Those Uncaring Conservatives

RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS

The notion that liberals are caring and compassionate while conservatives are selfish and hard-hearted is still being peddled long after its sell-by date.

For instance, a day hardly passes that one does not read an article about the need for evangelical Protestants or Catholics to close the gap between the conservative pro-life cause and the liberal "social justice agenda." I am always puzzled by that way of putting the ques tion. First, because there is no more elementary cause of social justice than reforming a society that permits the killing of millions of its babies. Second, because of the implied assumption that liberals care more about helping the already born who are in need. That is counterintuitive, and counter to my experience with the many liberals and conservatives whom I have known.

But, in case there is any doubt, we need not rely on intuition or anecdotal experience. There is a growing literature demonstrating that conservatives are much more generous in helping people in need than are liberals. The record of those further to the left than liber al is even clearer. In our little book of 1975, To Empower People, Peter Berger and I argued that effective help required a major role for "mediating institutions," meaning the nongovernmental and people-sized associations — for example, families, churches, voluntary groups of all kinds — through which people routinely care for one another and for others in distant lands.

Arthur C. Brooks is professor of public adminis tration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Pub lic Affairs at Syracuse University. He employs the argument of To Empower People and supports it with massive statistical data and the most detailed analysis. The title of his new book is Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism: America 's Charity Divide — Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters. It is just out from Basic Books and is deserving of widespread attention.

Prof. Brooks started his study some years ago with the conventional assumption that liberals cared and conservatives didn’t. He wanted to find out why that should be. What he found out is that the assumption is dead wrong. Quite the opposite is the case, and very dramatically so. Measured by the giving of money, time, and practical help, those who by the usual criteria are defined as conservative are way, way ahead of their liberal cousins. That is true in support for both religious and nonreligious programs for helping those in need.


First, the caring are more religiously committed than those who do not give of their time and money. Second, they believe that helping others is more a personal than governmental responsibility. Third, they come from strong families where they have learned the virtue of generosity. And fourth, they believe in helping people to help themselves.


In his foreword, the eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson says, "[T]his is the best study of charity that I have read." For many on the left, charity is a dirty word. What we need, they say, is justice, not charity, which then excuses them from the tasks of charity. Other Americans, however, give more than a quarter trillion dollars a year to charity, not counting the gift of time and practical help. Not incidentally, the poor are, relative to their resources, more generous than the rich. (The well-to-do are much more likely to say they "cannot afford" to give in helping others.) "These statistics are impressive, and belie most of the claims about the selfishness of our nation," writes Brooks. "That said, an identifiable and sizeable minority of Americans are not charitable. While 225 million Americans give away money each year, the other 75 million never give away money to any causes, charities, or churches. Further, 130 million Americans never volunteer their time."

When one runs all the data and the all the variables through the various analytical grids, it turns out that there are four factors that drive generosity to others. First, the caring are more religiously committed than those who do not give of their time and money. Second, they believe that helping others is more a personal than governmental responsibility. Third, they come from strong families where they have learned the virtue of generosity. And fourth, they believe in helping people to help themselves.

Toward the end of his book, Prof. Brooks sums up "the five major facts about charity and politics." "First, there is a huge 'charity gap' that follows religion: On average, religious people are far more charitable than secularists with their time and money. Religious people are more generous in informal ways as well, such as giving blood, giving money to family members, and behaving honestly. Religious people are far more likely than secularists to be politically conservative. Second, people who believe — as liberals often do — that the government should equalize income give and volunteer far less than people who do not believe this. Third, the American working poor are, relative to their income, very generous. The nonworking poor, however — those on public assistance instead of earning low wages — give at extremely low levels. The charitable working poor tend to be far more politically conservative than the nonworking poor. Fourth, charitable giving is learned, reinforced, and practiced within intact families — especially religious families. Secularism and family breakdown are far less prevalent among conservatives than liberals. Fifth, Europeans are far less personally charitable than people in the U.S. Europeans are also, on average, far to the political left of Americans. The net result of these five facts is that conservatives generally behave more charitably than liberals, especially with respect to money donations."

There are all kinds of interesting vignettes along the way of reading Who Really Cares. For instance, people in the rich county of San Francisco give but a small fraction of the time and money given by the relatively poor people of South Dakota. And there are interesting transcultural comparisons of the correlation between religion, generosity, and how people rate their own happiness. American liberals, along with Europeans, are generally much more unhappy with their lives.

Brooks doesn't say so, but one reason for their unhappiness may be their resentment of the happiness of conservatives. Liberals tend to be much angrier than conservatives. Of course, they might say that is because conservatives don't understand what is wrong with the world. That seems very doubtful. What this study does make clear is that, apart from being angry about it, liberals are much less inclined than conservatives to accept personal responsibility for doing something about what is wrong with the world.

The next time you find yourself in a conversation about how liberals are caring and compassionate while conservatives are selfish and hard-hearted, you might want to refer your interlocutors to Who Really Cares. To be entirely fair, this is social science, and social science deals in generalizations. Need I say that some of my best friends are liberals who are wonderfully generous?

Order Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism:
America 's Charity Divide — Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters
here.

ACNOWLEDGEMENT

Neuhaus, Richard John. “Those Uncaring Conservatives.” First Things: The Public Square (December, 2006): 59-60.

Reprinted with permission of First Things.

THE AUTHOR

Father Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. He is the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The End of Democracy?: The Judical Usurpation of Politics, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Square": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

Copyright © 2006 First Things


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