|Mega Donors Howard and Roberta Ahmanson.|
As regular readers know, I generally view evangelical Christianity - at least in its present form - to be a cancer on American society and, indeed the world. Hate, exclusion and division are its principal hallmarks combined with a shocking level of hypocrisy. The results of this reality are many, including the flight of 40% of Millennials from organized religion as a whole, a growing exodus of young evangelicals from their churches, and per a piece in The Atlantic wealthy evangelicals who are beginning to shift their donations away from "Christian" organizations obsessed with abandoning the Gospel message while waging a culture war in the quest for political power and self-enrichment (e.g., think Tony Perkins, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell, Jr.). Whether or not these shifts will save Christianity from the death spiral evangelicals have set it on. Here are highlights from The Atlantic on the shifting largess of wealthy evangelicals:
In 2005, Time magazine crowned Howard and Roberta Ahmanson the most powerful evangelical financiers in America. As an heir to the assets of Home Savings and Loan, a mortgage and insurance empire, Howard Ahmanson became an influential philanthropist, backing projects in Bible translation, art, and—perhaps most notably—politics. The Ahmansons poured millions of dollars into ballot initiatives and Republican campaigns in California; in 2008, they gave more than $1 million to support Proposition 8, which successfully banned same-sex marriage in the state. The couple back the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes intelligent design, and the Claremont Institute, which promotes limited government.This history makes Howard Ahmanson’s recent transformation all the more remarkable: One of the most stalwart backers of religious-right causes has become disenchanted with the GOP and many of its associated institutions.
“The Republican Party is a white-ethnic party. And I don’t want to be identified with that,” Ahmanson told me recently. He dislikes that white evangelicals are largely supportive of Donald Trump—“Whatever this is, it’s not the Gospel,” he said—and has stopped giving to groups such as the Family Research Council, . . . . “God is using this time, and Donald Trump, to purge the church,” he told me. “Are you about Christ and the Gospel first, or is your church just a Sunday extension of your political team?”
To say the least, Howard Ahmanson is not representative of American Christian philanthropists of any generation. His religious journey has been distinctive, and he has eclectic taste in causes. Moreover, several of the influential evangelicals who were Ahmanson’s peers on Time’s 2005 power-player list have redoubled their pursuit of national political influence: Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of the late Billy Graham, spent his summer on a political speaking tour across California, and Jay Sekulow, who runs the American Center for Law and Justice, is one of Trump’s lawyers. Evangelical influence reaches all the way to the White House: Vice President Mike Pence has been a fixture at Christian-right events over the past two years, and political operatives such as Tony Perkins and Ralph Reed are enjoying greater influence under Trump than they’ve had in years.
Yet the question Ahmanson posed—about the right way for Christians to live out their faith in public, and how to put money behind that vision—is something that a number of people in evangelical philanthropy circles seem to be asking. In large part, Trump’s presidency is not the context for this question. Evangelicalism, writ large, is going through intense cultural and structural shifts that are also shaping how wealthy Christians use their money.
The rise of the so-called religious right “was driven by a lot of anxiety, and a sense of urgency: If we don’t act, the country will be taken away from us,” he explained. While a lot of money poured into this movement, from both wealthy backers and grassroots supporters, “it was always a smaller proportion of evangelical charitable dollars than you might think,” Crouch said.
In the late 1980s and into the ’90s, a new organization, the Gathering, was established to help guide wealthy individuals and families who wanted to give to Christian causes—the vast majority of them in nonpolitical ways.
One of the clearest shifts among Christian mega-donors is demographic. Gen Xers and early Millennials are just starting to take the reins of legacy family foundations or come into their giving potential, and their sensibilities differ from their parents’.
“For a long time, especially with Baby Boomers, there was so much wealth created so quickly,” Bruce said. “People just started giving where it was comfortable, which was usually local, with causes … they become familiar with … through their local church or network.” By contrast, her generation wants giving away money to be part of who they are, she said: The causes they support, whether it’s developing health clinics in Africa or mentoring kids in Houston, are central to their sense of identity.
This overlaps with another trend in the evangelical-donor class: Over time, it may become more diverse.
Kwan described a community of second- and third-generation Asian American Christians in Silicon Valley who “aren’t necessarily beholden to the culture wars of the past,” he said. The causes that have come to be associated with evangelicalism—issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and religious liberty—don’t necessarily resonate outside a specific, white-evangelical milieu.All of these trends have shaped the way Christian dollars are spent. In a 2018 study, Giving USA and Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found a sharp decrease in religious giving over the past four decades, declining from well over half of all giving in the late ’70s through the early ’90s to roughly a third as recently as 2017. This does not necessarily mean evangelicals are giving away less money, said David King, the director of the university’s Lake Institute on Faith and Giving.
Instead, they may be donating to organizations and causes that aren’t explicitly associated with church and parachurch organizations.“If you look at the current perception of the American church now, compared to historic witness of the church, there is a gap,” said Joshua Crossman, one of the board members of the Pinetops Foundation, a relatively small, new family foundation. He pointed to data from the Pew Research Center showing a sharp decline in the percentage of Americans who believe houses of worship contribute a “great deal” to solving social problems. In 2016, only 38 percent of religiously unaffiliated people said that was the case. “It would behoove all Christians to think about that gap and to figure out what we can do to best be a witness for Christ in our communities,” he said.
While Trump has rocked evangelical politics, this era of American evangelical history had already taken shape before he came on the scene: “The church may be moving toward a time of the church in exile rather than the church as the dominant cultural institution,” as Kwan put it.
In previous years, evangelicals responded to a sense of declining cultural power with anxiety—that is what yielded the age of “ferment” that Crouch described. But at least among this subset of next-generation evangelical mega-donors, there doesn’t seem to be much of a desire to fight the culture. Their hope, instead, is that they will be known by their fruits.