Charity in Speech

"The Common Form of All the Virtues," a sermon delivered in Appleton Chapel, Harvard University, February 12, 2008, Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2008.


The tongues of men still praise charity, though never in words of such surpassing beauty as these. But what of the deeds of men? A recent book by the economist Arthur C. Brooks, titled Who Really Cares? (2006), finds that liberals and conservatives give to charity at strikingly different rates. A fact, or factoid, to sum it up: the liberal, wealthy, educated, secular city of San Francisco, with the same population as the conservative, less wealthy, less educated, church-going state of South Dakota, gives 44% less of average family income to charity.

Before partisan juices start to flow, let me hasten to say that I believe this difference represents different attitudes in liberals and conservatives that are both defensible. When not arguing on the basis of the Bible, conservatives say that generosity is a virtue because it is voluntary and that therefore it should not be imposed politically. There will always be poor people and they will always need this virtue in those more fortunate. Conservatives prefer the deserving poor, by which they mean, not those who deserve to be poor, but those who deserve not to be poor. All the poor should be helped, but the need for help to those who deserve better shows that fortune, or luck, is a factor in human affairs. There are undeserving rich as well as deserving poor.