The Right Kind of Giving

New findings illuminate the connection between generosity, faith, and politics


| December 21, 2006


As people on all sides of the political spectrum scramble to make their end-of-year donations, liberals may be inspired to give more than ever this year -- in an effort to clear their good name. The progressive reputation for compassion is tarnished in the new book, Who Really Cares: America's Charity Divide: Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters, in which Arthur C. Brooks mines the data to conclude that religious affiliation plays a big part in how much we give. Of course, since religion and political conservatism often go hand in hand, liberals are left looking a little tight-fisted, writes Ben Gose for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Easy excuses, such as 'conservatives make more money' or 'giving money isn't the only way to make a difference' are out. Brooks found that, on average, liberal families earn slightly more than their conservative counterparts, yet give 30 percent less, reports Gose. However, the major determinant for charitable generosity was piety, not politics; religious liberals gave almost as much as religious conservatives, and secular liberals gave more than secular conservatives. Cash isn't the only thing religious folks give more of -- they even donate more time and blood than non-religious Americans.

Brooks insists that his book is 'a call to action for the left, not a celebration of the right,' but Gose reports that some are wary of that claim, citing Brooks' involvement with the Wall Street Journal's op/ed page and his 'withering criticism' of liberals like Ralph Nader. Even in this season of generosity, it seems that liberals have been slow to get behind Brooks' 'call to action.' His study has been covered by several publications, but left-leaning ones have for the most part opted to ignore it. That's too bad because, as Brooks also discovered, charitable giving has benefits in the intangible realm of health and happiness, says Gose.

So is it all bad moral news for 'godless liberals'? Not really. Writing for Scientific American, Michael Shermer, author of Why Darwin Matters, notes that while Brooks' study may demonstrate that religious people give more and are happier, other data show that religious cultures (headed up by the United States) are also rife with murder, sexually transmitted disease, abortion, and teen pregnancy. 'Religious social capital leads to charitable generosity and group membership but does comparatively worse than secular social capital' -- values that arise from social networks and individual connections -- 'for such ills as homicides, STDs, abortions and teen pregnancies,' Shermer writes.

Of course, bigger-picture perspectives like Shermer's don't let liberals off the hook for giving. To that end, Gose outlines Brooks' suggestions for increasing charitable giving all-around -- a list that includes advice for the government, charities, individuals, and liberals specifically. Among the points: liberals should work to make the Democratic Party more friendly toward religion and ignore Democrats who understate the importance of charity.

Go There >> Charity's Political Divide