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‘The Common Welfare Is Our Business’ – Study Shows Link Between Belief and Giving

by Katherine Marshall
from Huffington Post

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.

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