Every so often, someone comes up with a study showing that religious conservatives are more generous than secular liberals. Recently, there’s been another one.
I haven’t read this book. But I have read excerpts, and unless I’m wrong, the book makes what to me is the same errors that previous efforts to prove the same thing have made.
The first error is that it assumes that any activity centered around a religious organization is charity.
I lived in the South for a number of years. At the time, I noticed that in much of that region, a lot of a town’s social life revolves around the local Church(es). And its not just Sunday services either.
Consider a typical family living in Searcy, Arkansas. Let’s go further, and assume its the kind of typical family the folks in Searcy would proudly call their own. The kids go to camp run by the Church, and they play basketball every day after school on the courts behind the Church. The mom is a member of a Church book club. The dad goes there to hear lectures on one or another topic. Part of family entertainment includes Church fairs, Church-sponsored trips to Little Rock to watch the Arkansas Travelers minor league ball team or up to Fayetteville to watch of the U of Arkansas Hogs play football, the occasional Church play, and of course, Sunday services.
From what I can tell, when they pony up money to the Church for each of these activities, they’re engaging in tax deductible charity.
Now, consider a family of Godless heathens in pagan Los Angeles. The kids play soccer in some league… league fees are not tax deductible, and not charity. The mom is a member of a book club… none of those costs are considered charity. The dad shows up at the occasional lecture series for one or another local university… nothing charity related here. And going to Disneyland, watching the Galaxy or the Dodgers or the Lakers, or going to the beach are not considered to be Charity.
The second error is that many forms of charity fall below the radar, especially when they are the types of activities more likely to be engaged in by city dwellers. I am kind of reluctant to discuss myself in this context, but here goes… every morning, I spend 30 minutes doing some rounds feeding a few colonies of feral cats. It doesn’t make me Mother Teresa, but I feel good doing it. I’m not sure what it costs me in cat food… some months when the budget is tighter, they only get kibble, other months they get to eat cans more frequently. I’ve come across a lot of other people who do the same.
I mention this for two reasons. As far as the government is concerned, most people who feed stray animals are not engaging in charity… there is no write-off occurring. Its way too much effort to go through the process of setting oneself up as a legitimate charity. (Yes, I know about organizations like Alley Cats and Feral Cat Alliance – those are great organizations, but they’re ways of sending money to other people who are doing their own charity work.) The second reason is that, and this is anecdotal, but it is my experience that city dwellers are more likely to be willing to work with animals than are those in rural areas. In the parts of South where I lived, spending time with animals doesn’t mean feeding feral cats or walking dogs at the shelter, it means shooting deer, and on occasion, bears.
(Two asides. Aside number 1 – I’m moving in a week, and I’ve found people to take over my route. Aside number 2 – anyone within driving distance of the LA area want a cat? My girlfriend and I found a big one living behind a dumpster that used to belong to someone – obvious signs were that she had been declawed and was more approachable than the ferals. We’ve got her at home now, all cleaned up, but we can’t find her owner and its been a few months. She’s about 4 years old, huge (16 solid pounds (i.e., not fat) when we pulled her off the street, larger now), very sweet, clumsy for a cat, and great with people – she will sleep with you in bed. Unfortunately she is very aggressive toward other cats (my girlfriend and I have 3 so we cannot keep her). Prove to me you’ll give her a good home and she’s yours. I mean the cat, not the girlfriend!)
There is a third error with these types of analyses. I remember reading studies that show that in general, people are more willing to pay taxes when a population is relatively homogenous. In other words, we don’t mind paying taxes if everyone else looks like us because we know then the money the government is taking away from us is not going to go to them. (Because, quite frankly, we don’t like them.) This matters because a) most religious conservatives live in rural areas with homogeneous populations and b) most Churches seem to be quite segregated – I’ve seen plenty of communities with a majority black Church and a majority white Church on the same street; thus, when Churchgoers fund their Church, they are funding “us” but not “them.”
So yes…. there is little doubt that the average conservative Church goer will engage in more charity than the average liberal Godless heathen.