What is Compassionate Conservatism and Can it Transform America?

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What is Compassionate Conservatism and Can it Transform America?

July 24, 2000 18 min read
Marvin Olansky

I'm glad to be back at the Heritage Foundation. In 1989, when I spoke here about "conservative compassion," I felt like the man in the old joke who's driving on the Beltway when his car phone rings. Answering, he hears his wife's voice urgently warning him, "Marvin, I just heard on the news that there's a car driving on the wrong side of the Beltway. Please be careful!" Marvin responds, "It's not just one car, honey, it's THOUSANDS of them!"

Now, many cars have changed direction. The word "compassion" from the 1960s through the early 1990s was a code word used by liberals. Newspaper articles defined a compassionate legislator as one voting for a welfare spending bill. Those opposing such bills were cold-hearted and, by definition, uncaring.

Some of that bias still remains, but more Americans are learning that compassion means with-suffering, "suffering with" a person in distress, developing close, personal ties. More people are understanding that the problem with the welfare state is not its cost but its stinginess in providing help that is patient; help that is kind; help that protects, trusts, and perseveres; help that goes beyond good intentions into gritty, street-level reality.

We need to talk about that reality because some pundits still see that phrase, "compassionate conservatism" as word candy for a campaign that seeks not to offend. I know that many of you here in this auditorium are beyond that, because we've talked in past years about the historical background. You know how programs that were challenging, personal, and spiritual proved their effectiveness a century ago. You know that some academics began claiming in the 1920s that the government should take over charity because professionalization and standardization were supposedly the secrets of success. You know that government programs over the years became enabling rather than challenging, bureaucratic rather than personal--that they attempted to ban God from the premises.

I won't go through that history today or spend much time cataloging practice. My goal today is to show that compassionate conservatism is not an easy slogan, that the practice of it is very hard, that only discernment and courage will make it a reality. My talk today will go through aspects of that hard practice very quickly, in two main sections: Call them poetry and prose.

The poetry is not greeting-card sentimentality but the poetry of valor, the charge of a light brigade, under-armed and outnumbered in America's inner cities. Real heroes await discovery there, and I want to briefly tell you about a few. Part two (Prose) will examine ways these heroes can be helped. Then I'll conclude with a quick summary of some basic principles.


If you want to understand why some of us care so much about compassionate conservatism, it's that we are moved by the people. My son Daniel traveled around with me last summer, and we saw heroes working in every area of human need. Let me mention several dealing with kids. Prince Cousinard over in the third ward of Houston, Texas, is a former professional baseball player whose home is now a refuge for kids abandoned by drug-dealing dads. There are kids all over--the door handles are worn out and the plumbing breaks down from overuse. Those kids don't have any dads at home, and some of them don't have functioning moms either.

Cousinard has a year-round program of baseball, basketball, football, leadership training, speech, drama, academic improvement, and Bible study. He draws kids off the street and teaches them about Christ. Under the established legal interpretations, that makes him ineligible to receive any support from government entities even though he's saving the lives of kids--and of those who would be their victims if these kids turned to drugs and crime.

Daniel and I remember the Fair Park Friendship Center in south Dallas. Summer and after-school education and evangelism programs make a huge difference for kids. We saw one group preparing for a trip to Colorado, with curriculum cleverly tied to the trip: They were learning math by computing travel distances, geology by studying mountains, and history by hearing about the development of the West. They studied Bible passages concerning mountains, eagles, and hawks. This was terrific, but the center was really run down, with some very old, donated computers with big floppy disks. I asked the man in charge, Rev. Stephan Broden, why he wasn't looking for government funding to expand the program. No way, no how would he accept any, he said. Because government funding would mean an end to teaching about Christ.

Under the established interpretations, he's right. The Fair Park Friendship Center limps along, doing wonderful but limited service, as thousands of children roam the streets after school and during the summer.

Daniel and I visited Lifeline Community Center in Indianapolis. It's in an old building with uneven floors, coming-up-at-the-edges vinyl tile, and walls wearing coatings of many colors. The building may not look like much, but it's the only real home for many children. The community center exists only because of Ermil Thompson, a thin, 69-year-old woman who worked her fingers to the bone for several years cooking and selling lunches to raise thousands of dollars to buy and convert an old, dilapidated house into the center. Why did she do it? Because she believes in Christ and wants kids to learn about Him.

