12/29/2011 10:31 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2012

'The Common Welfare Is Our Business' - Study Shows Link Between Belief and Giving

Marley's ghost, in Charles Dickens' great moral parable, The Christmas Carol, reflected in anguish on what, beyond the grave, he finally understood to have been his core moral obligation in life: "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

"Bah, humbug", responded Ebenezer Scrooge, Marley's partner in life. So Marley pursued his plan to awaken Scrooge to the realities of need and to tug on his deeply latent conscience. Finally when one of the three Spirits who visits Scrooge by night confronts him with two pathetic children, a vestige of moral sense begins to stir. Asked whose they are, the Spirit answers that they are Man's. "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

Just as Marley and his Spirits exhorted Scrooge to confront the realities of poverty and his responsibility to help, we also are confronted during this end of the year holiday season with appeals to our conscience. They come, thick and fast, framed as frantic pleas for help or as generous offers or gentle reminders to contribute to a cause. Each day the mail, phone, and email deliver an extraordinary range of requests to support causes that respond to the urgent needs of our community. The urgent tone of the appeals seem all the more poignant at this time when the "Bah, humbug" Scrooge-style response seems to need seems to have gripped America's public debate.

The tugs of conscience and appeals for charitable donations call to mind moral values deeply rooted in spiritual teachings. Perhaps the strongest common ground that links the world's great faith traditions is the call to compassion, to fight precisely Dickens' ghostly images of ignorance and want. Charitable giving has deep spiritual roots in history. Even in today's far more pluralistic and secular world, the appeal to spiritual values evokes both the nobility of mankind's capacity to care and the shame of turning one's back to those in need. Even the very wealthy, who give less to explicitly religious causes, see religion as key to transmitting their own commitment to charity to their offspring.

What does lead people to give to charity? And what evokes responsibility and caring as Americans look to the nation's responsibilities towards the world? As always in such matters, the answers are complicated and there is much we do not really understand. But a recent public opinion survey offers evidence of how far values linked to religious teachings do color attitudes towards the broadest policy issues. And it also offers encouraging signs that the appeals to conscience resonate with most Americans. That people respond to an appeal to their better nature echoes long-standing evidence that charitable giving is highest among those who count themselves as believers. What is of particular interest here, however, is the degree to which religious and spiritual values color attitudes to issues that tend to be debated in more technocratic terms.

A recent public opinion survey set out to shed more light on how, today, Americans link their religious and moral values and their thinking about global issues. Do people see connections between spiritual beliefs and the way they view global policy challenges (like global poverty) and the way their nation should respond? The poll (by PIPA), conducted in September 2011) explored how "believers" saw linkages between their beliefs and three major global challenges: poverty and inequality, climate change, and nuclear weapons.

"Believers" for this survey included those who answered yes to the question: "Would you say you believe in God" (eighty-five percent of the general sample) and those who agreed that there are "spiritual obligations to act in certain ways." Only 67 percent said they felt there are spiritual obligations. Any respondent who either believed in God, or felt that there are spiritual obligations for behavior, was counted as a "believer" for the purposes of the study --a total of 89 percent of the sample. By this measure, that's a large majority of the population.

The survey came up with two pieces that in my opinion are good news. First, a majority of believers, including majorities of Catholics and Evangelicals, see addressing global poverty as a spiritual obligation. They also see addressing the risks posed by nuclear weapons and global warming as moral imperatives, even if they do not initially associate these imperatives with spiritual obligations. A majority of all believers think that the United States should work cooperatively with other nations to reduce poverty, the risks of nuclear war, and the impact of environmental degradation, including the effects of climate change. These findings that mirror earlier studies of the general U.S. population,with the added dimension of the spiritual links.

The second piece of good news is that as the questions of the survey probed deeper into attitudes and hypothetical responses, the answers became more affirming of a sense of moral obligation, to care and to act.

The less good news is that the commitments and understanding are fragile. For example, less than half of all believers and a bare majority of Evangelicals are familiar with the idea of a spiritual obligation to act as good stewards of the environment. But when presented with this concept, three out of four believers embraced it. Most rejected the counter-argument that out of humility one should leave the environment in God's hands. However, only four in ten (three in ten among Evangelicals) think that there is a consensus among scientists that urgent action on climate change is needed and that enough is known to take action.

The PIPA survey bolsters my own faith that appeals to our better angels will elicit intelligent commitment to Americans' obligations of global citizenship - and thus a generous impulse to act for what Marley's ghost termed "the common welfare". Moral and religious understandings of a nation's obligations appear to motivate a large majority of our fellow citizens. A few will respond "Bah, humbug" even when confronted by a starving child, but far more will ask what they can do, and how they can help.