving. They may be caring for the sick or feeding the hungry or caring for the poor, but it’s with the understanding that those people will then sit and listen to their presentations. It’s kind of like when you get those little invitations in the mail where they’re giving you three nights in a hotel in return for sitting through a 90 minute presentation on their condo timeshare they want to sell you.

I think what a lot of these religious charities actually do is; they strike a bargain: and that’s something I don’t think the government should support. If they do support this type of charity-backed proselytizing, it’s in fact government sponsorship of religion, which is expressly prohibited by the establishment clause of the Constitution.

So I would lay this challenge down to religious charities: if you would like to prove that you are more moral than others, give your charity with no strings attached.

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Comments (57 comments)

Matt / July 19th, 2006, 10:18 am / #1


I completely agree with you on that one… that’s the same reason that I think Church’s themselves should not qualify for non-profit status.

However, there ARE charities out there that are religious based, but don’t proselytyze (as hard as that is to believe), and I think they are worth supporting, religious or not.

My mom is the Director of the Center for Public Service at Pacific Lutheran University (my Alma Mater). She works with a ton of charities, both religious and otherwise, and I’ve seen many of them that are truly only about service. These tend to be run, as a general rule, by certain sects of Christianity. The Lutheran charities are very much free of proselytyzing, for example, as are the Quaker charities. On the other hand, reformed charities, Baptist charities, and Catholic charities (with some notable exceptions) are intent on getting their words in.

On the other hand, a model that I like, is religious institutions getting involved with non-religous non-profits, so that they can help, but the religion stays at home. My wife, who has a degree in Sociology, did an internship at the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery ( While this is a community funded non-profit, it is supported by Gonzaga University, and my wife’s school Whitworth College (both are private Christian schools). Both Gonzaga and Whitworth support through getting students involved, and financially, but they leave their message at home.

Anyway, long enough response, but great post!


Simon / July 21st, 2006, 1:23 am / #2

The U.S. Constitution does not have an establishment clause as such. The Constitution has Articles, e.g. Article 1, Article 2, and so forth, and Amendments, e.g. First Amendment, Second Amendment, and so forth. It is the First Amendment that has an establishment clause.

Government sponsorship of religion is not expressly prohibited by the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The First Amendment bars the U.S. Congress from making laws respecting an ESTABLISHMENT of religion. If the religion is already established on a private basis, there is nothing in the First Amendment that prohibits a friendly helping hand, as long as the helping hand is available to all religious institutions equally, for example, the tax exempt status for religious institutions.

The government can offer any kind of helping hand that it desires, as long as the help does not significantly ESTABLISH the preeminence of one religion over another.

BlackSun / July 21st, 2006, 1:43 am / #3

Olly, good point–if the charities don’t proselytize, I don’t have any problem with them being religious.

Simon, you are incorrect:

Here’s Wikipedia’s discussion of the establishment clause: “This has been interpreted as the prohibition of 1) the establishment of a national religion by Congress and 2) the preference of one religion over another or of religion over non-religious philosophies in general. The first approach is called the “separationist” or “no aid” interpretation. In separationist interpretation, the clause, as historically understood, PROHIBITS CONGRESS FROM AIDING RELIGION IN ANY WAY even if such aid is made without regard to denomination. The second approach is called the “non-preferentialist” or “accommodationist” interpretation. The accommodationist interpretation prohibits Congress from preferring one religion over another, but does not prohibit the government’s entry into religious domain to make accommodations in order to achieve the purposes of the Free Exercise Clause.”

Tax-exempt status is granted to NON-PROFIT organizations of all types, be they religious, educational, or simply secular charities. The establishment clause would not allow a tax-exemption specifically for religions.

From Everson vs. Board of Education, the most-quoted 1947 decision by Justice Hugo Black: “No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.”

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