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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  • Actually, there’s no need for a “lot of explaining,” the explaination’s pretty straight forward, as your fellow Patheos blogger Fred Clark points out :

    “The study actually shows that the religious are much more likely to give to religion. Church members, apparently, are likelier to donate to their churches than non-church members are. … Set aside those “charitable” donations to local churches, and the study shows that the churchier regions are generally stingier toward “secular” charities. You know, like those secular categories of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.”

    That was easy.

  • Actually disregard what I wrote above, I jumped in without reading your whole piece. I’ll give it a closer read and may have another response later on. That’s a big “duh” on me.

  • Only a fraction of church giving goes to charity. While transparency is an issue, especially with the megachurch model that is thriving (other mainline & traditional church bases continue to erode), here is a stat breakdown that illustrates plainly that “only a fraction” of offerings actually go into “compassion”.

  • Matthew B

    Naum, you are right that only a fraction of church giving goes to charity, but it would take hard research to find out what that fraction is; a single Atlanta mega-church is hardly a representative sample.

    More importantly, to assess how much of religious giving should “count”, one has to figure out (as Timothy suggested) how much of it goes to para-church organizations like World Vision. Even para-church missions groups may use some part of their income for charity work. Furthermore, money used for church upkeep and salaries provides services such as counseling, which certainly benefit communities, especially parishioners too poor to purchase them elsewhere. (As a recent recipient of very helpful free premarital counseling I could not afford to pay for, I appreciate this.)

    All this isn’t to say that religious people actually provide for those with less at a higher rate than non-religious people. My point is just that there are a lot more questions that need to be asked before we can be at all sure that Fred’s stats beat Tim’s.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      A couple points I would add to this:

      1. Not all “secular charities” are caring for the sick and the poor, either. Giving to public broadcasting or the local ballet company is entirely worthy, but it’s not clear to me that it’s more compassionate than giving, say, to a parachurch ministry that seeks to nurture marriages.

      2. Who says that giving to a marriage ministry (just to take an example of a “religious” charity that may not immediately strike one as compassionate) is uncompassionate, anyway? Strong marriages mean strong families, which means lower divorce rates, less poverty, lower rates of homelessness and better care for children. It may be a very strategic – and compassionate – gift.

      3. Who, come to think of it, says that giving to churches in general is uncompassionate? Churches provide vital services. The pastoring, pastoral counseling, worship, teaching, all of these things serve to care for people and strengthen communities. Also, while I would rather see North Point give a larger portion of their budget to compassion ministries, I know that they try to focus on what they view as the core calling of the church while harnessing their people for other projects. So, when a church goes to great lengths to encourage its people to give a “love offering” for, say, a ministry digging wells in Africa, none of that money goes through the church’s budget process but the church is nonetheless engaging in compassionate service (and some of that money may well have gone to tithes if it had not gone to the love offering, so there is often a sacrifice).

      My main point was that there’s no simple “southern Christians give to churches while the enlightened New Englanders give to secular charities that are actually caring for the poor” dichotomy.

      • Matthew B

        Thanks, Tim. I basically agree, but I’m not sure about the relevance of 3. Yes, church’s provide social services, but if my tithe to my church is mainly paying my share of social services (after all, in a typical church most of the social services are going to people very much like me), then I’m not sure it should count as a sacrifice.

        Fascinating point about giving that bypasses church budgets. My new wife just gave money to an organization that works with North Korean refugees; the donation might end up coming out of money that would be given to church. This doesn’t address the original worry, but might make one feel better about places like North Ridge.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    As a regular Slacktivist reader and commenter, I have to admit that your examples are not Fred at his best, though I don’t think they are representative of the (typically high, in my opinion) quality of his writing and thinking in general. (On the charity study in particular, many Slacktivist commenters raised the same points you did.)

    On the “shellfish exception” though, I’m not sure what the problem is. You did write, “the old Shellfish Objection is easily dispensed for anyone who has actually studied both sides of the issue.” Fred used Acts (I’m not sure why it’s relevant that you didn’t) to suggest that you are incorrect and that the argument is not so easily dispensed with. Is this hilarious because your original point was exclusively about Glee’s (very silly) “Leviticus says!” version of the shellfish exception, or is there something fundamentally wrong (beyond a difference of opinion) with Fred’s exegesis of Acts?

    • Derrick

      Having just read Fred’s response to one of my favorite of Timothy’s, I have to disagree (The curt dismissal of the argument as “theologically illiterate” was incredibly funny and incredibly justified). Fred’s rebuttal is nothing more than a red herring, ignoring the key point of Timothy’s post and chasing after a minor remark. He doesn’t actually engage with the real argument. He throws a cheap shot at the Bible. It’s obviously not a serious interpretation, it is one of the ever-growing number of articles by people who don’t take the Bible seriously that attempt to show Christians how they’ve misinterpreted the it. (Silly us–if only we had read it once like Fred had!). Jesus himself had things to say about dietary restrictions (It’s what comes out of the mouth that makes a man unclean), and Paul deals with the issue of Homosexuality several times in the new testament, so the attempt to refute followers of a religion through a the isolated exegesis of a single passage (as both the quoted passage from “Glee” and Fred’s discussion of Acts seek to do) is, yes, “theologically illiterate”.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I won’t comment on Fred’s blogging in general, because he’s a Patheos blogger and I’m a Director of Content. The Progressive Christian Channel, where he blogs, is not under my purview, but I’ve resisted responding to his criticisms of me because I don’t want anyone to confuse my responses with some kind of official Patheos critique. It’s not. It’s just friendly conversation, at least as far as I’m concerned.

