The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Charity, Conservatives and Con Games

Conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby is in a dither yet again and he thinks you should be as well.

Jacoby has discovered a long term trend in this country and panics — but if anything defines today’s conservatives it is a tendency to panic and over-react with fear and loathing to change.

Jacoby discovered, yet again, Americans are becoming less and less religious. He thinks all us secular types should panic as well because religion drives “philanthropic works in US society. If religion in this country is going down, charitable giving and volunteering are likely to go down to.”

This trend in religion has been obvious for the last 20 years. I have one article I wrote 12 years ago which states this decline in religion had already been obvious for the previous eight years. If a decline in religion means a decline in charity we should have seen a trend already. Surely decades of declining religious beliefs would already result in a decline of charitable giving. What is actually happening to charitable giving? According to Philanthropy Roundtable:

After adjusting for inflation, charitable giving by Americans was close to seven times as big in 2016 as it was 62 years earlier.

Of course, one reason total giving went up is because the U.S. population almost doubled. But if we recalculate inflation-adjusted charitable giving on a per capita basis, we see that has also soared: by 3½ times. Charitable causes are very lucky to have a remarkably expansive American economy behind them, and a standard of living that refuses to stagnate.

Giving USA noted that in 2017, for the first time, Americans donated more than $400 billion to charities—$410.02 billion for a more precise figure. Contrary to the fears of Jacoby and other conservatives, “our commitment to philanthropy is solid.”

Of the $410 billion, only $127.37 billion was channeled through religious organizations—and most that giving paid for the church and was never spent on charitable work. While giving was up, religious giving saw the smallest increase over the previous year, just 2.9%. Giving to education was up 6.2%, to foundations it was up 15.5%, to health organizations it increase 7.3%, to arts and humanities charities it increase 8.7%. Where most giving to religion is never spent on actually charitable activities, most secular giving is spent in those areas.

Jacoby quotes fellow conservative and Republican Karl Zinsmeister, a former Bush Administration bureaucrat, to prove his panic. Zinsmeister claims, somewhat dishonestly as we shall see, “religious practice is the behavioural variable with the stongest and most consistent association with generous giving.” What is defined as “generous giving” is important, as we shall see shortly.

Zinsmeister spends much of his article, which is largely rewritten by Jacoby as his own article, lamenting the decline in religion and then claims that most charity is done by religious people. He has statistics, but doesn’t tell you what is being measured. He claims:

Research by the Lilly School at Indiana University found Americans with any religious affiliation made average annual charitable donations of $1,590, versus $695 for those with no religious affiliation.

He also claims “Mormons are the most generous Americans, both by participation level and by size of gifts. Evangelical Christians are next.”

Jacoby has made the same sort of claims before, this isn’t new for him. In 2012 he claimed Americans are becoming less and less religious, which meant charity was doomed. Here it is seven years later and he’s regurgitating the same old fears even as charitable giving has continued to rise contrary to his previous inaccurate warning.

In 2012 Jacoby, citing another article, did his Church Lady Superior Dance under the title “Stingy liberals:”

Liberals, popular stereotypes notwithstanding, are not more generous and compassionate than conservatives. To an outsider it might seem plausible that Americans whose political rhetoric emphasizes “fairness” and “social justice” would be more charitably inclined than those who stress economic liberty and individual autonomy.

The article Jacoby cited did say religion played a role, but the provisos attached were important and Jacoby ignored them:

Religion has a big influence on giving patterns. Regions of the country that are deeply religious are more generous than those that are not. Two of the top nine states — Utah and Idaho — have high numbers of Mormon residents, who have a tradition of tithing at least 10 percent of their income to the church. The remaining states in the top nine are all in the Bible Belt.

Conservatives ignored the obvious. Something to notice is the mention of “tithing… to the church.” All the survey did was take IRS data “showing the value of charitable deductions claimed by Americans taxpayers.” What the IRS may mean by charitable, and what most people think of as charitable, may not be the same thing.

For instance, a local fundamentalist church may spend the bulk of its resources degrading and attacking other faiths, insulting gay people and leading crusades to strip people of their civil liberties. They may never feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or comfort the afflicted. In fact, they can preach those who don’t work should starve and sinners deserve to be afflicted and they’ll do all they can to harass them along the way. Yet legally they are a charity no matter how uncharitable they may be.

Donations to churches may get reused in a manner that would not be tax-deductible itself, as it would not be considered charitable. For instance, donations to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, are tax-deductible. Yet the organization gave almost $2 million to fund anti-gay hate campaigns by the National Organization for Marriage. If the “charitable” Catholics who gave that money had directly donated it to NOM, they would never have received a tax write-off. The Mormon sect spent “charitable” giving in California to strip gay couples of their marriage rights with Proposition 8, as well as urging members to directly fund the campaign.

