On Compassionate Conservatism

In April I had the privilege of sitting in a meeting where Marvin Olasky, editor of WORLD magazine and author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, met with a dozen or so leaders of inner-city ministries in Indianapolis. He had featured several of these organizations in another of his books, Compassionate Conservatism (see Chapter 3 “Indianapolis: How Government Should Work,” especially pages 65-80), which was published in 2000 and has a foreword by our current president when he was still governor of Texas. In essence he was revisiting these ministries, as the presidency of Mr. Bush draws to a close, to evaluate the impact of the compassionate conservative movement on them.

Mr. Olasky told us that the conservative movement has in large part been a failure. He believes it has failed because the approach by the current administration in Washington has been contrary to the core principles they claimed to represent. Rather than using poverty-fighting tax credits or vouchers to decentralize such things as care for the needy and education, more and more government control has been enacted. The lack of the use of the veto by the president has bloated the budget. The war in Iraq has led to an increase in government power. These factors and others have caused compassionate conservatism to be sneered at as empty rhetoric rather than embraced as a good governing philosophy. Mr. Olasky even painfully joked that he may write another book entitled The Tragedy of Compassionate Conservatism.

One of the fascinating facts Mr. Olasky offered to show the impact of government programs on the work of private charities in caring for the poor was a study by Jonathan Gruber on church charity from 1929-1939. He noted that following the great Stock Market Crash of 1929, despite the huge economic hardships the nation faced, there was no decrease in charitable giving. However, later during the New Deal, as federal programs arose to provide relief, the church’s charitable giving decreased 30%. Gruber’s research substantiates what many would expect. If the government takes over care of the needy, the church will do less and less.

The impact of this is spiritually devastating. As Americans continue to turn from God to men who act as gods, and trust in princes for their piece of the pie rather than the Prince of Peace, the church will find it more and more difficult to capture hearts for the gospel. Especially among the poor with whom we work, we find their dependency on government programs and their immediate looking to a public agency to meet yet another crisis they have encountered make them hardened to Christ. So what are we to do?

Since Jesus Himself has commissioned the church to care for the needy and will judge us accordingly (Matthew 25:31-46), we must by example show true compassion for the poor. The church must never forsake that role. Yet we cannot stop in simply ministering to the poor. The church must not only be found muscling its way to the front lines in the war on poverty, but as we do so we must also, through preaching, praying, persuading and proving to elected officials our resolve, win the war for poverty. The church must become so effective in doing what Christ created it to do, and so able to demolish arguments raised against it, that the government learns it is best to step aside and get out of our way.

For could another reason that compassionate conservatism has failed be that the church has been too conservative with its compassion?

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