Ask people their opinions and they will freely give them. Ask about money and you will get a more guarded response. Many Americans are downright secretive about what they do with their money. That secretiveness itself suggests that uncomfortable truths may be discovered by following the money.

Jesus thought so. He assessed people's lives less by what they said ("Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say?") than by how they responded to him and, in particular, by how they handled money. ("One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.") "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also," Jesus predicted.

That is why I have been studying financial data—to try to listen to money talk about what kind of people we are. Particularly, I have tried to consider how Americans give money away. Charitable giving is as close as we can get to truly free financial behavior. You are not obligated to give (and lots of people don't). You aren't buying anything you need, like food or transportation or housing, or even anything you enjoy, like vacations or premium cable channels. You get nothing out of giving except the satisfaction of your soul. And so, giving shows something about a person's soul.

Rich Americans I grew up with a mythology of American small-town life that included "the rich banker." In my child's mind, society was composed of scatterings of poor folks (usually across the tracks), a wide band of hard-working ordinary people, and a very few unusual individuals who were rich. The rich were different from you and me: they lived in a nicer house, wore better clothes, and most of all, didn't have to worry about the price of ...

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