However, if others donated to the Human Rights Campaign to counter campaigns funded by the Knights or the Mormons, those donations “can not be classified as tax deductible.” Only funds given to the churches in this political campaign were counted as charitable.

It is not surprising that the most “giving” state is Utah, with a heavy population of Mormons who are required to give 10% of their income to the cult. Their total charitable giving is 10.6% of discretionary income — a substantial portion of which has to be going to the church as opposed to purely charitable purposes.

Neither Jacoby nor Donahue mentioned West Hollywood, a heavily liberal city and one of the “gayest” in America. The survey showed residents there gave 9% of their discretionary income to charity. I would think most of that went to actual charities as opposed to religious coffers.

The Chronicle of Philanthrophy also made a point conservatives ignored:

When religious giving isn’t counted, the geography of giving is very different. Some states in the Northeast would jump into the top 10 when secular gifts alone are counted. New York would vault from №18 to №2 in the rankings, and Pennsylvania would climb from №40 to №4.

The report states the IRS “does not provide data about the specific charities people supported.” In other words, there is no data about who is feeding the poor, as Donahue claimed.

Since donations to religious groups, even uncharitable ones, count as “charitable giving,” it is no surprise religious people give more to charity. Simply put, the study only proves non-religious people don’t donate to religion. This is neither earth shattering nor particularly informative. Nor is it surprising those states populated by sects that push their members to tithe to the church report higher “charitable” giving.

They also noted:

A study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that the residents of New Hampshire — which ranked dead last in both surveys by The Chronicle — weren’t stingy; they were simply nonbelievers.

“New Hampshire gives next to nothing to religious organizations,” says Patrick Rooney, the center’s leader, “but their secular giving is identical to the rest of country.”

Sometimes it helps to read the whole report, not just the sections that make you feel superior.

It may be useful to remember what counts as “charitable” giving to these conservatives. Because they assume all donations to religious sects are charity, they not only skew the charitable giving between the religious and secular, but they define some rather questionable activities as charity.

Over the years the Catholic Church has used “charitable giving” to cover-up thousands of cases of children being sexually abused by priests. NPR reported “Lawsuits by abuse victims have so far forced dioceses and religious orders in the United States to pay settlements totaling more than $3 billion, and at least 19 have filed for bankruptcy protection.” That doesn’t include the millions spent defending themselves and the priests or money spent moving them to other countries to avoid persecution. But all of it is counted as “charity” according to conservatives.

Protestants are not exempt from such scandals either. Evangelist Kenneth Copeland lives in $6 million mansion, bought and paid for by “charitable” religious donations. Poor Bishop TD Jakes lives in one only worth $1.7 million. Rev. Joel Osteen has to make do with a mansion (left) valued at $10.2 million.

Mansions and private jets, world travel, expensive jewelry, are not uncommon among the megachurch pastors of evangelicalism. They spend far more on their mansions than they ever spend feeding the poor, or caring for the sick. Yet, in the eyes of conservatives this is true charity and more money going through religion is the answer. Most the funds given to religion are NEVER spent in truly charitable ways, most goes to fund the church, and the promotion of their religious beliefs. Little, and in many churches none, in spent on what most of us would consider charity.

In response conservatives point to the various activities of Catholic Charities in foster care, feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly, etc. But the big myth regarding Catholic Charities is they aren’t being charitable with money donated to the church or by church members, they are mostly funded with tax monies, not donations. Previously we reported here:

Catholic Charities is largely a fraud these days; it isn’t a charity at all. It is a branch of government relying heavily on tax funding to survive. …In truth, Catholic Charities isn’t a charity. It’s a tax-funded agency of government pretending to be private.

The New York Times noted the source of funding for this charity: “Catholic Charities affiliates received a total of nearly $2.9 billion a year from the government in 2010, about 62 percent of its annual revenue of $4.67 billion. Only 3 percent came from churches in the diocese (the rest came from in-kind contributions, investments, program fees and community donations).”

Jacoby was wrong when he first sounded the alarm about the decline of religion seven years ago. He’s even more wrong today. The trend he predicted would happen is a myth. It just hasn’t materialized. Americans are less religious than every before,but much more charitable. More importantly a greater share of that charitable giving is going to actual charities meant to benefit those in need, as opposed to paying off sex abuse victims of priests, or making payments on mansions.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.