Few of us, if asked, would be able to draw a clear distinction between the notions of philanthropy and charity. If we don’t use them as synonyms, we at least act as if they refer to the same thing, just in different orders of magnitude or organization. Charity is an act of kindness toward the needy, and philanthropy is charity writ large. But according to Jeremy Beer in his book The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity, we’ve got it all wrong. And to set us straight he has constructed this brief but surprisingly engaging historical account. He demonstrates that what happened was not a natural transition from charity to philanthropy so much as it was a revolt against charity by “scientific” philanthropy and its progressive proponents.
For Beer, and for American history, charity and philanthropy are not only distinct but are even antagonistic. Philanthropy, especially in its early years, did not want to augment but to eliminate charity, which its proponents viewed as an archaic, ignorant, and in fact counterproductive practice. So what’s the difference between philanthropy and charity, you ask? Theology, answers Beer.
Charity had been a theological virtue since the birth of Christianity, and poverty itself was not only not shameful, but was one of the vows of the religious life. As this attitude came to social fruition in the Catholic culture of late medieval Europe, it meant that the practice of alms-giving was viewed not so much in terms of its material results as it was a spiritual exercises and a transaction of love. Alms-giving was a complex gesture that, in the words of scripture, allowed the giver to store up treasure in Heaven while connecting with “the least of these.” Acts of kindness–which is to say good works–were considered good primarily for the encounter between the giver in the receiver. That the receiver was placed in a better position materially in the process was almost a secondary, although certainly an important, result.
Unfortunately, the alms-giving mentality presupposes a theological framework that includes two presuppositions: First, that when Christ said that the poor would always be with us, he meant it. Second, that good works have a very real salvific value. Clearly, then, this view of charity was a distinctly Catholic thing and would not survive, at least in without significant transformation, in any thoroughly Protestant society. While post-Reformation Europe was slow to become “thoroughly Protestant,” at least with respect to its customs and mores, young America had never been anything but Protestant. This meant that the American view of charity would probably be as antagonistic to the old attitude toward poverty as it was toward the old dogma regarding works.
If we recall the two presuppositions mentioned above, we can also identify two counter-principles that would prevail in Protestant America’s new view of poverty:
First, Second Great Awakening gave rise to popular “millenarianism” which, in effect, taught that Christ’s thousand year reign could be expected sooner or later, and this in turn gave unprecedented validation to the ideology of Progress. For the first time, Christians could believe that the poor might not always be with us, or at least not once the millenarian Christ came to rule in glory on Earth.
Second, there was Luther’s sola fida, which whole-heartedly rejected that there was any salvific value in works, and this included the practice of alms-giving.
In theory this may not seem too catastrophic, but in practice it amounted to an entirely new attitude toward poverty in the world. First and foremost, it taught Americans that aid to the poor, since it could have no spiritual merit, was to be judged purely by its material effects, which is to say, by its efficiency. And the measure of its efficiency, because the path of history was destined for the millenial paradise, was the degree to which it eliminated poverty, bringing us closer to the anticipated kingdom.
For the first time we begin to calls to address the “root causes” of poverty, and real hopes of “tranforming society” in such a way as to actually solve the problem–something that would have sounded like pure hubris to a 13th century theologian. And because alms-giving was never known for its practical results, it and its practitioners were destined to become objects of denigration in the new dispensation of social progressives: men, women, and organizations who believed that with enough money and enough reform, the world could truly be rid of those perennial human phenomena which had been present since history began.
This new group was to become the philanthropists of early and modern America. These were the governments of early Protestant colonies who prohibited begging (unthinkable in the Catholic framework); these are the Puritans who deplored any unwillingness to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy poor as irresponsible.
This was the birth of rhetoric typified by Benjamin Franklin, who said: “I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.” In Franklin’s eyes, when it came to the poor, “the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”
This was the mentality that animated Margaret Sanger, a proponent of the eugenicist movement, who called charity a “malignant social disease,” arguing instead for much more “efficient” methods–such as the forced sterilization of at least 60,000 American undesirables.
This was the attitude of men like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who could say seriously that “neither the individual nor the race is improved by alms-giving…in alms-giving more injury is probably done by rewarding vice than by relieving virtue.”
It is interesting that we still hear all of this same rhetoric about the poor today, except in a bizarre, topsy-turvy fashion: today it comes from conservatives instead of progressives, and it is aimed at the State instead of the Church. I suppose this is one instance where the old saying that “yesterday’s progressives are today’s conservatives” is remarkably accurate. And that’s why probably why Beer doesn’t argue in favor of either Right or Left.
Without giving away too much of Beer’s excellent conclusions, I’ll only say that he is not concerned only with criticism. After all, he helped found an organization called American Philanthropic. What he is concerned to do is to meld the good that was achieved during the “Philanthropic Revolution”–for he certainly allows that modern philanthropy has not been all bad–into a new approach that retains the depth and personalism of Catholic charity.
I say “new” approach, but this is nothing more or less than the approach of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. This is an approach that acknowledges the need to pay attention to the good use of charitable resources, while at the same time avoiding the delusion of “world change” and “racial progress” that leads inevitably to Auschwitz. He doesn’t argue that we should start throwing money at the poor in order to buy credits in Paradise, but he does argue that, if we do not meet the poor, respect the poor, and even join the poor, then we will never really be able to do anything but dehumanize them.