Because the New York Times is a continual source of annoyance and amazement to me, I was predictably stunned and incensed to read last May that this most self-important of publications was presenting as news the following information: “[T]here is no evidence of an anti-poor mentality, at least as measured by reported [financial] giving, among political and theological conservatives.” To whom, I wondered, is this news? How ignorant of, and isolated from, politically and theologically conservative Americans must one be to find it “surprising” that they are not “anti-poor, a la Ebenezer Scrooge, in their personal outlook”?
To be fair to the New York Times, the paper was only passing on the latest findings from the world of sociology. (To be fair to the sociologists, however, they made no mention of Ebenezer Scrooge. That reference—so deft, so subtle—was the Times‘ own.)
The Times article in question was a summation of a study that appeared in the September 1998 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Curious to know whether the original survey contained anything that could have encouraged the New York Times in its glib exercise in stereotyping, I obtained a back issue of the publication and read the article. Titled “Who Gives to the Poor? The Influence of Religious Tradition and Political Location on the Personal Generosity of Americans Toward the Poor,” it is the work of Mark D. Regnerus, Christian Smith, and David Sikkink.
While “Who Gives to the Poor?” is filled with the fairly daunting (to me) language of science (“covariates,” “logit regression,” “bivariate statistics”), its premise is plain enough: The political conservatism of hardcore Christians, especially Protestants, is evident in their opposition to typical (counterproductive) tax-and-spend governmental approaches to the problems of poverty; in turn, opposition to typical tax-and-spend governmental approaches to the problems of poverty is suggestive of “hostility,” i.e., stinginess, toward the poor. If that sounds like circular thinking, one reason might be that Messrs. Regnerus, Smith, and Sikkink characterize their primary assumption—that “religious and political conservatism . . . predict[s] less giving to the poor”—with two different terms that they appear to believe are synonymous, terms which are in fact not synonymous at all.
The authors refer to the premise under question as an “hypothesis,” an obvious choice of words, hypothesis implying the application of objective, specialized knowledge or intellection—an openminded exploration guided by the scientific method. But they also characterize their assumption as “conventional wisdom,” a not-so-understandable description, since that term suggests a widely accepted idea that may or may not, in actual fact, be widely accepted, a generalized view that may or may not have factual validity, a supposition devoid of scientific context. An hypothesis is a theory to be tested. Conventional wisdom can encompass anything from an opinion to a stereotype to a bias.
To hypothesize that religious conservatives are ungenerous to the poor is one thing. To suppose via conventional wisdom that religious conservatives are self-evidently ungenerous to the poor is something else altogether. And while I welcome any public acknowledgment that conservatives of whatever variety are not heartless meanies, I find it difficult to see the significance of a study that concludes, “Fundamentally, making the jump from economic conservatism to declaring persons to be hostile toward the poor seems unwarranted.” With all due respect, that’s like saying, “Making the jump from an affinity for green beans to an hostility toward tomatoes seems unwarranted.” What on earth do these things have to do with each other? Nothing at all, of course, unless “conventional wisdom” dictates that if you’ve tasted one vegetable, you’ve tasted ’em all.
Here’s what is interesting about “Who Gives to the Poor?” First, Mr. Regnerus et al., use a specific standard to measure generosity toward the poor: the proportionate amount of one’s personal financial resources given directly to organizations serving the poor and needy. This is an excellent standard, it seems to me, because it focuses not on abstractions or attitudes (talk, after all, is cheap), but on specific, individual, self-initiated action. Second, the authors determine that the greater one’s personal religious commitment (or “religiously,” as they call it), the more likely one is to give “a lot to the poor. Third, they conclude that conservative Protestants, especially those “who have used politically conservative Christian leaders and organizations such as the Christian Coalition to assist them in voting,” report giving significantly more money to poverty relief organizations than do other Christian groups.
In other words, the authors discover that religion trumps politics, even when the two commingle. I think a possible reason these sociologists end up “surprised” by their discovery is that their method is to go from A to C without examining B: the degree of personal religious commitment. While “religiosity” is listed as a factor in the study (an “independent variable”), its actual meaning, as a context for human choices, goes unexplored. The difference between a surprise and an inevitability rests within this unasked question: What are devout Christians committed to?
