Amid the political back and forth about the health care mandate on my Facebook a few days ago, someone slipped in a piece about how conservatives give more to charity than liberals. I made myself read the article, even though I distrust the site it was on, because I believe in being even-handed about things.  And right away, I see a large problem with the study in the book it cites.

Conservatives are more likely to be religious.  They are also likely to give to churches, specifically churches they attend. Sorry, but as far as I am concerned whether or not giving to a church constitutes charity depends upon the extent to which said church has active ministries giving to the poor and destitute.

This is not a knock on churches.  They are great institutions.  But churches in many ways are mutual aid societies, where the large bulk of contributions go to buildings, staff and amenities that exist for the benefit of the churches’ members. In most churches, anyone can join, provided you want to sign on to whatever beliefs that they promulgate.  Nonetheless, churches for the most part do not exist to take care of people who don’t believe, or those who don’t attend.  They take care of the spiritual needs of the members; they may or may not take care of the physical needs either of those members or the needy at large.

Some — I daresay a majority — of churches do have social service programs, but not all. But even for those that do, most of what they spend stays onsite.  I have been a member of churches that actively participated in local charities that took care of the needy.  And it was still only a fraction of their budgets.

So my suggestion to anyone looking at this issue, is to reduce the weight given to contributions to churches by at three quarters.  Or half, at least.  It may be that conservatives really do take better care of their fellow man than liberals (according to the story, they also donate more time and give more blood*), but I’d bet it’s a lot closer than it would look at first blush.**

*About that giving more blood… I would ask what percentage of the liberals polled were gay or bisexual men who are automatically deferred from donating.  
**This is ignoring the entire issue of whether the care of the poor should be left to the mercy (in all senses of the word) of donors who have no obligation to continue donating.  We give to several human services charities — Second Harvest Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity, to name two — and I firmly believe that as vital as these charities are, making sure that people are fed and housed should be the responsibility of a strong social safety net.

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