      My point with regard to the shellfish objection was that I’ve seen this several times on television where Joe Christian will say “the Old Testament calls homosexuality an abomination,” Joe Non-Christian (or Joe More-Enlightened-Christian) will respond, “It also says not to eat shellfish, and I don’t see you giving up shellfish!” and Joe Christian will stand there, stumped by the astonishing power of this riposte. Anyone who has studied the issue knows that there are indeed strong responses to the shellfish objection, having to do with the relationship between the Law and the New Covenant and the difference between the cleanliness code and the moral law.

      Fred simply assumed that he knew what my response to the shellfish objection would be, apparently assumed it would be based entirely on the one passage he cited, and then assumed that he knew what interpretation I would give to the passage. I guess he also assumed that there’s no good response to his interpretation of the passage. He said “people like Tim generally argue this,” put up a strawman of an argument, and apparently thought he burned the strawman to the ground. For good measure, of course, he threw in a silly “Timothy Dalrymple vs. the Apostle Peter” opposition, included a bit of mockery, etc. That’s Fred’s style and that’s fine. Maybe I do need to write a response sometime, but I doubt anyone who is not already convinced will find his argument convincing.

      • Kubrick’s Rube

        Thanks for the clarification. I’ve certainly seen progressive Christians address the moral laws vs cleanliness code issue before, but as I’m not a Christian, it’s probably not appropriate for me to push that issue any further. From a Jewish perspective though, I find the simplistic version of the shellfish argument as used on Glee and elsewhere troubling. There is something unsettling about hearing some of my faith’s more complicated elements used as a gotcha! against someone else’s faith- and usually by political allies! I don’t know how many of the people glibly raising (or refuting) the shellfish exception in a Christian context realize how the different Levitical laws have been studied/understood/applied within Judaism and its different traditions over time.

    • Frank

      Very little of what Fred says has much bearing on the truth. He seems like an angry, bitter, resentful person and we should feel sorry for him.

  • This difference is glaring when you go all the way to the top of the Republican and Democrat parties.

    Romney does help the poor and less fortunate by giving away money out of his own pocket. He made $42.5 million over the past two years, he also gave away $7 million. That’s well over 10%.

    Obama gave $10,772 of the $1.2 million he earned from 2000 through 2004 to charities, or less than 1 percent, according to tax returns for those years.

    Yes, Romney is criticized because he doesn’t pay enough taxes?

    • Kubrick’s Rube

      To be fair, Obama’s charitable donations picked up in 2005 (4.6%) and reached 14.2% in 2010. If you count the Nobel money that was donated, his 2009 donation rate was 25.1%, 5.9% if you don’t. Paul Ryan is at 3.5% for the last two years. (I don’t think any of this is very important from a voting standpoint, but I thought it was worth clarifying.)

      • Bobby B.

        So Mr. Obama’s giving suddenly jumped over 400% as he began his run for the White House and then soared to a 1000% plus increase after taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Can’t answer for all the other fanboys out there, but this is not quite enough to convince me to get “OBAMA 2012” tattooed on my forehead.

      • Bobby B.

        KR: thanks for the stats on the President’s donations. Looks like Mr. Obama’s giving suddenly jumped over 400% as he began his run for the White House and then soared to a 1000% plus increase after taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Can’t answer for all the other fanboys out there, but this is not quite enough to convince me to get “OBAMA 2012” tattooed on my forehead.

    • Consumer Unit 5012

      Is Romney’s ‘giving away’ there including the mandatory 10% tithe to the Church of Latter-Day Saints?

    • Scot Miller

      Of course, you’re only guessing about Romney’s donations, since we don’t have any actual evidence (beyond his claim, “I gave 10% of my (gross? net?) income (before taxes? after taxes?) to the Mormon church.” We do know the charitable contributions of Obama from his released taxes.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        We do have a good amount of information about Romney’s donations, actually, albeit not for every year. But as far as we can tell, the Romneys have always given a good deal more than ten percent — more in the range of 15% to 20%. What’s really not in dispute is that they are, by all accounts, very generous with their resources.

  • Nate Sauve

    Basically the attempt to reject religious giving as legitimate giving, boils down to the fact that religious people give to causes liberals don’t like. So it shouldn’t count. But if I disregard Jeff Bezos giving to LGBT causes as advancing a political agenda and not compassionate then we have to disregard giving on both sides and that doesn’t clarify anything.