Last summer, Miss Thompson had through her efforts much more than bony fingers; she had children sitting around a table in her center learning about Mount Vesuvius. They were drawing and thinking about explosions in worlds not their own. They were learning how to hope in a God who will always love them. More children should have that opportunity.The three examples I've given so far are all of Christian organizations, but groups based in Judaism, Islam, and other religions can also make a difference in children's lives. Overall, faith-based groups of various kinds are achieving much more than their well-financed secular counterparts. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote forty years ago about affluence in the private sector and government offices in cities that are starved for revenue. Today it's the opposite: government anti-poverty programs are the ones with new computers and color-coordinated furnishings.

Let me emphasize that I'm not suggesting anything like the Galbraith tendency to have the government rush in to redress perceived inequities. I relish the Texas joke about a young farm girl out milking the family cow. A stranger approaches and asks to see her mother. "Momma," the young lady calls out, "there's a man here to see you." The mother looks out the kitchen window and replies, "Haven't I always told you not to talk to strangers? You come in this house right now." The girl protests: "But momma, this man says he is a United States Senator." The wise mother replies, "In that case, bring the cow in with you."

I've found that most often government can be of the greatest help to struggling faith-based and community groups by getting out of the way. Government can help medical Good Samaritans in inner-city clinics by freeing them from a court-driven liability system gone mad. Government can help faith-based, anti-addiction groups, like Teen Challenge, by calling off the regulatory dogs, as Governor Bush did in Texas. Government can help faith-based homeless shelters in New York or a refuge for child prostitutes in Los Angeles by waiving irrelevant regulations.

Let me give one more example: Bethel Community Bible Church, located just several miles from where the Republican convention will be held in three weeks. The spirit of this little church is incredible. One young member, Ralph Rosario, was abandoned by his heroin-using, HIV-positive father. His mother and sister became crack addicts. Ralph, though, had the faith to stay clean and begin studying at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. With donated equipment, he has set up an audio-video office at the church, hoping to build a business.

Another member, Nimo Colon, is a paraplegic weight lifter. On drugs 19 years ago, he accidentally shot himself through the spine. Then he started selling drugs. He saw no meaning to life until God grabbed him 13 years ago. But now he's in charge of a small weight room that Bethel owns. Forty people trying to rebuild their lives use it, with no payment or conditions for use except one: The men involved need to attend church, Bible study, or church counseling at least once a week. I could tell many more stories, but the situation I want to stress is that of an accountant, David (Coz) Crosscomb, who came from Australia three years ago to become Bethel's director of economic development. He came to America not for streets paved with gold but to see what he could do about sidewalks covered with trash. He came deliberately to the poorest part of Philadelphia. He wants to materially resurrect several dead blocks.

You'd think he'd be a hero in Philadelphia, a city that's been in a tailspin for several decades, but instead he's getting discouraged in his dealing with Philadelphia's officials. Here's one instance why: Bethel wanted to buy a city-owned empty lot around the corner from it. Regulations stress that the city should sell property at market value, and right now, given all the abandoned homes and lots in that Kensington area, market value is not all that much. But Coz says the city balked at selling: "The city keeps asking, do you want this lot for the community or the church?" He says the officials "don't grasp that everything we do goes into the community."


That, in microcosm, is our national problem. The poetry of these programs--the fighting against long odds, the saving of lives, the faith amid trials--knocks my socks off. But there's little appreciation of that poetry in some liberal circles and some conservative ones as well. The question resounds, "Is something for the community or the church?"--and a river of suspicion runs through our cities, with religious and non-religious people pitted against each other.

Think about it. Pundits would instantly protest if any group, especially ones with terrific results, were discriminated against by government because of race or ethnicity. But we don't speak up when religious groups face such discrimination. We've come to believe in a "wall of separation" that requires discrimination against religious programs purely because they are religious.

Again, I don't want us to rush to funding questions. Compassionate conservatism means choosing the most basic means of bringing help to those who need it. The goal is to look within the family first. If the family cannot help, maybe an individual or group within the neighborhood can. If not, then organizations outside the neighborhood can be called upon. The goal should always be to improve information flow so that problems come to light and volunteers are more likely to come forward.

