The question I want to address in this essay is whether the economic status of women is more negatively affected by giving to churches than for men. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of research on this issue. I searched both the surveys conducted by the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, and the Pew Research Center and found little data that specifically addressed this issue. However, I decided to plunge ahead anyway. An atheist website that compiles information has asked me to write a longer piece on what issues women face regarding religion in the 21st century and I think this is an important component. If you uncover other information on this issue, please let me know in the comments.
Walk into any Christian church service on a Sunday and you are likely to see more women in attendance than men. The U. S. Congregational Study has concluded that as a whole, church attendance is 61% female compared to 39% male. In a recent Gallop poll, 36% of respondents said that they had attended church in the last week. Using the 2010 U. S. Census that amounts to about 100 million people—making the math pretty easy. Approximately 22 million more women attend church every week than men. In a study conducted in 2004, Barna Group found that the trend to seeing more women in church is likely to continue as the rate of men attending church continues to decline. This does not mean that these women are the sole breadwinners in their families nor that their donations are made exclusively by them. Yet it can be concluded that more women are going to be hearing and reacting to the message of giving to the church.
I did find one study that indicated that women do give more than men. Economists Robert McClelland and Arthur Brooks concluded that in terms of charity donations in general, income is the best predictor with a U-shaped curve with more higher income and more lower income people giving than those in the middle. They stated that a plausible explanation was that lower income people gave more because it was to religious organizations and higher income people gave more because they had more disposable income. In addition, they said that giving increases with age and education and that women do give more than men.
Whether you believe that the difference in wages earned by men and women in the United States are caused by gender discrimination, choice of career path, time out of the workforce to care for children, or less than full-time work, the fact remains that women earn less than men. Fortunately, this gap is much narrower for younger women, which will hopefully lead to less disparity in the future.
On Equal Pay Day in 2015, Pew Research reported that, “Four in 10 American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family.” Given the lesser earning power of women and the statistics for women as sole breadwinners, a hypothesis can be made that any type of giving will have a disparate impact on women, especially those in a lower income bracket. When a higher percentage of your income is being used to provide food and shelter, a voluntary donation is going to affect you differently than someone with the luxury of having a low percentage of their income used for basic needs.
While there is no scientific validity here, it is interesting that when the press reports how church leaders manipulate their congregants into giving money, they often use examples of women. As outlined above, this is likely because of the fact that women represent the majority of adult churchgoers. Someone would have to conduct a scientific study to see whether women are more persuaded by these techniques.
David Lee, a member of a congregation and a seller of church products for 30 years, wrote a book entitled Sunday Morning Stickup. As he explains how pastors manipulate congregants to give, give, and give, he offers the following extreme example—”One lady took off her wedding ring and dropped it off on the altar. That’s how charged the atmosphere was. People got caught up.” Hopefully, she wised up and retrieved it later. Both men and women got played when Creflo Dollar, a televangelist, received enough donations from the congregation to purchase a $65 million jet. In more news, a Houston pastor refused to eulogize a 93-year-old woman because she had stopped tithing. Finally, as reported by ABC News, an elderly woman named Josephine King was no longer allowed to attend her church of 50 years—African Baptist Church in Bainbridge, Georgia—because she was not tithing.
While these examples don’t apply to all churches, it is a fact that churches depend on donations and must seek them from the congregants. I grew up attending Trinity Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota. Every year when the time came to make pledges for the following year, the church distributed a pamphlet. It was composed of pictures of cute babies with captions under each designed to convince you to pledge. Sometimes a baby was frowning and the caption would be something like, “But I can’t afford to pledge this year!” I also remember when our national congressman was sitting right in front of the pastor one Sunday when I was home from college. The pastor was going on and on about contributing money to the church. After all, they had just built a new one and the debt needed to be retired. I was so angry about the blatant attempt to shake out some money from the congressman, that I got up and walked out. My father, of course, felt guilty and sent the church a check to make up for my behavior! As a deacon he did oppose the construction of the new church and was instrumental in saving the former one from being torn down.
Even tales from the Bible emphasize women. For example, in Mark 12:41-44, Jesus gives the example of the widow’s giving.
