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Money, time, blood

Interview | Scholar Arthur C. Brooks on how religious belief affects charitable giving

Issue: "Looking at India," Dec. 9, 2006

Arthur C. Brooks spent 12 years as a professional French horn player with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles. Then he entered academia and is now Professor of Public Administration at Syracuse University. In his well-researched book, Who Really Cares: the Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (Basic, 2006), Brooks uses statistics to demolish years of propaganda.

WORLD: Overall, do liberals or conservatives give more to charity and volunteer more of their time?

BROOKS: Conservatives give privately more to charity than liberals do. For example, households headed by a conservative donate, on average, 30 percent more dollars than households headed by a liberal. And this isn't because conservatives earn more: On the contrary, liberal families earn an average of 6 percent more per year than conservative families, and conservative families give more than liberal families within every income class, from poor to middle class to rich. These differences go beyond money as well. Take blood donations, for example. In 2002, conservative Americans were more likely to donate blood each year, and did so more often, than liberals.

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WORLD: You note, though, a big difference in giving and volunteering among conservatives, depending on whether they are "religious people" (attending a house of worship nearly every week) or "secularists" (attending never or almost never, or explicitly saying that they have no religion) . . .

BROOKS: Exactly right. In fact, it's not politics per se that appears to make most conservatives charitable, but rather much more fundamental cultural factors like religious faith. Indeed, if I want to predict anyone's charity habits-conservative or liberal-and I can only ask one question, it will be about his or her religious faith-so important is that to most people's giving. To give an idea just how important, consider that religious conservatives are 28 percentage points more likely to give than secular conservatives, give nearly four times more dollars per year, and volunteer more than twice as frequently.

WORLD: How do religious liberals and secular liberals compare?

BROOKS: Just like conservatives, these two groups are worlds apart. Religious liberals give at extremely high rates-very similarly to religious conservatives, actually-while secular liberals give little. The big problem for liberal charity today is that the population of religious liberals is shrinking quickly, as the American political left secularizes due to low liberal fertility and the attrition of people of faith to the political right. Today, there are nearly twice as many secular liberals as there are religious ones. In contrast, there are nearly three times as many religious conservatives as secular ones.

WORLD: You compare the charitable giving of a person who goes to church each week and strongly opposes governmental income redistribution with that of a person who never attends a house of worship and strongly believes in government income redistribution . . .

BROOKS: That's correct. A person who goes to church every week and strongly rejects the idea that it is the government's responsibility to redistribute income will give, on average, 100 times more money to charity each year than a person who never attends a house of worship, and strongly believes that the government should reduce income differences between people. The religious person who is a government skeptic will also give about 50 times more to explicitly nonreligious causes. In other words, attitudes about the government compound the charity gap we see due to faith.

WORLD: The conventional understanding is that religious people give largely to religious groups, and that secular people give more to secular groups than religious people do. Same goes for volunteering-but your findings are different . . .

BROOKS: The assumption that religious Americans are just giving to their churches is one I made myself when I first started writing about giving. But it's wrong. The fact is that religious people are more personally charitable in every measurable way than secularists. For example, religious people are 10 percentage points more likely than secularists to give money to explicitly secular charities, and 21 points more likely to volunteer. The data show the same pattern for informal giving to friends and family, blood donations, small acts of kindness-everything you can think of. Religious people are even more ethical than secularists: If a cashier accidentally gives a churchgoer too much change, the odds are better than half that he or she will return it, while the odds are more than six in 10 that a secularist will choose not to give it back.

WORLD: What does your research show about the "crowding out" effect-that as governmental assistance to the poor increases, church-based charity decreases?

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