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What’s the Truth about Baptist Generosity?

If we accept the premise that red states are more generous than blue states because of their religion, then how do we explain why Southern Baptists give so pitifully to the denomination’s world hunger fund?

The Southern Baptist Convention’s publicity arm, Baptist Press, carried an article last week about the tsunami that defended Americans as the world’s second most generous people and implied that religious Republican voters were the most generous Americans.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
“States that give the most correlate to the red states—those who voted for George W. Bush in the last election—while the states that give the least are the blue ones that voted for John Kerry,” said the article.
 
Citing the Christian Science Monitor, the BP article said that poorest states gave more to charity as a percentage of income than wealthier states. Poor states like <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma gave more than richer state like Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
 
“The reason low-income states give a lot is religion,” said George McCully, according to BP.
 
McCully, president of the Catalogue for Philanthropy, told the Christian Science Monitor, “They are tithing, evangelical Protestants, and they are giving in proportion to their income.”
 
If this is so, then how does one explain that the SBC’s hunger giving in 2003 totaled only $7.6 million, compared to $11.8 million in 1985?
 
Nineteen years after the all-time hunger giving record, Southern Baptists gave $4.2 million less.
 
The 2003 figure in real dollars is even lower when one considers the inflation rate over 19 years and the purported increase of several million members.
 
The sharp decline in hunger giving occurred during the decade when fundamentalists consolidated their control of the denomination. In fact, the top five giving years in the 1980s totaled $46.7 million, while the top five giving years in the 1990s totaled $45 million.
 
The fundamentalist-controlled SBC has clearly not made giving to worldwide hunger a priority, despite the biblical witness’s clear mandate to care for the widows, orphans and hungry.
 
For the SBC to play the red-state/blue-state political card in the midst of the world’s worse natural disaster is appalling. It’s also misleading considering the fundamentalists record of giving in red states.
 
Truth be told, Southern Baptists committed to social justice in the late 1970s had to force the moderately controlled SBC to put World Hunger Day on the denomination’s calendar. They had to fight with denominational leaders, most of whom would be identified as moderates today, to make feeding the hungry a priority. Moreover, they had to be watchdogs of some of the denominational heads who tried continuously to subvert hunger gifts to non-hunger related projects.
 
Southern Baptists have simply never been a truly generous people toward the world’s hungry poor. In terms of per capital giving, moderates weren’t so generous in the 1980s. Fundamentalists are even less so now.
 
Instead of empty self-congratulation about how generous Americans are and how much more generous red state dwellers are, we need a good dose of reality.
 
Compare two national bodies: Southern Baptists and Australian Baptists.
 
As of Jan. 7, Southern Baptist’s International Mission Board reported receiving $1.4 million for the tsunami relief effort. With a claimed SBC membership of 16 million, that’s about eight cents per Southern Baptist.
 
On Jan. 6, Australia’s Baptist World Aid reported receiving $1 million from a variety of donors. With fewer than 60,000 church members, that’s equivalent to $16.88 per Australian Baptist.
 
Are Southern Baptists really as generous as we want to think we are?
 
Robert Parham is executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.