Bill King was puzzled when he heard the news: Minnesota ranked a lousy 34 out of 50 states in the latest ranking of the most "generous" states. But Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee were near the top.

As one headline put it: "Red States Give More to Charities Than Blue States."

"Something didn't seem right," said King, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. "How do you go from on top [of the nation] in one study to near the bottom in another?"

Measuring generosity, always a contentious issue, has taken a partisan edge during this election season.

The most recent scorecard came from a Chronicle of Philanthropy report in August that was picked up by news media nationwide -- with many commentators concluding that President Obama's supporters in 2008 came from America's stingiest states.

But this month, another report made headlines. This time researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that political beliefs do not translate into charitable differences, and that red states are no more charitable than blue.

"It all depends on the criteria used," said King.

Comparing collection plates

A key question is how to weigh religious contributions compared with other kinds of giving.

Mitt and Ann Romney, for example, donated 29 percent of their 2011 income, or $4 million, to charity -- with almost all the money going to the Mormon Church. The Obamas donated 22 percent of their income, or $172,000, with nearly all of it supporting non-religious groups such as the Fisher House Foundation for veterans, Habitat for Humanity and the Boys and Girls Club.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy rankings reflect "Bible Belt tithing," King said, "which is legitimate giving to include."

Ironically, Minnesota has nearly the same level of religious participation as the Bible Belt's Mississippi does, said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches and a former president of the National Council of Churches. Minnesota has 1.2 million church communicants (that is, full church members) compared with Mississippi's 1.3 million, according to 2010 U.S. Religion Census: Religious Congregations & Membership Study.

Minnesota, however, tilts toward Catholic and Protestant churches, in particular Lutheran. And their congregants are not the big spenders.

Catholics give roughly 1.5 percent of their annual incomes to their churches. Protestants, including Lutherans, donate about 2.2 percent; and Jews give roughly 3.3 percent, said Paul Schervish, director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College.

Meanwhile, Mormons and Southern Baptist tithers are asked to give 10 percent. That's what propelled Mormon-predominant Utah into the No. 1 spot as most generous state in the Chronicle ranking.

What is generosity?

Philanthropy experts such as Schervish shake their heads at state "generosity indexes."

"Generosity is a function of people's care for each other," Schervish said. "Charitable giving is charitable giving [reported on a tax return]."

His center has studied state charity differences and did not find significant differences between Bible Belt and Northern states.

"Do you take care of a sick mother? Do you save for your children's education?" he asked. "Do you send money [to family] in another country? Isn't that a mark of generosity?"

While church affiliation can slant state rankings by some measures, Minnesota stands out for other benchmarks of generosity, church leaders say. It has one of the nation's most vibrant nonprofit sectors, which means people are supporting those charities, they say. Minnesotans consistently score at or near the top of lists in online giving and community volunteerism.

Each year Minnesota leads the nation on Give to the Max Day, a one-day online giving blitz. The event, which returns in just a few weeks, raised $13.4 million in Minnesota in 24 hours last year.

Public vs. private

The Rev. Gary Reierson, recently retired as president of the Minneapolis Council of Churches, said states' willingness to "give" by paying higher taxes should also be part of the generosity equation. Those taxes support schools, social services and a higher quality of life for all residents, not just those with a certain religious affiliation.

"Isn't that generosity?" he asked. "Generally, states with more Democratic than Republican voters are more likely to address the needs of the poor through the government, rather than philanthropy."

Reierson said it's important for readers of these rankings to figure out who is being counted and how. The Chronicle study, for example, looked at the tax returns of people who earned at least $50,000 in 2008 and took charitable deductions. That's 31 percent of Minnesota tax filers. The study then deducted how much money they would have spent on housing, taxes and other necessities. The state rankings were based on charitable donations calculated against this disposable income.

"Who has time to dive in and read all the details of every study?" asked King.

King's council last month released its annual Giving in Minnesota report, showing Minnesotans donated $5.2 billion to charities in 2010, up nearly $1 million from 2009.

"It's important to look at the total picture, and to look at what is the quality of life in our community."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511