Earlier this week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy released a study that analyzed charitable giving across the United Sates. It's caused a bit of crowing on the right because its results seem to suggest that residents of "red" states are more generous than residents of "blue" states:
In states like Utah and Mississippi, the typical household gives more than 7 percent of its income to charity, while the average household in Massachusetts and three other New England states gives less than 3 percent.
The same holds for the nation’s 50 biggest metropolitan areas. The Chronicle found that residents of Salt Lake City, Memphis, and Birmingham, Ala., typically give at least 7 percent of their discretionary income to charity, while those in Boston and Providence average less than 3 percent.
The study also suggests that religion is a strong motivator for charitable giving. At first blush, this seems to suggest that, insofar as one can correlate giving with political ideology on a geographic basis, conservatives seem to be more charitable than liberals. Fred Clark at Slacktivist called that conclusion into question, arguing that what the study actually shows is that people who go to church give more money to churches than people who do not attend church, given that when religious charities are taken out of the equation, the ratios of giving flip:
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.
What a remarkable finding. How surprising. How newsworthy.
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.
This led Timothy Dalrymple to jump in on the opposite side of the argument, writing:
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.
Timothy also appeals to Arthur Brooks's book Who Really Cares to bolster his argument, claiming that:
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.
This may well be. I haven't read Brooks' book, and I don't know how it's been reviewed. But I do think it would be worth seeing if other studies continue to bear this out. That said, I do think Tim has a point with regard to the kinds of conclusions one can draw from this study about a) whether "religious" giving here simply means "giving to churches" and b) what kinds of charitable giving both more liberal and more conservative givers engage in.
All of which is to say that there's some interesting sociology to be done here. Tim is right that one can give to a religious charity such as WorldVision specifically with the aim of feeding the poor and helping the homeless, and that one can give to a secular charity such as the BSO which does many wonderful things, but not that. So Fred does seem to draw a far stronger conclusion from the data available than is warranted.
That said, I'd like to know more: What does it mean when the Chronicle study excludes religious giving from its sample to flip the ratio? What's included there? Why make a specific decision to exclude religious giving? What were they attempting to show? Is it possible to take the data in other directions, such as distinguishing between giving to aid organizations vs. giving to cultural organizations? Without drilling down into the data to discover these things, there isn't much more we can conclude.
But that said, it wouldn't surprise me in the least to discover that there is an ideological connection between a conservative principle that says "I don't belive in government handouts" and an equally conservative religious princple that says "but therefore I have a personal responsibility to give to those in need." At the same time, it wouldn't surprise me to discover a liberal position that says "I am willing to pay higher taxes in order to allow government programs to exist that aid the poor and needy" and the position that "therefore I don't need to contribute as much personally to charity." Indeed, I think both could be morally defensible positions, and it wouldn't suprise me at all to find that correlated to geography.
But that said, do think that Tim really does seem to be protesting too much in his defense of conservative Christian charitable giving. The question of personal generosity isn't really what's at stake in public arguments about the size of government programs for the poor, rather social philosophy is. One's own private giving may be enormous, and that's an example of personal virtue; but when conservatives seek to cut public funding for programs that aid the poor and needy, no amount of private giving ameliorates the appearance of a lack of compassion on their part.
So on the one hand, Tim may have a point that the study gives a good picture of the personal generosity of religious conservatives, but it will require a lot more than that to overcome the widespread perception of a lack of conservative callousness. Even so, it would also be worthwhile for both religious and secular liberals to think more about their own personal giving, as a matter of personal virtue if not social justice, and how their giving reflects their values, particularly in terms of the poorest and the most needy.