Does religion corrupt charity?

"Does religion corrupt charity?" has been the question of the week at the Guardian, and this question has provoked some interesting comments this week. The issue was framed as follows:

It's often suggested that religious charities must be self-interested. Either they proselytise, or they discriminate to the advantage of believers, or both.

It's also suggested that the people who give to them are really being selfish, because they want to put themselves right with God, and so to benefit from their actions, rather than being truly altruistic.

Are these accusations fair? And are secular charities, or state provision, morally superior?

The first response, by Nick Spencer, reminded readers that the church largely created modern charities in the 19th Century:


Most Victorians saw the state as an "artificial contrivance … incapable of redemptive action." Accordingly, in the words of historian Frank Prochaska, "the individual, not as ratepayer but as fellow-sufferer, was responsible for the cares of the world."

Fellow-sufferers, commonly Christian ones, responded. By 1840, around 70% of the British working class had achieved a basic level of literacy, thanks to the efforts of Sunday schools. By 1865, the churches had set up over 600 ragged schools for destitute children. By 1889, the Church of England alone had over 47,000 district visitors in England and Wales.

By one estimate, evangelicals ran about three in four voluntary societies in the latter half of the 19th century. Christianity didn't corrupt charity in Britain. It invented it.

. . .

The idea that Christians believe they can earn their way into heaven is about as wrong as it is possible to be. Earning your way into God's favour is entirely antithetical to Christianity, as it was to the Second Temple Judaism from which it emerged. Those who think that Christians tithe, or pray, or run soup kitchens as a way of collecting heavenly air miles clearly haven't met many.

Read all of Spencer's response here. The other responses, by Jonathan Romain, Theo Hobson, Hossam Said, can be found here.

What do you think?

Comments (3)

Churches in the past did many things. But this was in the 19th Century. Those days are gone. Today faith-based charities seem like an ingenious ploy to channel government money into the coffers of churches, who can easily use it for religious purposes or continue to discriminate in their hiring policies.

All around, faith-based charity is not a good buy.


Gary Paul Gilbert

Gary Paul Gilbert's comment is just plain silly. Limiting my remarks just to the Christian community, I can state with confidence that churches, inspired by the gospel mandate, continue to minister to human need without proselytizing and without significant government assistance.

My own St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church in Washington, DC, raised and spent more than $100,000 in 2008 providing hot noon meals to hungry people on weekends. The government portion--$1,500 from FEMA's Emergency Food and Shelter Program--was a pleasant addition, but, frankly, incidental to our Loaves and Fishes operation. It paid for 750 of the 30,000 meals we served last year.

You don't think feeding the hungry is a "good buy"? Then keep your money and spend it on yourself.

My concern remains the potential erosion of the wall between church and state. Most of the churches under Bush which received funding were fundamentalist. The Salvation Army is an example. They receive funding but are allowed to discriminate against people in hiring because of their religion. They are allowed not to hire qualified LGBTs.

Another concern is that government may try to influence churches. African-American churches receiving money from the federal government, for example, may be less likely to speak out against institutional racism.


Gary Paul Gilbert

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