The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 2016)
The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity
Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
Politics would be a hell of a good business if it weren’t for the goddamned people,” grumbled Richard Nixon to young attorney John Sears. Sadly, this quip came to mind while I was absorbing Jeremy Beer’s analysis of contemporary philanthropy. One could imagine similar carping from the boardrooms of our leading “charitable” foundations. Beer’s brief in this taut little book is illustrated by a stark anecdote: Even though it sits on $42 billion in resources, and despite the fact that homelessness is one of its strategic areas of concern, the Gates Foundation will not provide direct assistance to any of the displaced people sleeping outside its $500 million Seattle headquarters. Instead, the foundation’s resources are entirely devoted to “upstream” systemic problems. Don’t come to the Gates Foundation looking for alms. And don’t expect charity from this foundation. Philanthropy is about metrics, not mercy.
Beer, a philanthropy consultant and president of the American Ideas Institute, cites this as one of the “absurdities” of modern philanthropy—a word whose etymology suggests “love of mankind”—that is more in love with problem solving than with people, more invested in “high modernist ideology” than in particular human beings. It brings to mind an ancient insight into disordered love. Looking back on his younger self in the Confessions, Saint Augustine recognized this perennial phenomenon: “I was in love with love.” Similarly, contemporary philanthropy seems more enamored of a generic anthropos than of the flesh-and-blood poor we encounter face-to-face. Indeed, twenty-first-century philanthropy seems allergic to charity.
Actually, Beer shows that it’s even worse than that: Philanthropy is directly and staunchly critical of charity as wasteful, misguided, inefficient, and, above all, ineffective—the cardinal sin in our utilitarian age. This is the “revolution” Beer describes: a radical retooling of charity from almsgiving and works of mercy to Philanthropy, Inc., the progressivist behemoth that is confident in the capacity of human rationality and technology to “end poverty,” “end homelessness,” “end hunger,” and more.
It wasn’t always this way. That’s why The Philanthropic Revolution is billed as a “history.” But the story is also theological. Charity in Jewish and early Christian traditions was historically a means of communion with God that also required communion with the poor. Charity was, in Beer’s account, “salvific,” earning heavenly merit. No one imagined that charity would end poverty. (“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said.) The Protestant Reformers criticized such salvation by works (recall Martin Luther’s tirade about indulgences), although they still extolled charity as an act of obedient love. But this Reformation shift became a revolution in the wake of the Enlightenment. Giving was then enlisted by a utilitarian focus on consequences and a progressivist confidence in human ingenuity.
So the “scientific” charity of the early twentieth century was, despite its secular claims, still theological, still rooted in faith—in the messiah of progress. Even the most ardently “secular” philanthropists were believers. Beer likes to cite the assessment of Orestes Brownson, a nineteenth-century American convert to Roman Catholicism: Satan’s “favorite guise in modern times,” he said, “is that of philanthropy.”
While I think Beer’s history (and theology) could use some nuance, and is both unfair and incorrect in its characterization of the Reformation, the sweep of the story he tells is illuminating. In one of its chilling chapters, he recounts how an overconfident progressivism led philanthropists to endorse eugenics, sterilization, and residential schools for Native children, all in the name of a “love of humanity.” When the functional “theology” of philanthropy is faith in human rationality and technological power, then the power to realize “kingdom come” is in our hands. When that happens, watch out: Bleeding hearts can be ruthless.
In telling his story, Beer tends to posit a dichotomy between charity and philanthropy. But his conclusion is more nuanced: “We must look to inject the logic of charity into the modern practice of philanthropy.” Such charitable philanthropy will refuse any either/or on this front. (On this score, there’s not much difference between Jane Addams and Dorothy Day.) We can both attend to systemic issues and attend, mercifully, to those downtrodden by “the system” today. We can both address the “root causes” of homelessness and feed, clothe, and comfort those camped outside the front door of the Gates Foundation.
Beer extols what he (inelegantly) calls “philanthrolocalism.” We might better describe it as philanthropy with a human face, philanthropy that remains close enough to the poor and downtrodden to remember mercy and learn their names. Philanthropy with a charitable heart will embody what St. Vincent de Paul, Dorothy Day, and even Jane Addams emphasized: the unique grace that flows, the author writes, quoting the scholars David Lapp and Amber Lapp, from “‘deeply personal encounter’ between would-be helpers and sufferers.” Such “charitable” philanthropy should be oriented toward “authentic communion,” Beer rightly emphasizes, prizing “personalist goods” in a way that rebuilds American civic life, whereas “scientific” philanthropy seems content to let us all go “bowling alone” (to borrow Robert Putnam’s alienation trope) and leave us “coming apart,” as Charles Murray has put it.
Charitable activity bent on fostering community has to be scaled to the local. Whereas the technocratic machines of Big Philanthropy need to be as abstract as possible—and hence “global”—communion philanthropy can only be realized in particular places, with particular people, who share a place and a story. As I was reading Beer’s description of such “philanthrolocalism,” I began looking around my own city of Grand Rapids, Michigan—only to find that he cites it as an example at the end of his book. While the wealth of local families could have easily “liberated” them from this midwestern city for the supposed glory and excitement of the coasts, they stayed put and committed themselves to this place. As I scan the city, I see institution after institution founded and sustained by these patrons that contribute to the common good and foster communion. I’m not sure they’ve ever thought of themselves as “philanthrolocalists,” but may their tribe increase.
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.1 (Spring 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.