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Are Conservatives Really More Charitable? Or Just More Religious?

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Back when Saturday Night Live was funny, Dana Carvey portrayed The Church Lady, a self-righteous, pompous, meddlesome woman. She was fond of doing the Superior Dance, because she was, well, superior -- or so she thought.

Conservatives are doing their own Superior Dance over an article by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which claims individuals in religious states are more charitable than those in less religious states.

At the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby did his Superior Dance under the title "Stingy liberals:"

Liberals, popular stereotypes notwithstanding, are not more generous and compassionate than conservatives. To an outsider it might seem plausible that Americans whose political rhetoric emphasizes "fairness" and "social justice" would be more charitably inclined than those who stress economic liberty and individual autonomy.

Catholic fundamentalist Bill Donahue put on his Church Lady drag -- not that he ever takes it off -- and crowed:

Liberals are the least likely to help the poor. That's the inescapable conclusion of this new study: states where people participate in religion at a high rate are also the most generous; conversely, the least generous states are also the least religious.

The report does say religion plays a role:

Religion has a big influence on giving patterns. Regions of the country that are deeply religious are more generous than those that are not. Two of the top nine states -- Utah and Idaho -- have high numbers of Mormon residents, who have a tradition of tithing at least 10 percent of their income to the church. The remaining states in the top nine are all in the Bible Belt.

But conservatives are ignoring the obvious. Something to notice is in the mention of "tithing... to the church." All the survey did was take IRS data "showing the value of charitable deductions claimed by Americans taxpayers." What the IRS may mean by charitable, and what most people think of as charitable, may not be the same thing.

For instance, a local fundamentalist church may spend the bulk of its resources degrading and attacking other faiths, insulting gay people and leading crusades to strip people of their civil liberties. They may never feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or comfort the afflicted. Yet in IRS terms they are a charity no matter how uncharitable they may be.

The report states that the IRS "does not provide data about the specific charities people supported." In other words, there is no data about who is feeding the poor, as Donahue claims.

Since donations to religious groups, even uncharitable ones, count as "charitable giving," then it is no surprise that religious people give more to charity. Simply put, the study shows that non-religious people don't donate to religion. This is neither earth shattering nor particularly informative. Nor is it surprising that those states populated by sects that push their members to tithe report higher "charitable" giving.

Donations to churches may get reused in a manner that would not be tax-deductible itself, as it would not be considered charitable. For instance, donations to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, are tax-deductible. Yet the organization gave almost $2 million to fund anti-gay campaigns by the National Organization for Marriage. If the "charitable" Catholics who gave that money had directly donated it to NOM, they would never have received a tax write-off.

However, if you donated to the Human Rights Campaign to counter campaigns funded by the Knights, that donation "can not be classified as tax deductible." Only one funds given to the churches in this political campaign were counted as charitable.

It is not surprising that the most "giving" state is Utah, with a heavy population of Mormons who are required to give 10% of their income to the sect. Their total charitable giving is 10.6% of discretionary income -- a substantial portion of which has to be going to the church as opposed to purely charitable purposes.

But neither Jacoby nor Donahue mentioned West Hollywood, a heavily Democratic city and one of the "gayest." The survey shows residents there give 9% of their discretionary income to charity. I would think most of that went to purely charitable purposes as opposed to religious ones.

The Chronicle of Philanthrophy also made a point that conservatives ignored:

When religious giving isn't counted, the geography of giving is very different. Some states in the Northeast would jump into the top 10 when secular gifts alone are counted. New York would vault from No. 18 to No. 2 in the rankings, and Pennsylvania would climb from No. 40 to No. 4.

They also noted:

A study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that the residents of New Hampshire -- which ranked dead last in both surveys by The Chronicle -- weren't stingy; they were simply nonbelievers.

"New Hampshire gives next to nothing to religious organizations," says Patrick Rooney, the center's leader, "but their secular giving is identical to the rest of country."

Sometimes it helps to read the whole report, not just the sections that make you feel superior.