Compassion Has Always Been Conservative

Compassion Has Always Been Conservative August 23, 2012

Every now and then, the reality-based community gets a reality check.  One particularly bruising encounter with hard facts came recently in the form of a newly released study in The Chronicle of Philanthropy showing that the cities and states that give the most to charitable causes are overwhelmingly religious, conservative and southern.  “The nation’s generosity divide is vast,” reports the Chronicle, as households in states like Utah and Mississippi give over 7 percent of their income to charity while the average household in Massachusetts and three other New England states gives under 3 percent.

If you’re bound and determined to believe that conservatives and southern evangelicals are cold-blooded snakes while liberals are generous, enlightened spirits, well, you’ve got some explaining to do.  Of course, this is not new.  The evidence has been available for quite some time.  Arthur Brooks’ Who Really Cares made more or less the same argument in 2006.  As Thomas Sowell noted then, what’s astonishing is how long the myth of the compassionate liberal and the heartless conservative has endured in the absence of supporting evidence–and, indeed, in the presence of evidence to the contrary.

This is a bitter pill for liberals to swallow, since they cherish this image of themselves and get a lot of political mileage out of this caricature of conservatives, but the reality-based community is reality-based, so they’ll follow the evidence where it leads.  Ha!  Just kidding!  They’ll scrum and scramble and try to find some way to elude the facts.

Enter Fred Clark, aka “slacktivist,” who can be relied upon to deliver any argument, no matter how specious, that attacks conservative Christians.  (Fred is in the habit of repeating liberal mantras even when he should know better.  A recent post featured a picture of Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron staring at an object on a desk in the White House, with a caption that identifies this “piece of art that U.S. Republicans insist is not in the White House.”  The problem, as he would know if he bothered to look beyond the liberal fever swamp, or even read The New Yorker, is that this is not the Churchill bust that Republicans are describing, and Republicans are indeed correct that the bust of Churchill loaned to the White House after 9/11 was summarily returned when Obama took up residence there.  Or to take another example, he made the bizarre argument that a recent youth-oriented Bible was actually designed to get Christians’ non-Christian friends to hate them.  These are the kinds of things you can only believe if you assume the worst about your religious and political others.  He also posted a hilarious refutation of a post I wrote in which he disputed an argument I never made of a Bible passage I never cited.

Predictably enough, Fred’s argument is that these conservative, religious and (mostly) southern states only give more to charity because their gifts to their churches are being counted.  His chides Christianity Today for a “triumphalist” and apparently misleading headline (“Religious States Donate More to Charity Than Secular States”), in spite of the fact that this was in fact touted as one of the major findings of the study (to quote: “Regions of the country that are deeply religious are more generous than those that are not.”)

The problem, according to Fred, is that these conservative religious people are merely giving to their churches, which apparently do nothing particularly important, while non-religious people give more to “secular charities” — “You know, like those secular categories of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.”  When you discount giving to religious charities, then households in the southern states only give 0.9 percent of their income to secular charities while households in the northeast give 1.4 percent.  ERGO, according to Fred, the only real result here is that people who go to church give more to churches than people who do not go to church.  This is, of course, not a justified conclusion, because Fred mistakenly assumes that giving to religious charities is simply the same as giving to churches, and that only gifts to secular charities actually serve “the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.”

Apparently it’s compassionate to give to a secular nonprofit like the Boston Symphony Orchestra or NPR but it’s not compassionate to give to World Vision or Samaritan’s Purse or World Relief.  Or any number of religious charities — not to mention the work that churches do to serve the needy within their own communities.  When you’re desperate to avoid the conclusion that Christians are actually generally compassionate people, I guess you’ll find some way to make your argument.

Furthermore, Brooks’ research showed that conservative religious people not only gave more of their money (even though they had less money to begin with), but that they also give more of their time, donate more blood, and are more generous by dozens of other measures as well.  Yes, Brooks is a well known conservative intellectual.  But his data and his arguments stand on their own merits.

None of this is surprising to people who have spent time in healthy conservative Christian communities, where you’ll find that the people are generous and loving.  If you grew up in a deeply dysfunctional fundamentalist setting and assume the rest of conservative Christendom is the same, then, well, hopefully the facts will open up your eyes to a different reality.

There are other findings of interest in the study — that tax incentives for charitable giving have a real effect, that middle class Americans give a greater proportion of their wealth than the wealthy do, that the wealthy who live among the non-wealthy give more than those who live in enclaves of wealth, and so on.  And Evangelical Christians cannot bathe themselves in self-congratulation.  The data suggests that the Mormons give a significantly higher amount.

Still, I’m yet to see any good argument that undermines the evidence that conservatives have been compassionate all along.

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