Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity 
by jeremy beer
university of pennsylvania, 134 pages, $19.95

As I sat on the subway car reading Jeremy Beer’s new book The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity, a homeless man entered the car and began to sing, literally, for his supper. That is the sort of juxtaposition that puts things into perspective.

 Jeremy Beer, publisher of The American Conservative, has written a short book on a profound topic: the transformation of the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition of charity into the modern American practice of philanthropy. He approaches by way of theology: “Both [charity and philanthropy] are associated with theological presuppositions,” he writes, “not only in the most fundamental sense that there is no escaping such presuppositions, but also in the historical sense that philanthropy arises out of a reimagining of Christian eschatology and the proper role of Christianity in society.”

 For Jews and for Christians, charity was salvific, a laying up of treasure in heaven, and the object of charity, the beggar, was an altar to be reverenced. The centrality of charity to the theology of Catholic Christianity inspired the West’s first hospitals, shelters, food kitchens, and orphanages. But the earthbound clerks of parishioners’ spiritual bank accounts began to accept funny money, and the indulgence system, among other corruptions, impelled Protestant reformers toward the doctrine of sola fide. Thus almsgiving was stripped of its sacramental significance and the beggar of his sanctity.

Centuries later, on a new continent, Protestant dogma, capitalist ambition, and Enlightenment reason would converge in the millennialism of the Second Great Awakening—and the replacement of Jesus’s admonition that the poor will always be with us with a conviction that the Christian reformer’s duty is to end poverty altogether. By the late nineteenth century, a new “scientific philanthropy” had emerged, the goal of which was wholesale social transformation.

The consequences of the turn from charity to philanthropy have been mixed. To the “new, scientific practitioners of voluntary giving, eventually known as philanthropists,” Beer credits “the virtual abolition of certain diseases, massive increases in agricultural yields, and advancement of basic and applied research in numerous fields.” But they also advanced “eugenics and forced sterilization, the secularization and centralization of American society, and the idea that the fates of individual places and the loving care of particular persons are secondary considerations.”

Beer is subtle and fair-minded. He acknowledges that the philanthropist has a point when he objects that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul does not address poverty’s “root causes.” But, describing the plight of a Philadelphia-area family during a recent Christmas season, Beer rightly observes that, “despite a century and more of sustained effort and many billions of dollars, the Andrews family still needs a stove.” So: charity or philanthropy? Which should we choose?

To return to my baritone subway companion, I suspect he found it difficult to earn much on the downtown 6 train. According to municipal statistics, there are approximately 60,000 people living on the streets in New York City at present, and most New Yorkers know that there are a whole bevy of private organizations, societies, coalitions, and alliances that exist for the purpose of serving them—as well as departments, agencies, bureaus, and task forces at every level of government—and that it is generally wiser to trust these organizations to use one’s money effectively than to trust the spending habits of the average mendicant.

But “effectiveness” is a metric of utility, and utility is the ne plus ultra of technology—which is what modern philanthropy has become: a tool that mediates our relations one to another. At its most extreme it manifests itself in the mentality of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, despite making homelessness one of its focal projects, refused to assist the dozens of homeless sleeping outside its $500-million Seattle headquarters, on the grounds that doing so did not qualify as a “systems level” outreach.

Beer proposes an alternative: a blend of charity and philanthropy that he calls (“halfway-tongue-in-cheek”) philanthrolocalism, which does not eschew the work that large, moneyed organizations can do, but which tempers the impulse toward social transformation by favoring the concrete and the local to the theoretical and the global. For example, the Connelly Foundation, which focuses its work in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, rather than trying to implement grand holiday schemes, around Christmastime simply gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to trusted frontline workers and has them distribute it as they see fit. Through Connelly, Philadelphia’s more fortunate can help Philadelphia’s less fortunate. The results are local and concrete, and neighborliness grows. Modern philanthropy has lost sight of the people it purports to help; philanthrolocalism, by contrast, philanthrolocalism aims  “to increase opportunities for and strengthen the possibilities of authentic human communion.”

 That is an ennobling vision of giving. It offers an alternative to number-crunching and consequence-calculating, and it disempowers the question we are accustomed to ask of petitioners—“Do you deserve my dollar?”—by restoring giving to its traditional, elevated plane, where a gift of food is only an occasion for an unmediated interaction between two persons, where an exchange of currency is an occasion for an expression of caritas.

 The 6 train is as good a place for that as any.

Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles