When I was much younger than today, my world was divided between the “children of light” and the “children of darkness.” I never doubted that my left-wing friends (i.e. everybody I knew) and I belonged to the former camp, and the troglodytes at the other end of the political spectrum to the children of darkness. Every once in a while an uncomfortable observation would intrude. I noticed, for instance, that the bumper sticker “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” (the only state to go for anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern in 1972) did not guarantee more civil behavior on the roads. And a college friend from rural Illinois shared many stories of the basic decency of his small-town, politically conservative neighbors.
In a similar vein, Wilfred M. McClay, in the December 22 Wall Street Journal, relates his own youthful experience managing a political campaign for an energetic, liberal Democrat. After canvassing the district for weeks, the candidate remarked one day to a horrified McClay, “If I’m ever hit by a car, I sure as hell hope that the next guy to come along will be conservative.” Pressed for an explanation, he said, “Simple. A liberal will blame the unsafe conditions on the highways, blame budget cuts and keep driving. A conservative will get out of his car and help.”
My youthful equation of liberal politics and good character has long since been consigned to the dustbin. When the tax return of Al Gore Jr., multimillionaire avatar of the common man, revealed an annual charitable contribution of $250, I was not surprised. Every poor kollel student I know gives many times that to tzedaka in a year. Indeed I would bet dollars to doughnuts that the average charitable contributions of kollel students exceed those of our enlightened Supreme Court justices, despite the latter’s vastly greater wealth.
THOSE SUSPICIONS find confirmation in a recent book by Syracuse University Prof. Albert Brooks, Who Really Gives: America’s Charity Divide. Brooks set out expecting to confirm the “children of light” hypothesis, and came away after 10 years of research proving the opposite. For example, 24 of the 25 states with above average rates of charitable giving were red states in 2004. In states in which President George W. Bush won more than 60 percent of the vote in 2004, the average family gave 3.5% of its income to charity; in states where John Kerry took more than 60% of the vote, the comparable figure was 1.9%.
Brooks found that such factors as political conservatism and having children are positively correlated with generosity and volunteerism. And interestingly, wealth does not predict generosity. Brooks discovered that the working poor are the most generous class. They give far more than middle-class people, and even give 30% more than the rich as a percentage of their income.
BUT EVEN after controlling for all other factors, religiosity, measured by the likelihood of weekly attendance at a house of worship, remains by far the most salient predictor of both charitable contributions and volunteerism. Those who attend a house of worship once a week are 25% more likely to give than those who do so never or rarely. And when they do give, they give four times as much. Nor is the generosity of religious people limited to the religious community. They are 10% more likely to give to explicitly non-religious charities and 25% more likely to volunteer for secular groups, such as the PTA.
In the aftermath of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein of Los Angeles visited the area and spoke to local residents about volunteers who had spent a week or more in the area helping with the clean-up. Local residents reported that the volunteers were overwhelmingly motivated by religious faith, and that was even true of those who volunteered through non-religious organizations such as Volunteers for America.
Brooks’s finding about generosity as a function of religiosity parallels similar studies of charitable giving and volunteerism within the Jewish community. Political scientist Raymond Legge Jr. concluded, based on a 1999 survey of the giving patterns of American Jewry, “While social justice is a concept stressed most heavily by the Reform movement… the analyses indicate that in terms of financial contributions, this group is least likely to practice it.”
The Orthodox were many times more generous, in terms of total charitable contributions, than their heterodox or unaffiliated brethren, and 50% more likely to volunteer.
WHY ARE religious people more generous? The most obvious answer is the force of the divine command. In addition, religious life tends to be communal in nature. Participation in a community imbues members of that community with a sense of responsibility for others.
Thirdly, religious people are less likely to view their wealth as a function of their superior abilities, and thus as belonging to them as a matter of right. They are ever alert to God’s role in their success. Even when they have been blessed with great abilities, they remain acutely aware that those abilities are just one more “gift,” not something they earned.
Finally, religious people do not view life primarily in terms of the pursuit of physical and material pleasures. Doing that which is pleasing in God’s eyes provides their greatest source of pleasure. They tend to be very family-oriented, and children and grandchildren inevitably require delaying or even denying one’s own material gratification. Because material goods play a significantly smaller role in their lives, the religious are more willing to share with others rather than hoard their money to purchase more material goodies for themselves.
And why does chatter about “social justice” frequently not translate into private deeds? In part because liberal politics often serve as little more than a cheap and effortless way to feel good about oneself. Those who prattle on about the downtrodden Palestinians, for instance, know that they will never be called upon to do anything on their behalf, or bear the cost of the policies they advocate. That will be left to far- away dead Jews.
As George Will points out, anyone can profess all the fine-sounding values he wants. By contrast, virtues – generosity, restraint, discipline, kindness – must be attained, usually with great effort.
When it comes to judging character, it’s actions, not words, that count.
Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.