If words always had stable meaning, there wouldn’t be much difference between philanthropy and charity. “Philanthropy” comes from the Greek for “love of humanity.”  “Charity” comes from the Latin for “affection,” love of fellow man. Those who grew up with the King James Version of the Bible may know that its translators sometimes followed the Vulgate use of caritas as a Latin translation of the Greek word agape, rendering passages such as 1 Corinthians 13 as “charity” in the sense of “love.”

We live in a Humpty Dumpty age when words often lack steady meaning, however, becoming instead politicized playthings and avatars of wishful thinking. Divorced from their historical and etymological roots, they mean whatever various groups want them to mean. This context hints at why philanthropy is so different from charity today. As Jeremy Beer explains, “philanthropy invites us to see voluntary giving within a primarily technological and global rather than theological and local framework.”

His book is a cultural and ideological history of public giving in the United States. And it’s a concise analysis by a savvy thinker. (Full disclosure: Beer is president of the American Ideas Institute, the nonprofit publisher of The American Conservative.) He doesn’t just talk about the transition from personal charity on a local scale to institutional charity on a global scale, he also puts these changes into context—specifically, in terms of what’s been gained and, more often, lost. He does not hide his perspective: as someone who values tradition, community, and faith, he is a critic of the modern world of money-dispensing, corporate-created behemoths. Yet he is fair to those with whom he disagrees, and his tone is even-tempered.

Beer does not deal much with the famous philanthropists of our day, except for two telling asides in the introduction.  In one, he considers the rationale for the Gates Foundation’s decision to ignore the homeless people sleeping outside its $500 million headquarters in Seattle. Since homelessness is one of the foundation’s areas of focus, a spokeswoman was asked about the presence of dozens of homeless persons living within eyeshot.  She replied, “We’re trying to move upstream to a systems level to either prevent family homelessness before it happens or to end it as soon as possible after it happens.”

In the other aside, Beer tells of a son of Warren Buffett being in Africa and feeling bad about being begged to help a sick child while realizing that it wasn’t strategic for him to save individual lives. “It was a hard lesson to learn,” Buffett later told an interviewer. Beer comments, “No doubt the child’s mother felt the same way.” 

These small examples reveal the difference between professional philanthropy and personal compassion. The latter believes that actual individuals are more valuable than any abstraction, no matter how noble in theory. (Of course, in real life, the complexities go beyond a simple dichotomy.)

The Philanthropic Revolution observes that charity is a Jewish and Christian biblical concept. But in contrast, America’s “robber barons” of the 19th century emulated a notion of philanthropia with roots in pagan Greece and Rome, making use of philanthropy in a conspicuous way for purposes of prestige or political capital. Beer writes:

In directing their patronage toward clients who could help them; in ensuring that their philanthropy was visible and directed toward the public at large; and in making relatively little effort to succor the poor, sick, elderly, and enslaved, the ancient Greeks and Romans were not acting impiously. After all, no god of the Greco-Roman world demanded that one show charity toward the needy. Their suffering was of little if any interest to these deities.

Although Roman Catholicism comes off looking better than Protestantism throughout this book—fairly or not—Beer has a nuanced analysis of changes coming out of the Reformation. In the end, however, he finds that Martin Luther’s theology on purgatory, indulgences, and works tended to lessen the Christian imperative for almsgiving and concern for the poor.

But old habits died hard, even among Protestants. In America, the colonial and early republican periods exhibited a rather traditional approach to charity. We do not think of John Winthrop and the Puritans as soft-hearted humanitarians, yet they believed they owed the poor assistance as a matter of justice. According to Beer, the colonists were even “less hostile and more charitable toward beggars, the poor, and the homeless than official attitudes and laws might lead one to believe.”

Attitudes among American Christians began to change in the 1840s, when the eschatology of postmillennialism—the idea that the second coming of Christ would be triggered by widespread evangelism and social progress—gave impetus to notions of national uplift through large-scale movements. The same period brought growing Protestant nativism.

Protestants suspected that Catholics were using charity to gain power over people. Possessing a paternalistic, or often maternalistic, sense of ethnic and religious superiority, many Protestants looked down upon the poor immigrants of the big cities—first the Irish, later the Italians and Poles.

Government meddling into family life often led to the removal of children from the home, at the urging of well-intentioned “child-savers.” In reaction, nuns and other Catholics created their own more personal and family-centered institutions. Such hospitals and orphanages went against the “scientific charity” of the new philanthropy. There were some dissenting voices within Protestantism, but the dominant philanthropic do-gooders were “both profoundly coercive and supremely self-confident.”

The supposedly scientific approach to poverty gradually eclipsed the “sentimental” approach. A bureaucratized type of charity was seen as more efficient and respectable than things like soup kitchens and giving money to beggars. Traditionalists objected, arguing that “the new philanthropy was itself animated by the same spirit that animated the commercial society it intended to reform: the spirit of technology, concentration, and rationalism.” Or as Orestes Brownson put it, “Philanthropy is a mere natural sentiment; charity, a supernatural virtue.”

thisarticleappearsThe new wave of sociopolitical reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as William Graham Sumner, Theodore Roosevelt, and Margaret Sanger, had a “Social Darwinist” hostility toward practices like almsgiving. And the rise of major philanthropic foundations in this era coincided with the vogue for eugenics. “Far from being a distortion or betrayal of philanthropic logic,” Beer writes, “the eugenics movement … exemplified where that logic could lead if not moderated by the sometimes countervailing logic of charity.”

By way of counterexample, Beer praises those 20th-century figures who kept alive the traditional idea of charity, such as Jane Addams of Hull House, Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch of Greenwich House, and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Referring to the anthropologist James C. Scott’s analysis of the ideology of high modernism, Beer writes, “Rather than serving progress,” ideologically driven philanthropic institutions have “often only made things worse” through “centralization of authority and power.” In the last dozen pages of his book, Beer proposes what he calls “philanthrolocalism”—good concept, unwieldy name—which combines the best of the charitable and philanthropic traditions in order to promote “authentic human communion.”

Jeremy Beer has provided us with a worthy historical foundation for more specific analyses of modern philanthropy in the future. In evaluating The Philanthropic Revolution, I do have to deduct points for the lack of an index—it’s a brief book, which makes the oversight less serious, but an index would still be helpful. Yet that’s a small criticism of an important book.

Jeff Taylor is professor of political science at Dordt College and the author, with Chad Israelson, of The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin.