Confused about compassionate conservatism?

Effective Compassion | Explaining the concept to liberal Americans and traditionalist Italians
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 2/01/20, 01:48 pm

As WORLD’s Effective Compassion podcast continues in its weekly installments, I’d like to take us back 20 years to a time when “compassionate conservatism” was getting huge attention due to presidential candidate George W. Bush’s embrace of it, but widespread confusion remained about what this new idea was all about.

Here were two attempts to explain compassionate conservatism, first in the Austin American-Statesman to a liberal American audience concerned about the potential establishment of religion, and second in Ideazione, an Italian magazine, to traditionalists who were puzzled by this new/old idea.

Part 1: Avoiding the bear hug

Anyone who thinks the process of revising church/state relations will be easy is like the preacher who realized he was out of ammo as a ferocious bear charged at him. The preacher prayed, “Lord, please forgive me and grant me just one wish … please make a Christian out of that bear that’s coming at me.” That very instant, the bear skidded to a halt, fell to its knees, clasped its paws together, and began to pray aloud: “Dear God, bless this food I am about to receive.”

Government has a voracious appetite and a history of eating up religious groups. Recognizing that, we should not rush to funding as the way government can best promote the general welfare by providing a good environment for faith-based programs. Subsidiarity is vital: Look first to the family, then to community organizations. If it is necessary to turn to government, turn first to city, then to county, then to state, and only then to federal offices—and in each case, the cry should be, “Back to basics.”

For example, a group that protects teenage ex-hookers from pimps should have adequate police protection. An inner-city baseball league sponsoring a tournament for teens should have police on hand to dissuade gang violence. Now that many governments have grown so large, they can be of enormous help by making facilities available to the people who have paid for them. A local government, instead of setting up a recreation program, should let volunteer groups do the job on city-owned land. City parks should be available for vacation Bible schools. Meeting rooms in government buildings should be available to community groups, including religious ones, on a non-discriminatory basis.

We need to try many alternatives before arriving at direct government funding of faith-based groups.

So, we need to try many alternatives before arriving at direct government funding of faith-based groups. But when we do arrive at that point—and we will in some situations—we need to avoid both corruption of religious charities by government and a government takeover by a religious group or groups. The concerns about takeover by religion are thoroughly modern but have a Madisonian answer.

Two-plus centuries ago James Madison turned conventional analysis on its head by seeing the numerous factions within a large country not as a danger but as a source of strength. Today, the growth of secularism in America, along with the development of thousands of different religious groups that are often antagonistic to each, should also be a source of comfort to anyone who fears a religious cabal.

The other bear hug—government squeezing faith-based groups—is more likely unless those groups develop a code of ethics. First, they should strive for the most protective method of receiving financial help. Tax credits for poverty-fighting are best: Send a check for $500 to a poverty-fighting charity, faith-based or not, and send less money to government.

That’s safest for religious liberty because government never gets the money in the first place, and thus is restrained in giving orders. Working through the tax code allows individuals rather than bureaucrats to evaluate activities. Faith-based groups do not have to lobby government officials year after year. Vouchers are second best, because then it’s still individuals, not government officials, deciding which religious groups (or non-religious groups) are doing the best job.

Charitable choice direct grants are third. These have to be handled with great care, and I hope that evangelical groups such as Prison Fellowship, and their orthodox counterparts in other religions, will put together a conference to develop a code of ethics for faith-based grant recipients. I’d start the code with this prime stipulation: Consider government grants only if officials have agreed never to monkey with the content of faith-based groups. The official at the top is crucial: He needs to have made a commitment to defend faith-based groups against bureaucrats. Evangelicals especially should take no money unless evangelism is allowed.

In addition, since sympathetic public administrators are sometimes followed by hostile ones, faith-based groups should never accept government money for the essential cores of their programs. They should never take money for overhead, including the salaries of the group’s leaders, because that has proven to be enormously corrupt. They should never go along with politicians taking photo-op credit for particular grants.

Churches, synagogues, and mosques should also create firewalls around their program cores by separating government money from other accounts and other employees. Those hired for government-funded positions should be informed that the positions are temporary. Churches (and their equivalents outside Christianity) should take no money directly; they should set up a social welfare affiliate to do the job.

Finally, if a church gets clobbered by government, others need to come to its defense. In the magazine I edit, WORLD, we will publicize government attempts to subvert religious organizations, and do the best we can to stop them.

