Last week, Florida's favorite virginal pundit shared her Christmas cheer in a screed titled "Scrooge Was a Liberal," published internationally at Human Events and AnnCoulter.com. And though the piece is as poorly written, mean-spirited, and grammatically eccentric as anything else Coulter has penned, it actually has its points. (Merry Christmas, Ann! This is a partial concession! You should try one sometime!)
The bulk of Coulter's screed is a defense of Albert C. Brooks' 2006 book, Who Really Cares? The Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. Alas, this is not a book that needs much defending, as Brooks' shocking conclusion -- that conservatives are, in the aggregate, more charitable than liberals, and that religious conservatives are the most charitable people in the country -- was endorsed even by those who didn't like it.
Of the populations analyzed by Brooks, Coulter writes that "[s]ecular liberals... were the whitest and richest of the four groups. (Some of you may also know them as 'insufferable blowhards') These 'bleeding-heart tightwads,' as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls them, were the second stingiest, just behind secular conservatives, who are mostly young, poor, cranky white guys."
A liberal might object that the disparity has less to do with a dearth of charitable impulses on the left than with the huge sums of money spent by the religious on churches, missionaries, and faith-based charities. And that would be a good point, except it's not -- because according to Brooks, religious conservatives do more nonreligious giving too. (Though Brooks defines "secular" charities a bit loosely. It is uncertain, for example, whether Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity would be considered "nonreligious," though no sane secularist should give them a dime.)
Yet the best predictor of charitable generosity remains religion, not politics. Coulter quotes Brooks, saying "religious people are more charitable in every measurable nonreligious way." The nonreligious tend not to give because they "can't afford it" or because "nobody asked" them. For reasons that ought to be immediately apparent to Coulter watchers, Coulter does not ascribe much significance to the fact that religion is a better predictor than political affiliation -- she does not, in fact, recognize any difference between proper religiosity and righteous politics. To Coulter, "goodness" (meaning "political conservatism") comes from God, the odd liberal religionists are confused, and that's that.
So it ought to give Coulter some pause to read that liberal religionists, according to Brooks, give about as much money to charity as their conservative cobelievers. (Alack, liberals give somewhat less to churches.) If liberal believers are mishearing the voice of God, as Coulter insists, why are they so very generous?
One obvious answer: Churchgoers visit a building each week to be lectured for an hour on the importance of charity. (They are lectured on a number of less savory topics as well.) This is time set aside specifically to contemplate moral behavior. The "nonreligious" have no such obvious source of encouragement. Ergo, they think less about charity and give less to charities generally.
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But "nonreligious" is an odd term, lumping together a number of unalike groups. The term fails to distinguish those vaguely spiritual yuppies with a passing interest in feng shui from the scientists, secular humanists, skeptics, and atheists who are similarly unaffiliated with a church. Yet a small but meaningful minority of these individuals has experiences that closely mirror those of practicing believers.
I am referring to the adherents of what might be called "organized nonreligion" -- a growing group of scientists, sci-fi nuts, armchair intellectuals, writers, and ordinary Doubting Thomases who are as active in their unreligion as they ever were in their churches. These individuals are eminently concerned with morality. Atheists such as Sam Harris have spent much of the past decade promulgating the notion that the nonreligious are just as "good" as their believing brethren. And though many atheists argue that atheism is not a religion, humanists, skeptics, and atheists have conventions, weekly gatherings, food drives -- even if they are not religious per se, they certainly do a good impression. Mightn't these people give as much as their more pious fellow citizens? It's impossible to know, until Brooks or someone like him begins to study the giving patterns of secularists who, while churchless, are as invested in their godlessness as are the believers in their houses of worship.
The generous, religious liberals and the generous, religious conservatives cannot all be hearing the voice of God when they attend their services -- if they are, either one group is profoundly hard of hearing or God likes to contradict himself. These people's shared generosity must come from elsewhere, and it seems less likely that it comes from the theologically incompatible, competing gods of their churches than from the churches themselves.
Among Brooks' less-incendiary findings is that volunteerism is much more prevalent in red states than in blue. Yes, it's true that red states are more religious -- but it's also true that they are less urban and contain smaller, more tightly knit communities. Unless God works in ways even more mysterious than Coulter has heretofore suggested, it seems she has accidentally assisted in the spread of a rather wonderful truth: It is not our relationship to the supernatural but our relationships with one another that inspire us to be good.