Rich Liberals In an Age of Hunger

One of the more startling things to me during 2007 was the discovery that evangelicals give much more to charity than liberals do. This came from my favorite book about faith approaches to combating poverty in the world, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”, by Ron Sider.

After hanging out with liberals (both ideological and religious), as a Seattleite is bound to do, I had been led to expect that liberals of both kinds give more. Liberals tend to think quite highly of their capacity for compassion and insight into world affairs, and presume that translates into also being more generous. That’s obviously not true. How can that be?

Let’s presume for a moment (whether or not it is actually true) that liberals actually are more aware of world affairs and more sympathetic towards poor people and less likely to see poverty as the result of one’s own choices. Why would liberals still give less to charity?

1. With the changes in theology, “liberal” Quakers seem to have loosened our expectation that God interevenes to transform the world. Because our compassion isn’t accompanied by trust in God’s transforming action in the world, we think change depends on us. That is a heavy burden, and yes, our liberal spirits are often heavy! Have you ever felt more discouraged about the world after being with liberal Quakers?

2. Because we think achieving economic justice all depends on us, it can be hard to forgive ourselves and others when a mistake is made. So much is at stake that we can find it pretty hard to be charitable with each other. After all, people’s lives depend on our intervention!

3. At least among Quakers, great numbers of liberals are in the helping professions (or retired). We are chaplains, social workers, counselors, teachers, writers, or work for non-profits. We are a little bit proud of our efforts and don’t have much energy when Sunday comes around for doing even more – we suffer a bit from compassion fatigue when we come to Meeting/church. The last thing we want to do is hear about the ills of the world or do more of the things we do Monday through Friday. Perhaps all we really want is to pat ourselves on the back a little bit and then rest a little bit in the silence?

4. Liberals tend to think that it is important to be critical of authority and question leadership. Perhaps we are so diligent in questioning people who take on leadership that we inadvertently discourage anyone from taking the intitative? How often do you hear someone be praised in a liberal setting? And criticized?

5. Because we like our own thinking capacity and feel so insightful, we like to analyse and understand. Criticizing others is an easy way to get to feeling superior, and we liberals do love that feeling of superiority!

6. The concept of “sin” has fallen out of favor among liberals. Unfortunately, when the concept of sin disappears, forgiveness is likely to disappear, too. After all, no-one has done anything wrong, right? So in our liberal environment it’s pretty risky to take the initiative to act. Perhaps we suspect that if we accidentally did something wrong, we wouldn’t be received with much grace and understanding?

All of these things, in my experience, contribute to passivity and lack of generosity in some of the Quaker Meetings I have known. The antidote to all of these things is in my experience, once again, to steep ourselves in awareness of God’s abundance 

Queries for prayerful consideration:

What blocks generosity in my church community? What is the antidote?

19 thoughts on “Rich Liberals In an Age of Hunger

  1. Omar,
    Thanks you for calling me on this false dichotomy, that somehow non-profit activities are more virtuous than for-profit activities. I agree completely that we do need businesses to employ people and make the things we need for our bodies and minds and souls and make a profit. And yes, all of those things can be ministry.

    For-profit activites are only problematic to the extent that there is a temptation to put generating profit ahead of serving the good of God’s people. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are ways of addressing that temptation – that’s part of what our faith communities and our relationship with God are about!

    For non-monetary giving, it seems to me that the corresponding problem is that our “gift” may be given without true generosity of God’s spirit and/or without our gift arising out of and evoking the belovedness of the person to whom the gift is given.

    As Omar points out, it’s hard to measure the God-centeredness of monetary enterprises. As many others have pointed out, it’s hard to measure the generosity of non-monetary kinds of giving.

    So perhaps all we can do is ask God to speak to us and give guidance on our own soul’s generosity and the generosity of the faith groups of which we are part. That would not be a bad place to start!


  2. I appreciated Martin’s comment from 1/6 – it takes courage to be public about job loss, and I appreciate his generous spirit in inviting us into his experience. There may not be much I can do from Seattle except pray and encourage other readers to pray for Martin and his family. What can we pray for when we pray for you, Martin?
    Blessings on you and your family, whatever your current circumstances!

    I also appreciated Martin’s insight that rich people (predominantly liberals?) perhaps tend to create structures and committees from a distance, while working class people (predominantly evangelicals?) go in close and personal and give coats and shoes?

    Is this discussion really more about class than about denominational labels? This strikes me as having some truth to it.