If it is necessary to turn to government, compassionate conservatives typically look 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 and auditoriums in government buildings should be available to community groups, including religious ones, on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Now that we are laden with so many regulations, a counter-bureaucratic group within government can also be helpful. Mayor Steve Goldsmith set up such a program in Indianapolis: the Front Porch Alliance. Here's how it worked: When a young minister had a vision of turning a drug dealers' alley across from his church into a park, everyone, except the dealers, thought it was a great idea. But there was a problem: 51 different governmental or private entities had some jurisdiction over that alley. The minister would have been stalemated, except that a Front Porch Alliance fellow got all the right forms and explained all the complexities so everyone could sign on the right dotted lines. The alley is now a park. The drug dealers are gone from the neighborhood (location, location, location is the dealers' motto). Crime and prostitution are down. Personal commitment--"suffering with"--carried the day.

But we also need to discuss prosaic matters of government funding, if it comes to that. I've discovered that people ask five questions about the funding aspects of compassionate conservatism: Is this trip necessary? Is it constitutional? Is it right in principle? How do you keep government from being taken over by religious groups? How do you keep churches from being taken over by government? Let me offer very brief answers to all five.

First question: Why be concerned about financing at all? This question leads me to contemplate the way that Americans have been trained for the past forty years to be passive taxpayers rather than active citizens. Our civic muscles are weak. It's far from clear that funds to deal with very large social problems will be adequate, apart from some government involvement. To me, the real question is not whether to but how to minimize the government's role while still getting the job done.

Second question: whether this is right within conservative principles has two answers. A pure libertarian would say no, just cut taxes drastically and let individual contributors choose. I have philosophical tendencies in that direction. But I also know the reality of our inner cities and the great needs there, and even if you don't grasp that, let's talk about political realities. I've been reading about British Conservative Party leader Benjamin Disraeli, who observed that paying attention to political reality, as opposed to spinning abstract theories, is a conservative principle. I don't see a likelihood of great reductions in expenditures anytime soon. I've learned from Philadelphia preacher Herb Lusk. When asked whether taxpayer money can go to faith-based organizations, he says, "I'm a taxpayer. It's my money."

Third question, concerning constitutionality. This question brings out a divide between strict and loose constructionists. Strict constructionists know from the debates of the 1780s that the goal of the founders, with the exception of one major leader, was to provide freedom for many religions rather than freedom from all religion. They know that the goal was to keep any one denomination, like the Church of England, from becoming the established religion. They know that the phrase "wall of separation" is found not in the Constitution but in a private letter written in 1802 by the one major leader with a secular mindset, Thomas Jefferson. They know that a Supreme Court with a loose constructionist majority brought up that phrase almost a century and a half later.

Fourth question: How to keep government from being taken over by a religious group or groups is a thoroughly modern question, but has a Madisonian answer. Two plus centuries ago, 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 other, should also be a source of comfort to anyone who fears a religious cabal. No religious group has very much power, and there's nothing to fear except fear itself. Religious liberty does not demand protectionism. We can have a free trade in ideas.

The fifth question is the hardest: how to keep faith-based groups from coming under the sway of government. I've written about this danger. I've shown how in my own town of Austin government grants quickly turned one faith-based group into a government look-alike. Ministers who aren't concerned about this are 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."

Faith-based groups can gain two protections, one in the way government financing is structured, and one in the way that offers of government help should be received. Here's the basic funding rule for church-state interaction: always choose the method that can best protect the independence of faith-based groups. My own preference is for tax credits--send a check for $500 to a poverty-fighting charity, faith-based or not, and send $500 less to Washington.

Vouchers are second best because it's still individuals, not government officials, deciding which religious groups (or non-religious groups) are doing the best job. Direct grants are third. These have to be handled with great care. 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.

My suggestions for such a code would be along these lines: Consider government grants only if you are unlikely to get needed funds some other way. Consider government grants only if officials have pledged never to monkey with the content of faith-based groups. Never accept government money for the essential core of a program. Never take money for overhead. Strictly separate government money from other accounts and other employees.

If problems do arise, religious groups should get information out to publications that will cover them (like World magazine) and think tanks that would be sympathetic. For example, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty--I'm a senior fellow there--has people devoted to backing both religion and liberty.


I have seven adjectives from A through G to define compassionate conservatism: Assertive, Basic, Challenging, Diverse, Effective, Faith-based (not always but often), and Gradual. I discuss each one in greater detail in my new book, Compassionate Conservatism .

