How Compassionate is Compassionate Conservatism?

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Bush family presidential advisor and author Doug Wead is credited with coining the phrase “compassionate conservatism” in his 1977 book, The Compassionate Touch. Journalism professor Marvin Olasky popularized it in Compassionate Conservatism: What it is, What it Does, and How it Can Transform America, published in 2000 with an introduction by President George W. Bush.

President Bush made compassionate conservatism a household term during his 2000 presidential campaign. The night before its official launch, he stated, “I am a fiscal conservative and a family conservative.

And I am a compassionate conservative, because I know my philosophy is optimistic and full of hope for every American.”

After he was elected president, he had this philosophy displayed on the official White House archives web site. During the first few years of his presidency, President Bush often referred to compassionate conservatism in his public speaking. Increasingly he called the United States a “strong and compassionate nation.” His visibility gave him the status of de facto leader of the compassionate conservatism movement.

President Bush’s commitment to compassionate conservatism seemed genuine as he personally increased funding of the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa and he greatly boosted support for faith-based charitable organizations (FBOs).

But to many, President Bush’s claims of compassion sounded hollow and hypocritical. American policy during his administration neglected global warming, growing domestic economic inequality, and the four million refugees produced by the United States-initiated Iraq war.

Many saw the slow and inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina as a lack of compassion on President Bush’s part. And for those who knew of his mocking Karla Faye Tucker, a born-again woman whose execution he ordered as governor of Texas, his claims of compassion would never ring true.

Pew public opinion surveys in 47 countries found that during the Bush presidency, world opinion of the United States plummeted because a majority viewed President Bush and America as self-serving. In other words, less than compassionate.

Politics, religion, and compassion
Olasky believes that the Bible teaches that those who have “turned away from God” to sinful ways do not deserve compassion until they have a change of heart. To Olasky, compassion is tough love. The poor may be given help, but they have to continually prove that they are taking steps to pull themselves out of poverty.

Some similarly see compassionate conservatism as a way to deal with humankind’s “original sin” and natural tendency toward laziness. They insist that any aid given to the poor be coupled with moral guidance.

Many compassionate conservatives believe that without the influence of faith-based organizations (FBOs), financial handouts are harmful because they create dependency and undermine self-sufficiency and thus are actually “uncompassionate.” Political scientist, Deborah Stone in the Samaritan’s Dilemma, summarizes that belief as, “Help is harmful.”

As President, George W. Bush funneled millions of dollars into FBOs to provide services for the poor and disenfranchised. These FBOs would not only help make government smaller by taking over one of its traditional roles, they would add much needed moral guidance to social services.

However, to the extent that social services for the poor are channeled only into FBOs or to those of a particular religious persuasion, the threat of unintentional discrimination in the delivery of these services remains. Critics of compassionate conservatism say that integrity and responsibility can be learned independent of religion and that the “missionary” mentality undermines the effectiveness of the help offered.

Compassionate conservatism is not limited to the United States. Since 2000, the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party, under the leadership of David Cameron, has been advocating a variation on the American movement that puts greater emphasis on environmental and social justice issues. The UK brand of compassionate conservatism is less allied with Christianity than in the United States.

Public vs. private sectors
From a practical standpoint, arguments by compassionate conservatives and others to shift more of the responsibility for social services away from government and toward the private sector are flawed-both the public and private sectors have a role to play.

The private sector in modern societies has never supplied more than a small fraction of the necessary resources to help those in need. Charitable donations and time volunteered have never satisfied anywhere close to the demand for these services, even in the United States, which has a relative high rate of formal volunteerism.

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow compiled an immense collection of interviews and surveys in order to compare three types of organizations-congregations, faith-based social service organizations, and nonsectarian social service agencies in Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society, published in 2006. He concluded that in general, all three types of organizations did a good job of delivering services to those in need.

Wuthrow’s conclusion caught the attention of FBOs because he also presented strong evidence that they, as well as nonsectarian agencies, made a contribution to the social capital of American society by recruiting middle-class volunteers and connecting them to a community of low-income citizens. Probably the most important of Wuthnow’s findings is that the three types of organizations, to a large extent, compensate for each other’s limitations, and otherwise work together as a system.

This is not to say that the system fully meets the needs of the impoverished-far from it. It is noteworthy that the clients of the FBOs are more satisfied with the quality of the services received than are the clients of nonsectarian social service agencies; however, this may be a consequence of the clients’ own religious affiliation.

Many conservatives don’t subscribe to compassionate conservatism because they believe that when government dollars are channeled through faith-based nonprofits and congregations, it is still government aid and hence supposedly demeaning to recipients and too costly for tax payers. To the extent, that compassionate conservatism discourages donations of any kind to those in need, it risks being less than fully compassionate.


Editor’s Note: This site seeks to be nonpartisan and to avoid taking sides with any particular religion. We will support and oppose specific policies, in so far as they are consistent or inconsistent with authentic compassion. It is our assumption that people of all political parties, religions, and intellectual traditions can be motivated to act compassionately.

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