But those statistics are deeply misleading, in a way few people want to discuss.
The $190 billion figure is less a sign of America's generosity than its religiosity. Sixty percent of Americans' contributions go to religious institutions--more than go to youth development, human services, education, health, and foreign crises combined.
This money is absolutely essential for the functioning of religion in America. It's why pluralism flourishes here--without the need for (and risks of) massive government funding.
But while all this charitable activity is extremely valuable, it should not be confused with help for the poor--or the solving of social problems.
Most religious charity and volunteerism is directed inward--toward the congregation, the building, the Sunday school, the organ--rather than toward the community as a whole.
In 1997, a typical congregant of a Protestant church gave an average of $497. But $418 of that went to upkeep of the church and only $79 of it went to "benevolences," according to a survey by Empty Tomb, Inc., a Christian research firm.
Given Jesus' strong emphasis on helping the poor, it's fair to ask, then:
What about volunteering? Here again, much of the service done with the church is done for the church. According to Lester Salamon, director of the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University, only 7% to 15% of volunteering done through churches helps the larger community.
This is not meant as a criticism of the quality of faith-based service. Quite the contrary. There is some evidence that houses of worship are often more effective in tackling serious social problems than either government agencies or more secular charities.
Much of the work that churches, synagogues, and mosques do in the community is powerful, some would say nearly miraculous. Very often throughout history, religiously oriented groups were the ones that attended to the greatest crises of humanity, when others wouldn't. In fact, the visionaries of most faiths would argue the faithful have a moral and spiritual obligation to do more--to put their energy into the creation of little miracles.
While Beliefnet's power to help is puny compared with that of a loving congregation, we do want to try to do our part.
This week, we launch a new Charity & Service channel, full of information and resources on how to give and volunteer--more and smarter. One of the few characteristics common to all the world's major religions is a professed emphasis on the importance of charity or good works. For many around the world, faith is manifest through action.
The Charity & Service channel will also feature information about socially and religiously conscious investing, helping people apply their values in the financial realm as well.
We believe that good intentions are essential but not sufficient.
We have also embarked on a new effort to help houses of worship do more in their communities. Beliefnet has made a commitment to America's Promise, the youth service group led by Gen. Colin Powell, to sign up 365 "Congregations of Promise." These churches, synagogues, mosques, and spiritual groups will also have the opportunity to help America's youth by accepting the challenge of the five promises. Beliefnet will be tailoring its Web Services site-building kit to make it easier for houses of worship to serve and communicate with their communities.
As part of that effort, we're proud to announce that General Powell, the nation's foremost advocate of service, will be writing a regular column for Beliefnet, highlighting the role of faith-based groups in helping America's youth.
Finally, the most important thing we can do is simply offer volunteers and those who give a place to compare notes. Please use our message boards to talk to others about how to make your money and time more effective in alleviating suffering in the world.