  • This piece seems to be written as a tidy way to bash liberals. “Hey look, we conservatives give more to charity! We’re awesome!” I think one’s responsibility to love the world encompasses charity, tithing, one’s voting record, one’s ability to promote peace in his community, and a zillion other measures. This article reduces it to a Fox News-style report where we show one side winning, and one side losing, and everyone feeling self-righteous.

    • Tim


      Here’s hoping we don’t bash one another but find a way for love to bring us together

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      The criticisms at the end were meant to ward of self-righteousness. It’s less about applauding ourselves, since we don’t give nearly enough, and more about dispelling the caricature that conservatives and Christians and conservative Christians are somehow less compassionate than liberals.

  • Tim

    Thinking about it over night. I’m liberal. I want every single hungry person on this planet fed. I believe it makes sense for government to play a role in that. I support increasing, not decreasing, SNAP during this economically stressed time.

    3 out if my 53 years have been spent in the Third World. In the USA I’ve lived among the more privileged. I consider myself a member of the 1% (globally, not the USA). I’d like to be much more generous, specifically to causes (church related and not) that address poverty. I find it a scandal that there are so many hungry people alongside so many rich Chritians such as myself.

    So if it is a compassion contest, okay, you win. Y’all are more generous. I’m a hypocrite. While we have this “righteousness contest” poverty continues to increase. And, quite honestly, the superiority contest makes me depressed. Truly despairing. Ready to give up. Because I see no hope. Heads increasing poverty wins. Tails efforts to make a difference lose.

    Lord, give me hope. Maybe I need to stop reading blogs that delve into plolitics. Yet I cannot do it alone. The church cannot do it alone. We all need to help. I can help someone today. But the system is broken. Send me hope, Lord. Amen

  • As promised, my more considered thoughts on this issue, wherein I am surprised to find myself agreeing to an extent with Tim:

    • Tim

      Scott, the last paragraph of your link says it well. The other Tim

  • John Erthein

    Interesting article and discussion. Thank you.

    I tend to think this is not a “conservative vs. liberal” question per se but a “religious vs.non-religious” question. At this time in our history there is more overlap between conservative/religious than liberal/religious. But I think we can all find many examples of conservative and liberal congregations that seek to help the less fortunate. A UCC church in Massachusetts may do as much as a Baptist church in Mississippi, but there are proportionally more committed Baptists in Mississippi than there are committed UCCers in Massachusetts.

    I hope I am not misunderstanding the comparison here. It would be really interesting if someone could break down the categories into conservative/religious, liberal/religious, conservative/secular and liberal/secular.

  • John Erthein

    I also don’t see the disconnect between giving to churches and giving to human needs that this Fred guy does. I strongly disagree with his implied claim that giving to churches (or other religious groups) is somehow less legitimate than giving to secular causes. But then I’m a pastor. 😉

  • matt

    “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.”

    And if you were willing to be honest as you represent the Christian faith on this blog, you would acknowledge that the Churchill bust was not “summarily” returned when Obama “took up residence” in the White House, but was instead returned at the end of its loan period.

    But whatever, keep lying for Jesus and the Republicans.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thank you for accusing me of lying, when this is obviously nothing of the sort. This doesn’t change anything. The bust was loaned to GWB after 9/11 as a sign of the strength of the transatlantic relationship, and the loan was extended for Bush’s second term. It would have been extended again if Obama had not returned it. As the British Embassy spokesman said: “The new president has decided not to continue this loan and the bust has now been returned.”

      So, how exactly was I lying?

  • matt

    Because you said that he “summarily” returned it which is certainly different from not continuing the loan. If the president had some hostility towards Churchill, it seems unlikely that he would have kept the bust in the residence where he would be, you know, living with it. In fact, this ABC story which also contains the quote that you included also says that the decision to return the bust had been made before Obama even took office Did you not read that part of the story?
    It’s probably not cool of me to accuse you of lying and I apologize and retract, but I think that you did not act in total good faith in your comment.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Fair enough. Even if I were Obama and had hostility toward Churchill, though, I probably would not return BOTH busts since that would just seem like such a slap in the face. I think Obama’s too smart a politician for that. But conservatives have lamented the way in which Obama has treated England in general, and I think there’s some justification for that, although he seems to get along reasonably well now with Cameron.

      • I wonder how the British feel about how Obama has treated them? I wonder if Cameron would be happier with Romney. Based on the Olympic fiasco, I have my doubts.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Yes, such a fiasco! Romney said what others had been saying, that there were some outstanding concerns about readiness and security. Some politicians — imagine this! — were opportunistic and took advantage of the chance to make some rah-rah “England can do it!” points.

          I don’t think Cameron gives a flying fig about Romney’s statement regarding the Olympics.

          • matt

            And of course the brouhaha about the stupid bust has been a totally legitimate controversy and not an example of, “Some politicians — imagine this! — were opportunistic and took advantage of the chance to make some rah-rah Obama hates freedom noises”?