Philanthropy has generally been considered a good thing. The Greek roots of the word mean “love of mankind,” and who could be against that? But lately it has become controversial because of revelations about high-profile philanthropists.

An MIT fundraiser was fired because he dissembled about accepting millions from Jeffrey Epstein. Museums and other institutions that have taken donations from the Sackler family face outrage. After the passing of David H. Koch, many commentators broke the rule against speaking ill of the dead.

Critics raise varying issues in each case. With Epstein, it’s personal conduct. He was a sexual predator on a monstrous scale. The Sacklers, though not personally depraved, made billions by getting people addicted to Oxycontin. Koch used his fortune to warp the political process to allow him to make more money and pollute the environment. 

All three types of corrupt philanthropy are common, say the critics. It’s tainted money, and universities, museums and other supposedly worthy institutions are guilty of hypocrisy if they accept it. 

Let’s get real, writes syndicated columnist Froma Harrop: “If good institutions can use his [Epstein’s] money to advance good missions, go ahead.” 

Practically speaking, institutions can’t afford to be too picky. Given the low taxes and distribution of wealth in America, where the 400 richest people own more than the bottom 150 million, nonprofit institutions have to rely on the generosity of rich individuals. 

Not every nation does it that way. More than one Frenchman has explained to me the wisdom of France’s high taxes. The surplus money of the rich becomes the people’s money, and the people’s representatives decide how to spend it. So the French don’t have to grovel to billionaires all the time the way we Americans do.  

I suspect it doesn’t work out that well in practice. But as a system for funding a nation’s arts, education and social welfare, groveling to billionaires has its problems, too. Especially when the billionaires are not generous idealists but evil-doers trying to atone for or hide their past sins. 

Is it possible to make a lot of money in a blameless way? Balzac answered that question in the negative, unequivocally. “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” he wrote. Of course, he was

a Frenchman. 

But Harrop, an American, tends to agree: “Few of the fortunes that shower colleges, medical facilities and the arts...were made in squeaky-clean fashion.”  

Republicans dismiss such complaints as the whining of socialists who hate America. People who’ve made lots of money did so by providing what the public wants and needs. And they’re people of admirable character. Like President Trump.

But, as Republicans also like to say, mainstream American values descend from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Bible has some harsh things to say about wealth. 

One such troublesome quote came up in a Congressional hearing during the Depression. J. Pierpont Morgan was being grilled, and one of his questioners noted that the Bible said money was the root of all evil. Morgan countered, “The Bible does not say that. It says the love of money is the root of all evil.”

Congressmen were bemused to hear one of the richest men in the world make this nice distinction. Presumably, God approved of his having lots of money, as long as he didn’t love it. And what better way to demonstrate that than to give some of it away? 

Fundraisers have always worked on the uneasy consciences of the rich. The Catholic church financed construction of the great medieval cathedrals by selling indulgences. These were get-out-of-purgatory-early cards. The bishop would say to the baron, “For exercising le droit du seigneur over every bride in the village, you deserve 50 centuries in purgatory. But fork over the dough, and I’ll cut it to 25 centuries.” 

In addition to easing the private conscience, philanthropy also improves the public image. In a 14th-century church in Salisbury, England there is a “Doom painting.” It depicts Judgment Day, with the Lord dividing the saved from the damned. Many of them were real people who would have been recognizable to their contemporaries, so the painting was an indicator of public opinion. 

One figure is the madam of the town brothel, who purchased respectability by founding a hospital. Even in the after life, she’s up to her old tricks. Among the naked lost souls, she’s the only one who retains her clothing, and she’s offering a pot of ale to the devil. The artist’s sly joke is that with a timely gift, you can buy off Satan himself. 

Things haven’t changed that much in six centuries. More often than we like to think, philanthropy is just a higher form of money-laundering, and we’re willing to reward the rich givers with our esteem, just so long as they’re not as egregious as Epstein.