Part 2: From ancient Rome to modern America, and Italy

In many ways, compassionate conservatism means putting into modern practice what the Christians of ancient Rome understood. When an impoverished person came to them they gave him three days to rest; then, if he was able-bodied, they expected him to work. That should be our attitude today, both for the good of the individual and the good of society: short-term help for those in need, long-term challenge.

Today, we are learning anew that easy provision of welfare can hurt those we think we’re helping.

Americans in the 19th century put into practice that early Christian understanding. Our 19th-century predecessors understood that someone who is poor is not at the bottom of the ladder but at the middle: He could move upward and leave poverty or he could descend downward into pauperism and dependency. Today, we are learning anew that easy provision of welfare can hurt those we think we’re helping. We’re also seeing that if we give welfare to those able to work, we waste resources in time and money that could otherwise go to people who desperately need help.

Americans in recent years are also relearning the importance of distinguishing among different groups of the needy. I’d suggest three major categories, although the boundaries aren’t firm:

  • Category 1 includes those who are poor because of the mysterious workings of God’s providence. Among them are widows, orphans, and the ill or injured. The Bible clearly emphasizes help to these.
  • Category 2: Those who are poor because of their own lack of effort. Proverbs is certainly scathing concerning sluggards, and we should challenge all such persons to work. Some may become prodigal sons who see the consequences of irresponsibility and come home.
  • Category 3 includes those who are poor because of injustice, and that is sometimes hard to define. It is not unjust to be wealthy because of hard work, or even the hard work of one’s parents—we are supposed to give legacies to our children. I do not know what is unjust in Italy, but what is unjust in America is that free, government-provided schools in some poor areas do not do a good job—and thus their graduates are unable to compete for good jobs in an advanced economy.

When there is injustice, compassionate conservatives advocate structural changes. In the United States, Christian and other tuition-charging schools are usually much better than government schools, but sometimes parents cannot afford the tuition and their children have no alternative to a poor school. Compassionate conservatives in the United States want government to provide vouchers so that poor parents can choose among the schools in their area, instead of being confined to one.

Neither Biblical justice nor compassionate conservatism favors redistributing income in the abstract, or flinging money at random, for if a person who works hard is forced to support a person who could work but does not, that’s injustice. At the same time, though, we should remember that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” My understanding of Christianity is that all of us naturally are dead in our sins, totally dependent on unmerited grace, so we pray that Jesus will shower us with it. In that sense, at times we should also offer unmerited help—as long as we do it in a way that blesses rather than curses.

A big problem with charity in America is that some givers are unintentionally emulating Buddhist patterns.

A big problem with charity in America is that some givers are unintentionally emulating Buddhist patterns. That may surprise some readers, so let me explain. At the University of Texas, I teach journalists about religion, and so had in my classroom last year a Buddhist monk who said this about charity: “The cause of dukkha [which means suffering] is tanha [craving] and in order to be free from dukkha, we have to eradicate attachment. In order to give charity, we have to renounce our attachment to particular possessions. Only then can we give a donation. The purpose of donation here is the renunciation of attachment.”

I’ll repeat that: “The purpose of donation here is the renunciation of attachment.” The basic goal of Buddhist charity is to help the giver, and it doesn’t matter all that much what happens to the recipient. If we are honest, doesn’t much charity in the United States (and in Italy as well) accomplish the same purpose of making the giver feel better or more righteous, without great concern as to whether we’re helping or hurting the recipient?

The Biblical emphasis is different. Charity is not about the giver feeling proud for renouncing attachment. It’s about helping the recipient maintain or develop responsible behavior.

The Bible opposes any enabling of people to live in ungodly ways.

Look at the way that even church aid to widows is carefully fenced by the Apostle Paul in Chapter 5 of his first letter to Timothy. “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.” What does it mean to be really in need? To Paul, it means lacking family, for “If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.”

When widows have no children or grandchildren, Paul continues, they are eligible for aid, but he emphasizes that “No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.”

This passage is especially striking because Paul is talking about the class of suffering people who are nearest and dearest to God—and look at the precautions he takes when recommending even aid to widows within the church: first, family responsibility; second, help to those too old to help themselves; third, help to those who demonstrate good character. From all this, we learn much about the particular problem of helping widows in the church, but we should also draw a logical conclusion: How much more so should we be careful before putting others on the list?

