Philanthropy vs. Charity

The Indeterminate Politics of the Charity vs. Philanthropy Divide

Editors’ Note: The following post, from HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis, continues our forum on “charity vs. philanthropy.” It is adapted from a monograph Soskis wrote last year, “Both More and No More:  The Historical Split Between Charity and Philanthropy” for the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.

One of the more fascinating elements of the history of the relationship between charity and philanthropy is the political and ideological indeterminacy of that dichotomy.

We’re all familiar with one interpretation of the dynamic. Charity, with an implicit (and sometimes implicit) contrast to philanthropy, assumes a status as a conservative counterweight to the push for structural change and as an alternative—at times intentionally proffered—to the demands of social justice. Charity becomes the natural response to the biblical injunction that the Poor you will always have with you, as much a passive excuse as an affirmative act.

This reactionary understanding of charity gained prominence during the revolutionary tumult of the late eighteenth century, and grew increasingly pronounced at the turn of the following century, with the emergence of an invigorated global labor movement (which often took the rallying cry, “Justice—Not Charity”). The turn of the twentieth century also witnessed the birth of modern institutional philanthropy, which, aiming to address root causes and disdaining palliatives, vaulted itself into legitimacy on charity’s supposed deficiencies. Such a critique of charity could lead to some strange bedfellows. My favorite illustration of this comes from a 1908 editorial in a Chicago Socialist newspaper that announced its solidarity with John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil magnate and philanthropist, bestowing on him the honorific “Comrade.” “We want justice, not charity,” the socialists explained. “So say we, and so say John D.”

Yet during these same years, in its relation to philanthropy, charity could suggest another ideological orientation as well. Since modern philanthropy was increasingly associated with accommodation to and the preservation of the corporate capitalist order, by standing against philanthropy, charity’s radical strain, implicit in its call to stand with the poor, was amplified. And many of those who opposed the economic order rallied to charity’s defense.

This was especially the case with American Catholics, for whom maintaining separate sectarian charitable institutions was not merely a means of fighting back against Protestant proselytism or promoting a host of religious values and propositions based on poverty’s providential nature, but also of conveying a set of ideological principles, which are not easily reducible to a reactionary-radical polarity.

Take, for instance, a speech delivered by Boston Vicar-General William Byrne in 1880. “It is not wise to seek the total abolition of poverty,” counseled Byrne, against the seductive ambitions of philanthropy, which sought to eradicate poverty, and not merely tend to its symptoms. “The poor are the occasion of countless blessings to the rich, and he must be callous indeed that does not realize that fact.” Yet in the same speech, Byrne responded unfavorably to the establishment of a new charitable agency in Boston, the Associated Charities. This agency sat at the vanguard of the scientific charity movement, which was supported by much of the city’s business establishment, and sought to discipline a tradition of “indiscriminate almsgiving” which its proponents believed only encouraged dependency.

On the one hand, Byrne lamented the tendency he detected within the scientific charity movement “to class poverty among the evils that ought to be eradicated from society” and praised the spiritual blessings the poor granted to the rich. Yet Byrne also warned that the obsession with pauperism blinded social reformers to greater evils. “[I]t is highly probable that an avaricious love of riches, and an undue accumulation of the same in the hands of a few, have produced more mischief in one generation than all the poverty, vicious and otherwise, that the world has ever seen.” Elizabeth Warren couldn’t have said it better herself.

We can detect that same ideological indeterminacy in the relation between charity and philanthropy in our present day. Charity has not lost its associations with conservatism; in fact, the rehabilitation of an ethic of charity was a central preoccupation of the architects of compassionate conservatism, such as Marvin Olasky, a calling that has been taken up more recently by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Charity still is invoked as an alternative to statist interventions. And in the sloganeering of social justice causes, charity is almost always invoked as what activists do not need more of. To cite just one example, in a recent post on the Huff Post blog, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, pronounced, “Charity is Not a Substitute for Justice,” a declaration that could have been taken from an American Railway Union pamphlet a century ago. At the present moment, when the ambitions of philanthropy are as grand as ever, charity still suggests to many a pinched, constricted, and almost willfully blind call to action.

Yet not to all. Indeed, precisely because philanthropy’s dominance has grown so pronounced, and because its has grown so closely aligned with the corporate order (a union formalized and sanctified through the neologism philanthro-capitalism), once again, the traditional ethic of charity has emerged as one of the more potent critical modes of articulating a rebuke of global capitalism’s excesses. No one has wielded an ethic of charity more powerfully than has Pope Francis. The Pope has emerged as our time’s most vocal critic of capitalism—and, in a sense, has done more than any other figure to puncture the pretensions of philanthro-capitalism. And charity has been central to his message. He has called in his encyclicals for a Church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” and has tied these personal ministrations to a broader critique of the “new tyranny” represented by unfettered capitalism and a “deified market.” Charity in his early apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Guadium, stands in opposition not to an overweening state but to an “economy of exclusion and inequality.”

There is no necessary antagonism between charity and justice in his teachings. The Christian life, he has declared, “means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.” But since philanthropy also seeks to address the “structural causes of poverty,” Pope Francis suggests that there need not be an antagonism between an ethic of philanthropy and traditional charity either—or, at the least, that they can offer a salutary critique of each other.

In other words, the politics of charity has been, and still is, decidedly ambiguous. And it is these very ambiguities, though perhaps perplexing to scholars, that grant charity in its relation to philanthropy, a particularly powerful ideological punch.

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