    If it is, is it the culture or the faith or the wealth component – or a mixture of them all? Do we lose our joyful, hands-on generous engagement and dependence on God and God’s community as we get wealthier and start to create and inhabit a culture that is based on dependence on possessions and structures that support dependence on possessions (such as funds for the needy)?

    I’m aware that I’m walking close to the line I drew a few days ago to exclude comments on definitions and methodologies, so let me say again that I’d like us to focus on the faith and religious culture components.


  3. Query: What is the role of wealth in the Kingdom of God? I want to expand the conversation beyond Quakerism here for a moment. IF one of the reasons that liberal Christians have historically given less monetarily is because they are working in non-profit organizations or other helping professions, does it not stand to reason that we need others (conservative Christians perhaps) who are willing to work in profit-generating professions to provide support to these “missionally” based endeavors? Both time and money are needed to combat issues like hunger and homelessness. Can the same people be expected to provide both?

    In a perfect world, humans would create businesses and organizations that both fight against (or at least do not add to) society’s ills and that also do not requiring sustaining donations. Such organizations would still pay living wages to their employees. As things are, the world tends to divide us into for-profit and non-profit sectors, meaning we can choose to do good or we can choose to make significant money. I think it’s a bad paradigm. This is why the emerging field of social entrepreneurship is so exciting.

    My bias may best be explained with a little bit of background information: I have spent nearly 20 years working for various non-profit organizations. My wife, on the other hand has an MBA and now works for a Fortune 500 company. We both see our work as “ministry” (and we are encouraged to do so by our evangelical Quaker Meeting) but it is probably easy to guess which of us makes more money!


  4. As an ex-Pentecostal, I have to wonder at some of the generalizations being made. I don’t find a heavy spirit among liberal Quakers, at least not in my funky little meeting. We have colorful, unorthodox characters among us. The Polish ex-Catholic seminary drop-out with a street-level sense of humor. The pagan artist holding monthly art days. Yes, we have our over-serious folks and they have a place. And, what’s so wrong with being “heavy?” We’re talking about hunger, aren’t we? In the time you read this hundreds have literally died of starvation. The Truth is Heavy!

    As for whether liberals give less, I have often wondered if these researchers disaggregated monies given to churches that went to the institution and the monies that went to helping the needy. Conservatives give more to their churches because they fear God’s punishment if they don’t. But, does giving to your conservative church direct funds to the needy or to the greedy?

    Peace! Charley


  5. Bill, is it true that liberal Friends have the most narrow demographics?

    In my experience with liberal people (not specifically liberal Friends) is that they get so caught up in a cause, let’s say for example being eco-conscious, that they look down on those who don’t embrace it, whether it is due to personal choice or lack of awareness. I was confronted by this as a former vegetarian in the Peace Corps. Like, when someone kills their pig for dinner, how can you say no?!


  6. I’m sorry if my initial comment took us off on a bit of a tangent! I am also happy to see such a wealth of responses here since I stopped by first, and I’d like to echo a theme of both your original post and Bill Samuel’s comment on the “heavy spirit” often present among Quakers. I know that this is something I have sometimes encountered; there have sometimes been carpooling arrangements to my meeting I have been reluctant to enter, because of the tendency some Friends had to spend the ride to or from meeting composing a list of all the failings of the current local and national administration, or all the ways that the human race is doomed, has damaged the planet beyond repair, etc. I think there may be a hidden Puritan strain in some Friends, who seem to believe that if we aren’t all miserably unhappy, we must not be very spiritual!

    I contrast this with what I find in meeting itself. Nearly always, worship is an occasion of great joy and gratitude for me, and on the occasions when I have found myself heavy and guilty over my inadequacies in the face of global suffering, I’m pretty clear that the trouble has been that I’ve been letting my own pride–my sense that I must be part of the solution to _every_ problem, and that God can’t possibly manage without me–block me from the real touch of Spirit.

    I know that there are Friends whose experience of God is primarily of a painful searching, and I don’t mean to invalidate the ways that may be one way that Spirit works among us. But in my own experience, I have come to feel that if I’m not feeling joy, I’m not doing it right–I’m outrunning my guide, or off on a crusade all my own.

    Thus far, at least, what good I’ve done in this world I’ve done gladly and gratefully. I have a strong belief in joy as one of the hallmarks of Spirit.


