January 28, 2022
The Sutherland Institute has cataloged the many contributions religious groups and people of faith have made to the common good.
Why does religion seem to have this influence on charitable giving and social services?
A part of the answer is that the teachings of many religions endorse care for others in need. People of faith believe they are accountable to God and thus should provide that care as a religious duty. A professor who studies philanthropy points to some examples of these teachings:
In Judaism, the Hebrew Scriptures refer to “tzedakah,” literally meaning justice. Tzedakah is considered a commandment and a moral obligation that all Jews should follow. The commitment to justice places a priority on their giving to help the poor. Beyond giving just time and money, rabbis even spoke of “gemilut chasadim,” literally meaning loving-kindness, or focusing on right relationship with one another as the prerogative of religious giving. …
For Muslims, giving is one of the five pillars of Islam. “Zakat” (meaning to grow in purity) is an annual payment of 2.5 percent of one’s assets, considered by many as the minimum obligation of their religious giving. A majority of Muslims worldwide make their annual zakat payments as a central faith practice.
Above and beyond the required zakat, many Muslims make additional gifts (referred to broadly as “sadaqa”). Interestingly, the word shares the same root as the Jewish “tzedakah,” meaning justice. Muslim giving also focuses primarily on the poor.
In addition to providing a sense of purpose and accountability that motivates giving, religion contributes in other unique ways to a spirit of giving.
For instance, religions foster community. As people of faith join in congregations, they develop friendships and opportunities to care for each other. This fellowship promotes increased fellowship which, when combined with religious teachings encouraging generosity, stimulates a broader range of giving and service.
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained it well: “[R]eligion creates community, community creates altruism, and altruism turns us away from self and toward the common good … and good neighborliness.”
While organized religion gets a bad rap in some circles, it provides distinct advantages for facilitating the provision of service and care for those in need. People of faith, motivated by the altruism they learn in their congregations and the encouragement they received from the teachings of their faith, can easily join to magnify their efforts in caring for others. An individual who could do little alone to respond to the plight of prisoners or refugees, when combining their efforts with many others, can make an enormous difference.
The teaching, community-building and facilitation of charitable giving and other acts of mercy and kindness are crucial ways that religion bolsters the public good.
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