Thursday's Why Do Conservative Christians Kill Their Kids? could've been an early April 1st post, but it was actually a bad reaction to an overdose of "liberals are [bad/unethical/unpatriotic/hypocrites/can't count to numerous] and here is my carefully selected fact to prove it."
This impulse welled up after spending far more time on John McCain's mouth than any non-member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry should, and then reading George Will's "Liberals speak of generosity; conservatives actually have it."
"The surprise is that liberals are markedly less charitable than conservatives," he intones, sounding not very surprised at all, while the headline writer follows right along.
Will picked this week to write about a book published 16 months ago that forwards a premise that
liberals give financial lip service to their social values. You've probably heard this already, in a far less affected manner than Will manages:
While conservatives tend to regard giving as a personal rather than governmental responsibility, some liberals consider private charity a retrograde phenomenon — a poor palliative for an inadequate welfare state, and a distraction from achieving adequacy by force, by increasing taxes.
In other words, we substitute other people's taxes for our personal charity.
You'd think in honor of tax time Will would at least congratulate us Blue Staters for taking smaller deductions, thereby paying more to the government. Isn't that living your values?
Okay, seriously. My annoyance with Will's piece starts with how he slants the evidence even further to the right than what's in Arthur C. Brooks's Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. Will says:
Although liberal families' incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227).
Will notes the importance of religion as an underpinning of conservative values, but he neglects to mention that religious giving accounts for most of this disparity.
Brooks found religious donors gave about 3.5 times the amount secular donors did — on average $2,210 versus $642 — and most of that giving went to religious causes. That tracks with a recent report from the Minnesota Council on Foundations, which says individual religious giving in the state dwarfs all other categories at about 60% of charitable dollars.
But according to a review in Philanthropy, when Brooks measured only giving to non-religious causes, the difference between religious and secular givers fell to $88. He also found that religious conservatives gave slightly more than religious liberals, while secular liberals were more generous than their conservative counterparts.
I could further question the size and source of any giving gap, but what really got me was the divisive set up. Like asking "why do conservatives kill their kids?" Will's formulation of the research is presented in a way that incites argument rather than invites exploration by the "accused."
Instead, what if we approached Brooks's book in a spirit of discovery? What sorts of questions might we ask? And what might we learn about ourselves that would actually be useful?
- Am I more generous than other Americans? If not, is that something I want to change?
- Why do I give? To solve social ills or make myself feel good?
- Do my giving patterns show ideological or class biases? Does that matter?
- Is it better to give to the poor than to the arts or environment? How do I make those choices?
- Do my political opinions make it hard for me to see the actual social value in religious giving and faith-based initiatives? Do others discount the value of public investment for similar reasons?
- If we can agree on desired outcomes from fulfilling social needs, will it be easier for the community to agree on a variety of funding methods?
When readers are introduced to issues in a way that accentuates existing political notions — such as government wastes my money or wealth and morality are incompatible — it's very difficult to reach any kind of understanding, either of the other side's beliefs or the deeper complexities of the problem.
This article about fundamentalism expresses in another way the constructive potential of the tension between liberal and conservative thought.
Fundamentalism's conservative impulse wants stability in societies. Liberal impulses serve to give us not stability but civility: humanity. They do this by expanding the definitions of our inherited territorial categories. The essential job of liberals in human societies is to enlarge our understanding of who belongs in our in-group. This is the plot of virtually all liberal advances.
When liberal visions work, it's because they have kept one foot solidly in our deep territorial impulses with the other foot free to push the margin, to expand the definition of those who belong in “our” territory.
When liberal visions fail, it is often because they fail to achieve just this kind of balance between our conservative impulses and our liberal needs.
The problem, of course, is that this notion of balance fits better with liberalism. The fundamentalists are less likely to budge.