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The compassionate ones

By Arthur C Brooks - posted Tuesday, 8 August 2006

George W. Bush calls himself a “Compassionate Conservative”. He obviously hopes this will influence a few wavering voters who believe his claim. If they do believe it, however, it will be in spite of the mainstream media, which throughout the campaign have portrayed "compassionate conservatism" as a concept conveniently resurrected in election years - and forgotten in the interim by the political right.

But is “compassionate conservatism” really just a cynical marketing ploy from the Bush campaign? In fact, a look at data from recent years suggests that conservatives - at least religious conservatives such as the President himself - are a very compassionate group indeed.

The argument that conservatives are naturally less compassionate than liberals is easy to follow: Conservatives' traditional discomfort with the salvific role of government toward social ills exposes them to the criticism that they simply care less than liberals do about the plight of those afflicted.


But this turns out not to be the case. For evidence, one can turn to the 2002 General Social Survey, a large survey of Americans conducted every other year or so by researchers at the University of Chicago. The survey is structured in such a way that it is possible to break down respondents along party and religious lines, as well as gauging their level of compassion (by asking, for example, whether respondents feel "tender, concerned feelings" for the less fortunate - which 72 per cent of Americans say they do).

According to these data, much conventional wisdom about uncompassionate conservatives is off base. Indeed, conservatives have slightly more compassionate attitudes than liberals; for example, they are three percentage points more likely to say they have tender, concerned feelings for the less fortunate.

Far more important than politics, however, is religion: people who attend their house of worship nearly every week are 15 points more likely to say they have tender feelings toward the less fortunate than people who never attend worship services (or attend less than once a year). That difference persists even when grouping people by their demographic characteristics, such as age, race, education, sex, marital status, and income.

As we all know, talk is cheap. So even if religious people say they feel more compassionate, do they also act more compassionately?

They do. Religious people of all political persuasions are 40 per cent more likely to donate to charities each year than secular people, and more than twice as likely to volunteer. They are also more than three times more likely than secular people to give each month, and three and one-half times as likely to volunteer that often.

And those religious believers aren't just giving to their churches, either. Research on volunteerism and philanthropy shows clearly that people who give and volunteer for religious organisations are far more likely than others to donate time and money to secular charities as well. For example, a 2000 survey of 30,000 people around the United States shows that religious people are 10 percentage points more likely than secularists to give (and 21 points more likely to volunteer) to explicitly nonreligious causes and charities.


Perhaps it is unfair to conclude that secular people (even those who feel compassionate) are simply less generous than religious people. Secularists with compassionate sentiments may simply be more likely to favour non-private means to help others - say, by supporting higher taxes to cover government welfare payments. However, the General Social Survey data do not support this idea: In fact, secularists and religious people are equally likely (25 per cent) to state that the government is spending "too little money on welfare".

So who is more compassionate: the religious right, or the secular left? The answer appears to be the former. The reason for this, however, revolves around religion, not political ideology. The relatively large religious right and fairly small religious left are both far more compassionate than secularists from either political side. The most uncompassionate group of all - in attitudes and behaviours - is a subset of conservatives who are also secularists. Inordinate media attention to this group may help explain why conservatives are often accused of being uncompassionate. But that group is not representative of the broad majority of Republican voters, who are in fact religious.

After considering the evidence, one wonders whether the true cynics about the "compassionate conservatism" on display in Mr. Bush's campaign are not the politicians peddling the label, but rather the news media who report on it.

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First published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on October 25, 2004.

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About the Author

Arthur Brooks is an associate professor of public administration and director of the nonprofit studies program at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

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