Give, but give thoughtfully—that is the Biblical injunction. The principle of our programs should be that of physicians: Do no harm. We should not enable the alcoholic or drug addict to continue in his habit. We should not help the person fleeing from responsibility to continue running. That’s not Biblical justice. That’s not delivering others from evil but delivering them to evil. That is not loving our neighbors as ourselves—unless we are masochists.

Give, but give thoughtfully—that is the Biblical injunction.

Charitable programs should not turn people away. Instead, they should set standards and let people who don’t want to meet them turn themselves away. For example, if we’re helping a person to find a job, the recipient of help needs to show up on time and have a good attitude: If he does not, he is removing himself from help. In 19th century America, homeless shelters typically had woodpiles next to them, and men who were able-bodied were asked to chop wood for an hour. (Shelters typically had sewing rooms for women.) If a person refused to work, he did not eat—Paul’s familiar injunction to the Thessalonians came to life. Those who would chop or sew received food and shelter and then help in looking for employment.

Finally, we should remember the difference between poverty fighting in a place like the United States and poverty fighting in places of desperate need, such as Africa. People who are starving need food, no questions asked. People who are sick need medicine. People who are naked need clothing. In the United States, even poor people already have those basics, so we are normally confronted with people who need to take the next step, the step from poverty to economic independence.

That’s why, in the United States (and in Italy?), we must pray for the showering of God’s grace that will change thinking and in that way open the individual to leaving behind bad habits. That’s why it is important to look at each individual and see what’s holding that person back. If it’s lack of education but a desire to get more, compassionate conservatives provide help. If it’s a crisis pregnancy, compassionate conservatives help a woman to continue her pregnancy instead of getting an abortion. If a person wants to work, compassionate conservatives help him find a job. But if the desire to advance isn’t there, compassionate conservatives cannot supply it, and providing material week after week is likely to cause more harm than good.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Sat, 02/01/2020 06:07 pm

    It would be wonderful if everyone involved in giving out aid, whether government or otherwise, would take to heart what you have written. 

    A number of our problems stem from people who have become accustomed to expect help with no effort to help themselves. 

  •  Settles's picture
    Posted: Sat, 02/01/2020 08:35 pm

    At the risk of dredging up history, I'm reminded of Lenin's war against the Church in Russia. He maintained that until the Church was prohibited from offering charity, the Church would maintain its "hold" on the people. Perhaps that's a major reason the US government has exerted such extraordinary effort to eliminate or to co-opt the Church's effort to succor the poor.

  • RT
    Posted: Sat, 02/01/2020 11:26 pm

    Thanks for this insight. I will read it to my children on Monday before we begin classes. They like reading World magazine as well and will be familiar with the source of this instructive article.

  • DS
    Posted: Thu, 03/05/2020 12:04 pm

    IMHO, the key planks of a new Compassionate Conservative policy agenda should be:
    1) Wage subsidies for citizens and legal immigrants.  In other words, give poor people more financial support from the government the more hours they work.  This is the "compassionate conservative" way to raise the minimum wage without destroying jobs or penalizing employers.

    2) School choice scholarships for all. Give all parents the economic freedom/ability to choose a good school for their children.  The is the "compassionate conservative" answer to calls for ever larger public school budgets.

    3) Require corporations to give employees ~10% of their pay in company stock.  This helps to correct the injustice of very low wage workers contribuiting to billion dollar windfalls for investors while not getting any share of the profit that they helped produce.  This is the "compassionate conservative" answer to the problem of corporations not caring about their employees (now if they lay people off they are laying off stockholders - in other words all stakeholders are now stockholders).

    4) Reform health insurance by making it function like auto or home insurance - if there's a non-emergency health problem, the sick/injured person gets an unbiased diagnosis and on the basis of that diagnosis their insurance company writes a check for the average amount of being treated for it (e.g. prescription drugs, surgery, etc.).  The patient then can shop for the highest quality, lowest cost provider and spend some of all of their check on their condition, and anything they don't spend they get to keep.  This will dramatically lower health care costs and increase health innovation for all people, including the poor.  This is the "compassionate conservative" answer to calls for universal government healthcare.

    5) Lower the zoning barriers to building small housing units.  For instance, encourage people to build small homes in their large back yards, encourage the creation of mobile home or tiny home parks, and encourage the builders of apartment buildings to build a percentage of their aparments as studios or small one bedrooms.  This is the "compassionate conservative" answer to government housing projects and their legacy of failure.