Charity's Faith Problem

Amy Levin:  What’s wrong with charity? Well, nothing, if you’re Mitt Romney and your definition of charity is giving to anti-gay referendums. Ok, that was harsh, but none of us can deny that whatever we mean by “charity” comes with a loaded moral gun and a wad of political undertones, not to mention an extra ladle of shame along with your soup kitchen stew. I would argue that the mixing of faith and charity has once more come to the fore of American politics, but that would presume that it ever left. Nevertheless, columnist Ross Douthat’s piece in the New York Times on “Religious Giving and Its Critics” caught my eye this week, especially alongside Amy Sullivan’s piece in which she asks, “Is Compassionate Conservatism Dead?”

Douthat, known for his conservative voice on The Times, expressed his disappointment in the The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis’ reaction to conservative applause over Mitt Romney’s charitable giving. MacGillis’ piece takes a snarky stab at the praise for Romney’s 30% contribution of his income to society (argued by Heritage Foundation‘s economist, J.D. Foster). For those of you who struggle with math (like me), that 30% does not exactly amount to federal income tax, but is more of an amalgamation of a 13.9% federal income tax and $7 million in charitable contributions over the past two years, including $4.1 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints. Here’s how MacGillis feels about Romney’s “charitable contributions” posing as tax-like expenditures:

So: this April, no need to pay the IRS the full tab. Just let them know about your donations to worthy causes like, say, your needy prep school or Ivy League alma mater or the Heritage Foundation or, as in the case of Romney, a church that spends lots of money on really tall spires and anti-gay marriage referenda, and demonstrates its contribution to society by prohibiting non-members from entering its temples.

Unsurprisingly, Douthat is quite the apologist when it comes to Mormon charity mediated through Romney’s good fortune. Douthat argues that McGillis’ claim that the Mormon church spends their money on anti-gay marriage referenda “is a little like the idea that the federal government spends most of its money bankrolling public broadcasting.” The Mormon church spent around $180,000 on ads during the Prop 8 vote, and the rest of the money goes to churches, temples, and running “one of the America’s most effective private welfare states, which plays a not-inconsiderable role in Utah’s strikingly low poverty and unemployment rates.”

The main problem for Douthat seems to be the relationship between faith-based charity and the state within “contemporary liberalism.” The issue for him is that organizations like the Mormon church are criticized for their narrow sectarian impact but when organizations like the Catholic Church offer more “universal services,” they are “left vulnerable to the Obama White House’s current regulatory attack” (code for contraception battle).

To avoid a knee-jerk liberal reaction, let’s spare the contraception debate and the politics of religious freedom (aka, rhetoric). Douthat and other conservative supporters of charity feel that the Obama administration is limiting faith-based organizations’ effectiveness via unnecessary regulation. However, as much as Douthat might disagree with me, I would presume that most liberals are not against charity (gasp!) even when it’s faith-based (and not just via Unitarians and Quakers). In fact, Obama spent $140 million on faith-based programs as part of the stimulus formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Obama also expanded and renamed Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (now Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships). We don’t have to look far or wide to find faith communities stepping up to help the poor and needy.

I wonder how Douthat would respond to Amy Sullivan’s observation that compassionate conservatives seem to be an endangered species. She claims that, “In the new Tea Party era, they’ve all but disappeared from Congress, and their philosophy is reviled within the GOP as big-government conservatism. Is this just a case of the Republican Party wanting to distance itself from the Bush years — or is compassionate conservatism gone for good?” I’m guessing Douthat would respond with a resounding “no” given Romney’s contributions (although these fall under private giving and protect him from supporting government spending), but the phrase “compassionate conservatism”, like charity, is loaded with political connotations. Who is allowed to receive charity, and under what conditions? Who in this country are we allowed to feel compassion for? While the question remains of how to allow faith-based organizations to provide the services that our country desperately needs while continuing to expand the reach and diversity of those resources, it seems we won’t get anywhere until “charity” and “compassion” are understood as historically constituted clubs that only let certain members in.

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