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Whether you interpret this passage and those subsequent as critical of the temple for first taking away her house and then encouraging her to give money or whether Jesus was praising her giving doesn’t matter. 2000 years ago, a widow, with nothing left, still gave to the temple.
And now I must confess my own experience with techniques to wring out the extra dollars. The last church my husband and I attended was Living Enrichment Center in Wilsonville, Oregon. The church had purchased a huge old state facility and spent a great deal of money refurbishing it. It even had a swimming pool! In 2003, they were substantially in debt. I had just inherited some money and, with my ego showing, wanted to help out. I donated the money and of course the church folded soon thereafter. I did get a bit of revenge in exposing some of the fraudulent practices of the church to the state and the public. The minister’s husband, who was the CEO, took the fall and was sentenced to three years in federal prison for securities fraud. I can only blame myself for falling for the minister’s pitches though. I should have known better. I was able to write it off as a charitable donation. However, one woman handed over a $200,000 plus disability payment to the church. When my name appeared in the newspaper, a woman called me from Florida. She had never met the minister, but because of a referral of a friend, gave the church $70,000 from a family trust.
Sikivu Hutchinson is an African-American feminist, atheist, and author. In her book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, she explains the huge economic impact of church giving on poor black women who feel they must contribute to the church even when they do not have enough money to live on. She notes that although attention is paid to the pay gap between men and women, “There has been little progress in eliminating the disproportionate representation of women of color in lower paying jobs and professions.” Thus, every disadvantage that accrues to white women can be exacerbated by simply not being white. Centuries of racial discrimination have resulted in ghettos in America’s largest cities. Yet amidst this dire poverty, the West Angeles Church of God in Christ built a $60 million edifice. Just imagine what it took to obtain that amount from its congregation. As Hutchinson states, that $60 million “could have provided affordable housing for hundreds.”
Defining religion as “the opiate for a people under socioeconomic, political, and cultural siege,” she outlines black women’s many ties to Christianity using it as a social resource, a way to find a black husband, and a refuge in a storm. It is not surprising that there are fewer black atheists in terms of the percentage of their population than white ones. Hutchinson and other black atheist authors are outspoken in their criticism of the hold religion has on people of color in America. They also criticize the New Atheism movement, with its focus on science, as ignoring the many cultural and sociological underpinnings that tie people to their church community.
As you probably know, IRS has limits both on who can use the itemized deduction provision of the law and on what can be deducted. This is significant because if you itemize, you have to aggregate all of your deductions and they must be greater than the standard deduction. The IRS has stated that most Americans use the standard deduction. It also stands to reason that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be giving to charities, churches, or other organizations that can be itemized. While this may seem like a minor point, churches that emphasize the tax deduction of their donations are being a bit disingenuous when most people end up taking the standard deduction. Wealthier individuals and families have the luxury of using their donations to reduce their tax burden while poor families do not. Someone with a tax rate of 30 percent is really only giving 70 cents of every dollar donated while a poor person who gives a dollar is giving a dollar’s worth.
While there is some dispute about whether the “temple tax” in the Old Testament means that tithing is required, there is a mandatory donation policy in some churches. A Tampa, Florida single mother, Candace Peterson, had just found a new church, Mount Moriah. However, she was astounded to learn in a letter sent to her that adults had to contribute a minimum of $50 per month. The letter also outlined additional annual contributions that had to be made. The impact of tithing, usually considered to be 10%, is more burdensome on low income people than those with much more disposable income, thus likely to affect women more than men, especially single women like Candace.
It is interesting to note that the entire Protestant Reformation was built upon a criticism of the indulgences used by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages to assure your place in heaven. Just give us some money, and you are a shoo-in was the line. It appears that some churches need to brush up on their history.
Another big change that will be coming to church donations is a move to use electronic credit and debit cards. There are some people, my 25-year-old son is a great example, who never write checks and rarely carry large amounts of cash. In order to get donations from millennials, this move is crucial for churches to undertake. There are already several firms that can supply this need to churches. Just Google electronic church donations.
While this has been more of an opinion piece as to what factors might result in a disparate impact on women from church giving than men, it does raise issues that should be addressed in future surveys by professionals.
As always, I welcome your comments.
Karen L. Garst
 Sikivu Hutchinson, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Los Angeles, CA: Infidel Books. Kindle Edition, 2011), 50.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 209.
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