  7. In the last few days I have received several thoughtful comments about statistics, methodologies, definitions and survey reliability in determining who gives what to whom and why. Much as I dislike silencing other voices, especially ones that offer something different from what I originally said, I have decided not to include those methodological comments here because I think they distract from the discussion I was hoping for. My original entry was intended to generate reflection on how our beliefs and religious culture affect giving, and this is a conversation that can be undertaken by any faith group, whether it is more or less generous than another faith group. Please do continue to write in on how, in your experience, beliefs and religious culture affect generosity. I am learning a lot from each of you and I am pondering the new insights you have shared.


  8. In the last year I’ve started attending meeting regularly again, and am in the process of figuring out what it means to be an adult active in the meeting. I have yet to donate any money. When I try to think about donating to the meeting or other organizations, I notice that I run into a sense of scarcity. My sense is that this feeling of scarcity comes from my family upbringing and was reinforced in the meeting where I grew up, but I think it’s also a much broader cultural phenomena.

    Whatever this scarcity is about, it’s clear to me that it gets in the way of the movement of the spirit. I’m trying these days to let myself feel abundance, and to sit gently with this sense of scarcity. My hope is that it will gradually tranform, and that I’ll be able to give more generously.


  9. I think the first point about the heavy spirit among liberal Quakers is a good one. I left liberal Friends for an “emerging church” and then one Sunday went back to my old meeting after a long time of not being there. What hit me strongly on going back was that heavy spirit. At my church, there is a very strong emphasis on social justice, but the strong faith in Jesus Christ makes it a place of hope and joy. The difference between my old meeting and my present church is like night and day on this.

    Many studies have confirmed that liberal Quakers give relatively less than many other religious groups. Some Friends argue that they give less to their meetings because the lack of the same kind of structure makes them much less expensive to run, but they make up for it in donations to other good causes. But the analyses show that is not true. They give less overall, not just less directly to their own faith community.

    It is true that many liberal Quakers make life choices which mean they bring in less money than they could with their education and skills. But I find the same thing at the church where I am now. I don’t know of any studies which try to evaluate the extent of this in different kinds of religious (and secular) groupings, but I suspect that liberal Friends would not shine as much as they think in such comparisons.

    As has been hinted at, liberal Friends tend to respond to the poor at a distance, through service that can often be seen as condescending, impersonal donations and political action. I think other churches are more likely to really get involved with the poor and to incorporate this into holistic ministry, while liberal Friends don’t seem to really regard it as ministry. And most other churches are more welcoming to the less affluent and less educated as participants in their congregations than liberal Friends, in my experience and observation. I suspect liberal Friends have among the most narrow demographics of any religious groups.


  10. In my experience with parents who are Christian-Right and Republican and not Quaker, I have found that liberals and conservatives are both right and both wrong.

    In my experience, conservatives value personal responsibility above everything, and therefore take personal charity seriously. Liberals value group responsibility, and therefore take group charity seriously. In truth, both are needed together.

    I really value the Catholics I know that take their faith so seriously, a lot of my heroes are Catholics although I could never be Catholic and don’t like the politics. Somehow these individuals can see past that and be quite saintly and radical (maybe they are liberal too). I try and learn from them. At the same time, liberals are good at understanding why the mainstream needs to change and why the secular world can’t just depend on charity of spiritual groups, and why respecting other cultures and faiths is valuable.

    In keeping peace in my family, I’ve learned if I match my politics (liberal libertarian) with faith and practice and leave no room for them to call me a liberal hypocrite, they respect me and look up to me.


  11. For those who’ve not read Sider’s book, don’t start with the original 1977 edition; it’s been revised several times. Christianity Today called it one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century. Sider would probably say that, to the extent it’s correct, it’s not nearly influential enough.

    Sider was here in Portland, OR, while I was in Russia last fall, and YouTube has a clip from his appearance:

    While we’re on the subject of praising and criticizing, I want to thank you for the amazing writing you do here on your blog.


  12. I want to back up Cat’s point as well that many liberals, like my parents (a minister/psychologist and social worker/educator), spend entire careers helping others. No one would have been able to record my parents’ giving since they would often give anonymously of time, money, service and donations. It would be nice to be able to just write out a check and send it off. We had rape victims, drug addicts, and those threatening suicide calling our house in the middle of the night. My parents opened their homes and lives to those in need. On top of that there was the over time my folks worked without pay, and the times they left in the middle of the night to care for someone. One also wonders if we can include into the category of “giving” the money they sacrificed by borrowing large amounts of money for college and grad school to qualify for the helping professions when they knew they would never be financially rewarded for that decision. Can we include the fact that they consistently chose lower-paying jobs in not for profits? We called ourselves “middle class” but I’m not so sure but that maybe there should be another category for people like my parents who never had much but were always, always giving.

