Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 2000 Volume XXII Number 3


The Intersection of Religion & Philanthropy

by Kathleen Mills

The mostly Mormon, Western city of Salt Lake City, and the more mainline Protestant, Midwestern city of Indianapolis aren’t usually thought to have much in common. But when it comes to philanthropy, the two cities do share an interesting characteristic: each has one dominant institution. When a group of civic-minded people get together to start raising money for a charitable cause in Salt Lake City, the first question they ask is: “How can we get support from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)?” explains Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of religious studies, history, and philanthropic studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. “In Indianapolis, the question is: ‘How can we get support from the Lilly Endowment?'"

Analyzing how religion intersects with philanthropy is one of the best ways to understand both elements as they exist in American culture, Shipps believes. “Religion cannot be studied simply by studying churches and denominations,” she contends. “It has to be studied as it is present in the culture."

Shipps addresses the religion-philanthropy connection in five cities, including Salt Lake City and Indianapolis, in a book on religion in mid-sized American cities on which she is currently working. The Project on Religion and Urban Culture at the Polis Research Center at IUPUI commissioned Shipps to write this book. She approached the project, in part, to answer the question: “If you look at a city’s religious profile, what does that say about philanthropic giving and the makeup of the philanthropic community?”

Shipps is still analyzing the data from her research, but she has concluded from looking at data reported to the IRS not just for the five cities she will be profiling in her study but for seventy-two additional mid-size cities that religion and philanthropic giving are definitely linked. “The percentage of church adherents in a city’s population is a good predictor of the amount of total itemized charitable deductions that people who live in that city will report to the IRS,” she reports.

Jan Shipps, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, History, and Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, studies what difference the institutional configuration of religion in cities makes on philanthropic giving. Shipps’ research is supported by the Polis Center, whose work deals with urban-related issues. Located at IUPUI, the center works in community-based partnerships with a wide variety of groups and individuals on issues of interest to Indianapolis and other Indiana cities.

Doing this work on religion and philanthropy is a departure for Shipps, an Alabama native, who has been regarded as the pre-eminent non-Mormon scholar working in the area of Mormon studies since the publication in 1985 of Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition. This work was described in the New York Review of Books as “perhaps the most brilliant book ever written on Mormonism.” Her Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons, which combines intellectual autobiography with essays and articles she wrote about Mormonism during her tenure on the IUPUI faculty, will be published next year.

After a lifetime of studying the Latter-day Saints, she agreed, in retirement, to conduct an analysis of the published research on religion and philanthropy. “The development of the philanthropic impulse in communities had always been very interesting to me,” Shipps says. “One day I said: ‘That’s always been the task of the churches,’” and one of the main features of her study became apparent.

She started out thinking that her book would pull together what had already been written about religion in the urban context. “But there was not enough to synthesize,” she explains.” Besides that, practically nothing had been done to address the question of religion and philanthropy in the urban environment.” That’s a large oversight, because “more charitable contributions are given through churches and religious organizations than through any other type of organization,” she points out.

“Religion and philanthropy are two of the great sources that shape culture, but tracking them properly is extremely difficult,” Shipps says. One reason is a federal government decision that the Census Bureau should stop gathering data about religious affiliation. That practice was stopped in 1930 due to concerns that asking religious organizations to supply such information violated the separation of church and state. This was a real loss for scholars working on the nation’s religious history. But a private organization, the Glenmary Research Center, has been collecting and publishing such data since 1970, and Shipps has used its statistics to construct profiles of institutional religion in mid-size American cities. To correlate her urban religious profiles with profiles of charitable giving in the same urban areas, she is working with Thomas H. Pollak, a scholar she describes as a “statistical genius,” who is assistant director of the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

Besides Indianapolis and Salt Lake City, Shipps focuses in her book on Seattle; Providence, Rhode Island; and Lynchburg, Virginia. She chose these cities because they represent different parts of the country and different profiles in religious faith. Seattle has a low percentage of religious adherents—the number of people who are actively involved in a church or synagogue—but a high percentage of people committed to philanthropy and volunteerism. Providence is, in terms of percentage of population, the most Catholic city in the United States. Lynchburg is overwhelmingly Baptist and home to the Thomas Road Baptist Church, whose pastor is Jerry Falwell. She picked Salt Lake City because it is overwhelmingly Mormon, and she selected Indianapolis because it is a Midwestern city with a mainstream Protestant religious majority.

In addition to visiting churches and synagogues and interviewing religious and civic leaders in each city, Shipps examined the number of religious adherents and the types and amounts of charitable giving reported to the IRS. Her initial findings drawn from her on-site observations as well as library research show that Providence enjoys a high level of inter-religious cooperation. Catholics and Protestants work together to feed the hungry, house the poor, and help the unemployed find work, she says. In Lynchburg, she discovered a dual track of philanthropic and charitable activity. In one track, mainstream Protestants and Catholics work together, while the other has been developed by Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. “There is a parallel universe in which the Falwell church has its own school, its own summer day camp, and its own resources to help the poor, to provide housing, etc."

Such a parallel universe of philanthropy is not entirely self-centered in its results. “Any town that has strong churches tends to be a better place to live,” Shipps believes. “Religion is a basic support structure in culture.”