Compassionate conservatism is the opposite of a wimpy doctrine; it emphasizes a renewal of citizen assertiveness . As the preamble to our Constitution says, we should provide for the common defense but promote the general welfare. Promoting means working to create a good environment for volunteers to come forward.

Basic , which I've already discussed, is my two-syllable way of saying that six-syllable word,

I do need to spend a minute on challenge . The tendency of affluent Americans has been to turn poor people into pets: give them food and an occasional pat on the head. Over time bad charity has tended to drive out good because people given a choice of pampering or needed pressure generally take the easy route. But if we consider the good of others as more important than our own ease, we challenge clients (and ourselves) to stretch self-perceived limits. Compassionate conservatives do not merely give the poor a safety net. We need to provide trampolines. The affluent need to stretch limits also: It's easy to write a check, but hard to check pride and arrogance at the door when dealing with those who don't get much respect, or to travel to a part of town that is outside the middle-class comfort zone.

Diverse is also vital to define, because some people have talked about compassionate conservatism as an attempt to set up a monolithic theocracy of some kind. In reality, the exact opposite is true: Right now we have a one-size-fits-all system. The compassionate conservative goal, however, is to offer a choice of programs: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, atheist, whatever. Some programs may emphasize education, some family, some work. No one is to be placed in a particular type of program against his will. There must always be a secular alternative.

Effective is relatively easy to understand. The goal is to ask tough questions: Does a program have a success rate that can be quantified? Is the amount that a group spends per person sensible in relation to services offered and their outcome? Does a group mobilize community strengths by efficiently using volunteers? The two bottom lines of helping organizations--lives changed and funds used efficiently--both need assessment.

Faith-based often (but not always) . Heritage and other groups have publicized research studies showing that church attendance tracks closely with lower drop-out rates, less drug use, and fewer crimes committed. Faith-based organizations teach self-esteem and respect for laws by teaching that we are esteemed by a wonderful God who gives us standards for conduct. But let me insist: Compassionate conservatism is not a code expression for Christian first. Every religion and non-religious program should compete on a level playing field, and no one should ever be forced into any kind of religious or secular program against his will.

Gradual: This is a historian talking, a historian who saw the over-promising of the 1995 "Republican revolution." We need to check on what works, and what does not, each step of the way. A typical process (to use a Texas example) would be to start with one faith-based prison program, check results, and then expand it if graduates of that program have a reduced rate of recidivism. Our goal throughout should be gradual, sustainable change, rather than a revolution to be quickly followed by counter-revolution. Remember: The welfare state started growing in the 1920s, and over a 70-year period, Americans were taught to be taxpayers rather than citizens. It will take years to resurrect understandings of what it means to be a citizen, someone who is neither his brother's keeper nor his brother's despiser, but someone who expects to help.

I leave you with a question I've asked around the country over the past five years. If you were given $500 that you had to give to a poverty-fighting group of some kind--governmental, religious, community, whatever--how many of you would send it to the federal government, to Donna Shalala? How many would send it to a state or local government? How many of you know of a poverty-fighting charity that would spend the $500 more effectively than the government? Since that's the case, why don't we set up a tax-credit system that would give more resources to those groups?

If nearly all of us would choose to direct funds to groups not controlled by government, why must we collectively direct our funds to groups that are under governmental control? Why not find new ways to aid organizations with strong track records in fighting alcoholism and drug addiction, tutoring children, or motivating ex-cons to avoid further trouble?

Why not? Well, it's easy to maintain the status quo, a wall of separation, with a world on one side where people can have a robust discussion of religious beliefs, and a world of fear on the other side. It will take political courage to develop ways in which religious liberty can be protected for service providers, for clients, for everyone. We need a code of ethics for both faith-based groups and officials. We need a consensus favoring a level playing field for all groups.

We need a separation of church and state but not a wall. As a consensus develops on this matter, we should say to the Supreme Court, Tear down that wall of separation! And it's time right now to say to our fellow conservatives, tear down the wall that sometimes has separated our minds from our hearts! Warm hearts and tough minds, working in unison, can transform America.

Marvin Olasky is Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a Senior Fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is the author of more than a dozen books of history and policy analysis, and the editor of World, a weekly news magazine from a Christian perspective.


Marvin Olansky