    On the other hand, and perhaps because of this background, I too have grown frustrated with the charitable flatline I notice with those liberals I recognize as being well-to-do (from my standpoint). In conferences and seminars I attend that are typically people by people who range from middle to upper class, I am often struck by the disconnect between their liberal testimony and their lifestyle. When confronted with real life people in need, I’ve seen them become dismissive, patronizing, or disgusted. I notice that they own things that seem ridiculous and self-indulgent to me in the face of the terrible need of those around them. I’ve heard people say, expecting my compassion I guess, that they would live a more simple life but it so hard to do so when they own so much! (Yeah…um…there’s a solution to that. ) So I guess for me it comes down far more to lifestyle than to class or the dollar amount we can record in the charity column. Do you live your liberalism? Do you live your faith?


  13. A parent at the gymnastics academy where my wife Julie coaches found out I lost my job last year (inadvertently really, when Julie was relating some funny story). To our shock this parent organized her Presbyterian church, which has twice brought us groceries and just a few weeks ago provided Christmas presents (I got a nice winter coat). Members of the meeting I attend have said there’s a fund I can apply for. I’m sure we could get some support, but somehow these different approaches are a clue: rich liberals construct systems, working class Christians provide groceries and coats. I have to admit I’ve wondered if I’m going to the right place Sunday morning.


  14. I haven’t read the book you refer to, but yesterday I looked at a site called yesterday, which has the results of countless studies on this topic, and they all confirm the original point I made. The study you quote may well be more truthful. Unfortunately, I really don’t know enough about this topic to assess which studies are most reliable. As with so many other topics, I imagine the different conclusions reflect the political and faith stance of those who conducted and analysed the research… So much for independent research!

    Actually, the point I made about levels of giving was only intended as a jumping-off place for an examination of potential aspects of liberal theology that may keep us from giving more than we do, whether we’re evangelical, conservative, orthodox, reformed, or liberal; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or of another or no faith background. The trend for ALL groups tends to be that as we get wealthier, we tend to give less, again according to Sider.

    So what I wanted to do was to explore liberal faith in relation to giving. Your experience in that regard seems to be that in your church it is harder to involve parishioners in WORK. Is there anything in your church’s theology, do you think, that contributes to the pattern that you’re seeing?


  15. A more recent book than Sider’s that examines charitable giving from a behavioral economics point of view is “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism” by Arthur C. Brooks, 2006. I haven’t read this book yet so am relying on a few reviews’ discussion of the findings.

    Brooks examined 15 different data sets on charitable giving in the US. Lots of interesting findings, but for the purpose of this blog topic, the following points are informative:

    • Religious people, on average, give 54 percent more per year than secular people to human-welfare charities.
    • Religious liberals give nearly as much as religious conservatives.
    • Religious conservatives give about 30% more than secular liberals.
    • Secular conservatives are even less generous than secular liberals.

    So, according to Brooks’ analysis, religious conservatives do not give significantly more money to charity than religious liberals. Secular liberals, who are not generous, still out-give secular conservatives, but are way outspent by religious conservatives as well as religious liberals.

    Brooks’ findings about the relative amounts of giving ring truer to me than Sider’s, both in general and in my particular experience. For example, the majority of members in the (liberal) congregation of the church I attend give a lot of money both to our church and to local/national/ international charitable organizations.

    Where I see a more disturbing lack of generosity in my church, and wonder if it is common in liberal mainline churches in general, is in the degree of personal involvement in church outreach. It’s like pulling teeth to get folks to participate, as a church, together, in advocacy and charitable activities. Asking anything of them beyond writing a check or contributing items to food or clothing drives seems to be too much to ask. Ideas for outreach activities are praised, but attendance tends to be low or nonexistent. I think that we like the IDEA of belonging to a church with liberal positions on social justice, but we don’t have or make the time to do the actual WORK it takes to make those positions real in the world. However, we do get to bask in the perceived halo effect of having the “right” stance on social justice issues. Sigh.


