God and the Giving Gap

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending a lunchtime lecture at the Heritage Foundation here in DC on the subject of charitable giving. The speaker was Arthur C. Brooks, Wall Street Journal contributor and author of the new book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. In his book, and in his presentation, “Faith, Charity, and Civil Society,” Brooks argued with compelling evidence that people who possess religious faith are the most charitable in our society, a claim accepted as truth by most laypersons, but frequently challenged by social scientists.

In his research, Brooks defined “religious” as those who attend services once or more a week, and “secular” as those who attend few times or never each year. The former category describes 33 percent of U.S. population, and the later, 20 percent. The difference in charitable giving between these two extremes could not be more stark. Of those defined as “religious,” 91 percent reported giving money to charity and 67 percent gave their time, with an estimated annual value of $2,210. Of those defined as “secular,” 66 percent gave money to charity and 44 gave their time, at an estimated annual value of $642. And it didn’t matter what faith one possessed — religious persons as a whole gave to charity nearly 30 percent more frequently than secular. 92 percent of Protestants, 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent of other religions gave time or money to charity work.

The objection that comes to mind immediately is that the gap between religious and secular givers is inflated because of giving to local churches and denominational organizations (such as seminary scholarship funds). However, Brooks found the gap between religious and secular givers remains even when sectarian charitable causes are excluded. 71 percent of religious persons reported giving money and 60 percent gave time to secular charities, versus 61 percent and 39 percent of secular persons, respectively. Furthermore, more religious people reported performing “random acts of kindness,” such as donating blood, giving money to the homeless, returning improper change, or even letting someone cut them in line, than their secular brethren.1 Brooks concluded that one’s religious inclination — defined as how frequently one attends services — is the number one indicator of charity, controlling for every other factor.

But Why?

Brooks was less conclusive on the reason for the differences in giving between the religious and secular. Indeed, he conceded that there was evidence for both the “nature” and “nurture” sides of the argument. You ask a Christian why they give and they might respond with the Biblical injunction to tithe, but, more often they’ll say that God made their heart into one more generous. Since science according to Brooks believes that 25 to 50 percent of one’s religious inclinations may be genetic and therefore predetermined (settle down Calvinists), one can plausibly argue that people who have giving hearts were born that way.

On the other hand, there is evidence that religious teaching on charity can remain with a person, even long after one has abandoned the faith. In one of the more interesting tidbits of the presentation, Brooks reported that secular adults who were raised in the religious category (attended serviced weekly as a child) were more likely to have religious-type giving patterns than those raised entirely secular. So there is some truth to that old chestnut from Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

The Politics of Giving

This being Washington and Heritage being a conservative think tank, politics was certain to enter into the discussion at some point. Brooks’s research into the politics of giving was less thorough, though he indicated he would address the issue in a future book. What listeners came away with, however, was that self-identified conservatives gave 30 percent more to charity than self-identified liberals across all income lines, despite the fact that conservatives are 6 percent less wealthy than liberals. Brooks cautioned, however, against concluding that conservatives are more generous than liberals. Once again, the religious giving gap was the controlling factor. The Religious Left had giving patterns more in tune with their co-religionists on the Right than with their secular brethren on the Left. Likewise, secular conservatives gave like secular liberals, not like religious conservatives. Indeed, Brooks concluded that the giving gap between conservatives and liberals was overwhelmingly due to the greater numbers of religious persons on the Right than on the Left.

Not having finished half of my books from Christmas 2005 yet, I failed to pick up a copy of Who Really Cares on Monday. However, I would encourage anyone who is concerned about the secular divide in this nation, or is involved in charitable work, to get themselves a copy.

1 I guess Baptists weren’t asked about leaving tips after Sunday brunch.

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