Religious organizations make us more charitable, but they provide a more basic benefit: giving individuals a social identity.
Howard Husock took to the digital pages of the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently to defend tax-exempt status for religious organizations. Husock is responding to an earlier essay by Robert Repino along with Robert Reich's argument in Just Giving.
Reich's book is not without merit, but it is reductive. Reich objects to religious groups receiving tax-exempt status without necessarily giving 5% of their revenue away to care for the poor or support other local initiatives. Husock argues that these groups provide social benefits above and beyond obvious outreach initiatives.
Husock is right, of course, that church members may find ways to contribute to their community because of their church membership: "A physician participating in one of these activities may learn of a drug-treatment center and volunteer her time. A lawyer may find out about a cause that inspires pro bono work." These are great benefits, but Husock is making the case on Reich's terms.
Reich insists that for an organization to be worthy of tax-exempt status, it must have some measurable service to the needy, and it must be accountable at 5% or more of the organization's funds. This is a strange reductio ad pecuniam, wherein the value of a thing must be measurable in dollars and cents. Husock notes that the connections forged in religious congregations may foster charitable activities that are not accountable to the congregation, but are nonetheless real and valuable services to the community.
In other words, Husock responds that many or most religious congregations not only have their own soup kitchens and outreach initiatives, but they also bolster charitable efforts that may not quantifiably redound to the congregation. We can even take the point a step further and add that religious people are more charitable than non-religious people. So while the congregation may not give away 5% of its funds, it is bolstering a robust charitable sector by forming charitable people.
But while this is an important point, we should also reject the terms of Reich's question. We don't need to demonstrate the downstream quantifiable service of religious organizations to defend the value of providing tax-exempt status to churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples.
Husock discusses Robert Putnam's body of work tracking our decline in social membership. For decades we have declined from a society that values interdependence to one of independence. Independence is no vice, to be sure, but our increasingly individualistic society breeds any number of woes from addiction and loneliness to deaths of despair, depression, and a general social ennuie—not to mention a greater reliance on the government and expensive social service programs.
One thing that religious communities provide is a communal identity. It is sensible to conclude—and demonstrated in the data—that downstream from this identity is greater charitable giving and volunteer work. But we do not need to look downstream to see the value of these religious communities. It is a social good that religious communities provide when someone recognizes herself as a Catholic or as a Jew or as a Muslim. When one is in, formed by, and part of a religious community, she is more than a lone individual, and her identity is both expanded and constrained by that communal identification. One's self is expanded by social identity, as you become a part of this bigger community; and one's self is constrained by a social identity, as you become a part of a community with certain expectations and obligations.
In thicker historical societies, individuals got their very names from their family or their family's trade. The "Johnson boy" was in fact "John's son" and the "Miller boy" was in fact the son of the miller. Kristin Lavransdatter is none other than Lavrans' daughter. Our names used to tell us who we are. They provided an identity that situated us in a bigger story and made clear that we were more than atomic individuals. Having lost that—and much else besides in our modern world—it is a great gift that religious organizations provide to give individuals an identity that would make them more than an individual, to remind them that they are a part of something else.
It is no small thing that individuals who find themselves a part of something bigger by identifying with their religious congregation become generous and charitable people. But it is also no small thing that religious organizations—regardless of downstream benefits—help individuals understand themselves as part of something bigger. Social identification may not be a sufficient cause for tax-exempt status, but it is a social good that we must not overlook.