What Is Charity? 'Who Really Cares' Explains

It’s no coincidence that the Christmas season, home of the definitive Christian holiday, is known as the “season of giving.” Every year, religiously motivated Salvation Army folks stand in the cold outside of Wal-Marts entreating passersby to help the poor. Inside, Toys for Tots bins can be found, full of Christmas gifts for the less fortunate. Though more visible at the end of the year, religiously fueled charity is a year-round phenomenon.

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Arthur Brooks, professor of public administration at Syracuse University, isn’t fooled by the popular wisdom that secular progressives care more about the poor than do cultural conservatives.

In “Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide—Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters,” Brooks makes a convincing case that, just as a religious America outpaces its secular European colleagues; Christian conservatives are far more charitable than their brethren on the secular left.

What Is Charity?

Who Really Cares” comes across as scholarly, yet accessible. Before jumping into provocative, earth-shattering assertions, he begins with definitions, with charity at the forefront.

Brooks is not concerned with the motivations behind charity, and told us in an interview that such an evaluation is up to God. Rather, if we are to formulate conclusions about charitable giving, all we can look at is behavior. When it comes to charity, says Brooks, we have to look at all of it. From blood to time to money, the book defines charity as anything that involves “a personal voluntary sacrifice for the good of another person.”

No one is excluded from being charitable on a technicality. Donations to churches, pro-life groups, and other organizations sneered at by progressives all fit the mold.

Brooks’ all-encompassing approach does not include the bread and butter charity of secular leftists—taxes. In so doing, he breaks new ground in establishing who gives and who doesn’t, why some give and some don’t give, and why groups of Americans are often characterized as greedy are, in fact, among the nation’s most charitable.

Who Gives and Who Doesn’t

The No. 1 indicator of who gives to charity is religiosity, says Brooks. Income, political philosophy, and other standard indicators of civic behavior are all subservient to one’s religious fervor.

On the right and the left, it is the religious community that is more charitable with its time, money, and blood (literally). Religious conservatives and religious liberals comprise a combined 25.5% of the U.S. population. These groups of parishioners give at a staggering rate of 91%, and give more in raw dollars when they do. It is religion, not politics, that informs a person’s attitude on charity.

Pragmatic Charity

Brooks stresses this—that the factoring in of partisan leanings is not inherent to his thesis—on many occasions. Rather, conservatives simply tend to be more religious, and can therefore take credit for a greater share of the giving pie than liberals.

In making this distinction between politics and religion, Brooks excels at moderation, and for a work that disputes convention, the benefits of an unbiased presentation are (unlike charitable giving) immeasurable.

In the later chapters, Brooks explains that charity leads not only to psychological fulfillment, healthier families, and a more altruistic society, but also to raw economic benefits. Due to its positive effects on emotional satisfaction and psychological stability, charity helps creates more productive workers, and a stronger economy as a result. This fledgling area of study allows Brooks to escape the traditional name-calling trappings that could characterize lesser analyses. Brooks is level-headed, scholarly, and genuinely concerned with the future of American cultural health.

Final Word

Who Really Cares” is not a red meat book for arch-conservatives. It is, though, an interesting look into American giving. Although “Who Really Cares” was originally conceived as an academically styled work, Brooks decided to revise his presentation into a more straightforward piece. This ends up working wonders for the final product. The best result of this is unassuming, calm prose that gives the writing an air of impartiality.

No doubt, conservatives will find boatloads of information within the covers of the book that factually reinforce what they already think to be true: Religious conservatives are quantitatively more generous than secular socialists. But that’s not Brooks’ main point. Rather, Brooks seeks to tell us who we are as a nation of givers, and why, to keep the America we know, we must remain so.