  16. The points you make, Cat, are excellent ones, and you raise issues I have wondered about, too. The studies I have looked at don’t fully address whether non-financial kinds of giving (such as pro-bono work or working in lower-paid serving kinds of jobs) are included, and I haven’t been able to decipher whether these statistics take into account corrections for “charitable giving ” that simply goes to church maintenance and salaries.
    For the most part, I like being a “noticer” and encourager in my Quaker Meeting, rather than a finger-wagger. So my musings are truly not intended to induce guilt or make people feel under-appreciated, and I apologize if that is how my message comes across.
    During the last couple of months I have been on a spiritual exploration of God’s abundance and how hard it is for middle class people to experience abundance. My November posts looked at experience of abundance (or lack thereof) from an individual perspective, my December posts looked at community factors, and I find myself in January drawn to exploring faith factors.
    Even taking into account all the unknowns you addressed, my subjective experience (perhaps not yours?) in liberal Quaker settings (with many Friends as wonderful exceptions to what I’m about to say) is that our theology seems to evoke depression about world affairs, worry for the future, self-satisfaction with our own efforts, and condemnation of people who aren’t as understanding as we perceive ourselves to be, or who don’t live up to our expectations.
    All of this addds up, for me, to a sense that we are a less generous and giving people in Spirit, and makes me more inclined to accept the statistics on money as having a kernel of truth to them.
    Still, my main purpose is to focus on abundance and to explore these issues – not to induce guilt – but to discover how we could become more joyfully aware of God’s abundance!


  17. This is a subject I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, myself.

    Is generosity truly blocked among liberal Friends? Or is it invisible? I worked for twenty years in clinical social work, specializing in work with survivors of trauma and abuse. Not counting the hours of volunteer work I performed, I saw many clients pro bono or at dramatically reduced rates–particularly in my private practice. The end result was many years of working for well below poverty-level wages–when my husband and I changed careers, and became public school teachers, we told our teacher friends and relatives we did so for lower stress and higher pay, and, in fact, that’s just what we found.

    Our decision to work in the fields we chose, both before and after the mid-career change, was utterly informed by our spiritual values. (I would say, in fact, that my decision to change careers was the result, not of burnout as some would assume, but of a leading followed at the cost of some real grief and fear on my part.) I was once asked by a friend if I felt distant from Spirit in my day-to-day life, and I reflected that, no, I did not, because the communion I felt with others in my work as a therapist was meeting my needs for communion with Spirit so well!

    And yet, here I am, describing this to you, and feeling as though I am boasting, when my intention is (honest!) just to make something that had been invisible, visible. I don’t think I am at all alone in that!

    In fact, one feature of our meeting which we had to discontinue (because it was taking so much time every week) was our previous policy of, at rise of meeting, having our members share announcements that might be of interest to the rest of the meeting. I heard about incredible projects in volunteerism and activism in the community which Friends were involved in! I loved seeing what the Spirit we shared on First Days looked like when it went out into the world the rest of the week. I have been saddened by the decision to limit announcements to those “directly related to the life of the meeting,” because so much energetic work has been made invisible because of it–but I doubt very much that the lack of visibility has made much difference to the levels of commitment that apply.

    Yes, complacency is an evil that can creep in anywhere, and I wouldn’t like to say I’m free of it. But I question the studies I’ve encountered that compare liberals as a group with evangelical Christians, as a group (I haven’t read the book you refer to, so the ones I’ve seen may be different) for several reasons. First of all, many liberals (political liberals–I haven’t seen any studies comparing Quaker liberals with Quaker evangelicals, so I’m not speaking to that point) are not church goers, so all of their charitable giving would be to secular organizations. But, presumably, a good deal of evangelical giving will be to religious organizations, probably starting with the local church.

    In other words, liberals are not supporting, in the same proportions, church-centered giving. But when we separate out the proportion of church-based giving that goes to support paid clergy, stained-glass windows, roof repairs, and a new organ, is it possible that what liberals and evangelicals spend on charitable giving that travels beyond “steeple houses” is more similar than not? Maybe the answer to that is no–but I’ve not seen it addressed.

    Furthermore, what about the fact that liberals are more likely to work in lower-paid helping professions to begin with? If someone accepts a paycheck for their work, does that invalidate the generosity and compassion they bring to it? Why is it that even a small donation to an educational foundation counts as charitable and generous, but patiently teaching kids for an entire career does not?

    Again, it may be that there are good answers to my questions, and it may well be that the book you mention addresses some of them. Newspaper reports on the phenomenon haven’t, though, so my questions remain. It’s not that we shouldn’t all be listening very carefully for the voice of Spirit to lead us to the next piece of work, or that compassion and generosity should be no more than a “day job” for anyone. But sometimes I think that, whatever else, we liberal Friends are very good at the art of hand-wringing over our failings. Not in order to make us smug, but in order to be a little more realistic, I wish that the work we do engage in were a little more visible to one another.

    Just my thoughts.


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