How interesting that, in the current presidential campaign, the income and charitable giving of candidates has become an issue.
Normally, we consider these topics personal ones, but the politics of resentment and guilt — and the odd Democratic strategy of attacking success, particularly Mitt Romney’s — have turned income and giving into national conversation.
Recently, ABC Nightly News revealed the top five states that lead the nation in charitable giving. Those states are Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina. Georgia was missing from the top five but always has been in the top 10.
We can safely surmise that Utah is high because of the presence and influence of the Mormon Church and its emphasis on individual giving. But what’s up with the other states, which are some of the poorest? Mississippi, the No. 2 giver, is the poorest in the nation, based on per capita income. So what do these statistics mean, particularly since they have held true for many years?
Do people in rural states give more, even though they have less? Has the Bible Belt remained buckled as far as giving goes? Does the agrarian life foster charitableness in a way that metropolitan life doesn’t? Are these “poor” states actually giving instead of “giving back?”
The answer to all of these questions is yes.
But why so? Why do 12 families spread up and down a 5-mile-long section of a country road tend to look out for each other better than six families stashed side by side in a suburban cul-de-sac? Why are they more charitable? Why do they make the top giver’s list?
In 1930, 12 intellectuals from Vanderbilt University compiled a book entitled “I’ll Take My Stand.” The authors argued that the agrarian life was superior to the nation’s, and particularly the South’s, creeping urbanization. They bemoaned the ills of industrialization, asserting that subsistence agriculture was better. To these men, rapid industrialization was having a destabilizing effect on families. City life was taking people from the soil, removing them from the early American values of self-reliance and thrift, causing them to be distant rather than close, and putting their minds on themselves rather than on others.
Keep in mind that these 12 Vanderbilt men, with their rural roots and values, all were erudite, cultured and widely respected writers and academics. Dubbed the “Nashville Agrarians” by the media, they called themselves “The Fugitives.” Before their deaths, most of the Fugitives forsook their anti-industrialization argument, recognizing its futility. They never forsook, however, their arguments for neighborliness and charitableness. One of the Agrarians, Allen Tate, long associated with the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., spoke frequently about the need for “agrarian kindness and charitableness.”
So what should we urbanites and suburbanites make of this? Shall we push back and claim (rightly) that our giving is our own business and nobody else’s? Will we acknowledge the distance that our close living quarters ironically have created between us and our neighbors? Can we not see that our houses have become enclaves to which we escape and shut the door after our busy days, instead of being welcoming places for neighbors or anyone else? After all, charitableness (giving) is not always about money, but about outlook or spirit.
The factual record reveals that former presidential candidate Al Gore, Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama are pitiful givers, while current candidate Mitt Romney is an outstanding, generous one. In his VP nomination acceptance speech, Paul Ryan stated that Romney designates 16 percent of his income to charitable giving. I’m glad he didn’t say Romney “gives back” since that phrase plays into the politics of guilt. “Giving back” is re-paying. Giving is giving.
I have never cared how much money a candidate makes. I say, let candidates be zillionaires, as long as they are men and women of character. And even if they are running for president, I don’t think it’s my business to see their income-tax forms. Why don’t we forget about how much money they make or have made, and ask how much they give? No, that would be impertinent, but you get my point.
Utah has many Mormons. The Southeast has many evangelicals. Sometimes, we do a thing because we have been taught to. Both Mormons and evangelicals are taught to tithe their incomes. This doesn’t mean that all of them do, nor does it mean that only Mormons and evangelicals give, but it does mean that the top five giver states are influenced by that terrible old thing called religion. Theological differences aside, this teaching and practice of giving has helped many people.
The Vanderbilt Agrarians are all dead, but if they knew that a presidential candidate was setting a good example of giving, they would be pleased.
Former state legislator Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school English teacher.