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Jon A. Shields

A Scandal of the Secular Conscience?

Who really cares.

The belief that religious conservatives are less charitable and more hard-hearted than secular liberals has seemed so obviously true as to require little empirical investigation. In fact, conservatives themselves have helped fortify this view by accusing liberals of possessing "bleeding hearts" and by amending conservatism with "compassionate." Religious believers have fared little better. Even serious evangelicals, such as Ronald J. Sider, conclude that Christians live just like the secular world despite their convictions.

But as the ink dried on Sider's The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Arthur C. Brooks' Who Really Cares soon followed with a starkly different conclusion. Drawing on some ten data sets, Brooks finds that religiosity is among the best predictors of charitable giving. Religious Americans are not only much more likely to give money and volunteer their time to religious and secular institutions, they are also more likely to provide aid to family members, return incorrect change, help a homeless person, and donate blood. In fact, despite expecting to find just the opposite, Brooks concluded: "I have never found a measurable way in which secularists are more charitable than religious people."

Consider some examples. Religious citizens who make $49,000 gave away about 3.5 times as much money as secular citizens with the same income. They also volunteered twice as often, are 57 percent more likely to help homeless persons, and two-thirds more likely to give blood at their workplace. Meanwhile, those who insist that "beliefs don't matter as long as you're a good person" are not as good as those who do think beliefs matter. The former group gave and volunteered at much lower rates.

Yet even these findings tend to obscure the impact of religion on charity. This is because some of the survey respondents that Brooks classified as secular are indirectly affected by religion if they were raised in a religious household. Consider two secular Americans, identical in education, income, and other such measures, only one of whom was raised in a religious household. The secular citizen with a religious upbringing is nearly twice as likely to give to charity.

Because religious and secular citizens tend to cluster in different communities, some parts of the country are far more charitable than others. For instance, Arkansas (where citizens give away some 3.9 percent of their income) is among the most charitable states, while Massachusetts (where citizens give away 1.8 percent of their income) is one of the least charitable. Likewise, the citizens of South Dakota give away 75 percent more of their household income than those in San Francisco.

Overall, conservative-leaning states are much more charitable than liberal-leaning states. Of the 25 states that gave a percentage of household income above the national average, 24 went to Bush in 2004. This striking result, however, should not obscure an important fact about the charity divide. It is not that liberals are somehow inherently less charitable than conservatives. Rather, the lifestyles and beliefs that contribute to charity are simply more likely to be found in conservatives than liberals. In general, religious liberals are no less charitable than religious conservatives; there just happen to be three times as many religious citizens who are conservative.

But religiosity is not the only influence that tends to make conservatives more charitable than liberals. Citizens are also more charitable when they oppose greater income redistribution and less charitable when they support it. Opponents of income redistribution are about ten percent more likely to give to charity even after controlling for socio-economic variables such as income, religion, and education. They are also more likely to return change to a cashier, give food or money to a homeless person, and donate blood. In fact, the blood supply would decline by about 30 percent if we were a nation of government aid advocates.

But how can this be? After all, presumably those who support income redistribution care more about the plight of the poor. The answer seems to be that many advocates of redistribution use this position as a substitute for making personal sacrifices—that is, they think they are already being charitable by taking a particular political position. Those who oppose income redistribution may feel more obliged to make personal sacrifices on behalf of the poor.

Two other factors influence giving—personal entrepreneurship and being married with children. The latter influence is especially interesting. After all, in hard economic terms one would expect just the opposite, since children are a significant drain on both time and money. But apparently either more charitable Americans have more children, or having children makes them more charitable. Or perhaps both are true. In any case, conservatives are more likely to be situated in traditional families.

Brooks ultimately concludes that the contrasts between conservatives and liberals are large enough such that they tend to be part of different cultures or "nations"—one charitable and one uncharitable. In the uncharitable nation reside some 75 million Americans who never donate their money and 130 million who never volunteer their time. Meanwhile, Americans who give their time and money tend to give a lot of both. Thus, Brooks concludes there is a "very bright line" between "Charitable America" and "Selfish America."

But if this is right, how can we square Brooks' thesis with Sider's claim that evangelicals live just as secular Americans do? A partial answer might be that Sider rests his case on more than just data on charity. He also examines divorce, racism, and sexual disobedience. In addition, he only examines giving to churches both over time and between mainline and evangelicals denominations, and never makes broader comparisons between the charitable giving of secular and religious Americans. And as John G. Stackhouse recently emphasized in these pages, Sider is not careful to distinguish nominal from committed evangelicals.

On the other hand, it is not clear that Sider would be very impressed by Brooks' data. First, Brooks finds that there is nothing distinctive about evangelicals. Thus, religious evangelicals are no more charitable than religious Catholics or Jews. What seems to matter is religiosity rather than the content of one's faith. Second, it is not clear that contributions in the order of three to six percent of one's annual income each year can sustain the larger cultural claims that Brooks makes. Thus religious citizens may give a good deal more than secular Americans do, everything else being equal, but they nonetheless make relatively small contributions from their incomes.

However one interprets these findings, one conclusion is indisputable: religious conservatives not only bear little resemblance to the stereotypes liberal élites ascribe to them, they also compare favorably to other Americans. Brooks own work confirms an excellent ethnographic study by James Ault, Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church (reviewed by Julie Byrne in the November/December 2004 issue of Books & Culture). Ault, a child of the New Left and liberal culture, was amazed by the charity he encountered, especially when compared to the more individualistic and atomized culture he knew so well. Other studies, such as Brad Wilcox's, have shown that evangelical men are more engaged with and attentive to their wives and children than mainline and especially secular men. Many other scholars, including Christian Smith, Clyde Wilcox, and Mark Rozell, have found that evangelicals are far more open to pluralistic values than most élites ever imagine. In fact, my own work has led me to conclude that Christian activists often behave in much more civil ways than secular activists. Perhaps the pervasive charity that Brooks discovered is not completely walled out of the public square.

With rare exceptions such as Ault, however, a growing mountain of research has done little to alter élite opinion, especially in the academy. This is partly because it is simply being ignored. Despite Brooks' original data analysis and provocative thesis, his book has received almost no attention from left-of-center periodicals or radio shows. As of this writing, one exception is a review by Stanley Katz in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which dismisses Brooks' book in one paragraph without engaging his empirical findings.

Of course, dogmas are often immune to empirical research. But if secular élites continue to cling to their stereotypes of evangelicals and ignore social science, then they will embrace the very intolerance and anti-intellectualism they accuse religious believers of possessing. To be so uncharitable toward millions of decent Americans would also be a sad vindication of Brooks' argument.

Jon A. Shields is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado—Colorado Springs. His research on Christian conservatives, the New Left, and the politics of bioethics has appeared in Critical Review, Political Science Quarterly, and Society.

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