“Who Gives to the Poor?” concludes that, among members of all Christian denominations, those who most often give “a lot” of their personal income to the poor are evangelical Protestants. If one understands the basic fact that the first commitment of a devout evangelical is to honor the teachings of Christ (which are found in the Bible, a helpful resource in cases like this); and if one further understands that those teachings include instruction on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned—if one understands this, the only “surprise” one might experience is the unlikely discovery that such persons don’t give a lot to those in need. It is slightly demoralizing to realize that only by disproving an already flawed assumption is the compassion of the more generous among us made credible.
To feel demoralized, however, is not necessarily to be downhearted. Before concluding this encounter with the science of sociology, let us make a brief detour to the real world, a place where surprises, and even mysteries, are often welcome.
I know a man, a self-professed agnostic, who, as a member of the advisory board of the local Salvation Army post, devotes significant amounts of his personal time and income to that organization. He also makes available to the Army his business expertise and the marketing resources of his company, he does everything from soliciting donations from corporate leaders for the Army’s Building Fund to taking his turn during the holidays as a bell-ringer beside a red Army kettle.
The agnostic does all of this while fully aware that the Salvation Army’s mission is, in its own words, “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” Preaching the gospel is not the agnostic’s mission, but it isn’t his anti-mission either. The agnostic devotes himself to the Salvation Army because he admires the integrity of commitment that is the basis for, and the human behaviors that result from, actively practiced Christianity.
Okay, that’s the agnostic. Now for my aunt. She is 76, a fundamentalist Baptist and a biblical literalist who tithes to her church, gives and raises money for the poor, prays with the dying, and spreads the Word to the unconverted—all the while radiating an aura of perfect serenity in her faith.
What is engaging about the agnostic and my aunt is the confusion they create when we try to factor their beliefs and behavior into “Who Gives to the Poor?” If we go by the initial “conventional wisdom” of the study, the agnostic’s politics, which are conservative, would give no hint of his generosity to the poor and the needy. But my aunt’s politics—a child of the Depression and ever loyal to the memory of FDR, she’s never voted for a Republican in her life—would indicate little of her resolute religious conservatism. According to the conventional wisdom of “Who Gives to the Poor?” the stereotype of my aunt’s Christian conservatism ought suggest political conservatism and thus “hostility” toward the poor. And the stereotype of the agnostic’s economic conservatism ought suggest—well, political conservatism and thus “hostility” toward the poor. In sum: A conservative is a conservative is a conservative.
After confusing things with the agnostic and my aunt, let’s conclude-heck, let’s go for broke—by taking a look at Al Gore. The Vice Presidents 1997 federal tax return showed an adjusted gross income of $197,729, from which the total financial charitable contribution of Gore and his wife amounted to $353. According to the Internal Revenue Service, $353 is one-tenth the typical contribution amount for Gore’s income level. In fact, the average American family, which earned around $35,000 in 1997, gave almost $700 to charity. For families making over $100,000, charitable donations averaged nearly $3,000.
In years prior to 1997, Al Gore and his wife reported giving far more to charity, although “charity” in this context is a questionable term, since a $50,000 gift in 1992 went not to the poor but to the University of Tennessee to endow a chair in the memory of Gore’s late sister. And in 1998, motivated possibly by rediscovered generosity, certainly by political considerations, the Gores upped their giving considerably. Still, there it is, there it will always be: $353.
According to Al Gore himself, his religious commitment is serious and his faith runs deep. What’s more, he is a man who, with an ease that suggests it’s a part of his gene pattern, can speechify on the obligations of social responsibility, the evils of indifference to suffering, and the presence of enemies among us who would thwart (his own) efforts to relieve human need.
Gore is, in short, completely at home in an attitude of moral superiority. And in 1997 he gave $353 to charity. I don’t know how a sociologist would interpret that fact, but I do know that, while it would make the agnostic laugh and prompt my aunt to put Gore on her prayer list, it wouldn’t lead either of them to stereotype Al Gore as anti-poor. And the New York Times? Well, surely you remember that big front-page story in the Times, the one which began, “Al Gore, a la Ebenezer Scrooge, donated a paltry $353 to charity in 1997, raising the question: Is the Vice President hostile to the poor?”
Of course, the New York Times printed no such thing. In fact, my own conventional wisdom tells me that the Times‘ conventional wisdom, like the conventional wisdom (and possibly the mental synapses) of Al Gore himself makes impossible the simultaneous consideration of Al Gore and Ebenezer Scrooge. For the New York Times, so oblivious in its isolation, so confident in the act of judgment, politics in the form of social values always trumps religion; often it defines religion; sometimes it is religion. And a conservative is a conservative is a conservative.