Whatever happened to compassionate conservatism?

This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily, May 16, 2018.

Remember “compassionate conservatism?” That was the movement in the 1990s that was supposed to transform conservatism by making it more humane and more concerned with the problems of the less fortunate.

In a cover story in the Atlantic’s April issue, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration, writes that “‘compassionate conservatism’ was designed to be a policy application of Catholic social thought—an attempt to serve the poor, homeless, and addicted by catalyzing the work of private and religious nonprofits.”

George W. Bush ran as a compassionate conservative, and the slogan was crucial to his victory in the 2000 presidential contest. There was an initial burst of activity, but then 9/11 happened, and the Bush administration became a war presidency. Domestic policy was put on the back burner and then taken off the stove, and after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, compassionate conservatism became a minor policy, as much a part of history as the Beveridge Report.

Could “compassionate conservatism” come back? Is it an idea that is relevant to our times, or is it a notion that shouldn’t be revived? That was the subject of a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute in March.[1]

The keynote speaker was Marvin Olasky, editor of World and a professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. Olasky has written many books, including one in 1999 called Compassionate Conservatism.[2] His most important book remains The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992), which showed how the Victorians did a fine job in fighting poverty and how their principles could be restored by treating the poor as individuals, not “clients,” and realizing that the problems the poor face are as much about morality as lack of income.[3]

Newt Gingrich read Olasky’s book, and when Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1994 Olasky became an informal adviser. George W. Bush became interested in these issues in 1995 when Texas regulators tried—and failed—to shut down Teen Challenge (now Adult and Teen Challenge) a faith-based method for fighting drug addiction.

Olasky distributed an article he wrote in 2001 for World about the best way the federal government could help faith-based charities. Evangelicals and their Congressional allies, including Rep. J. C. Watts (R—Oklahoma) and Rep. Jim Talent (R—Missouri) favored an increased tax credit for donations to poverty fighters. The White House, however, chose John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist and the author of several important books about poverty, to head the newly-created White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. DiIulio favored changing government regulations to increasing tax credits, and, according to Olasky, his opposition led to the tax credit bill quietly dying.

Ryan Streeter of AEI, who worked on faith-based initiatives in the Bush administration, noted that there were some efforts to help faith-based grantees smooth the path to getting government grants. But while the Obama Administration continued the faith-based effort, I understand it was re-oriented so that the program became one of finding religious allies to advocate for favored government programs.

This month, President Trump announced that he would continue the faith-based initiative of the two previous administrations, although the center in each agency would be renamed “Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives.”

Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, who also worked on faith-based issues in the Bush White House, notes in this post that the major change the Trump administration made was to remove a provision that would have found a service provider for anyone who objected to receiving services from a faith-based agency. According to Carlson-Thies, it’s likely this change was made because no one who got services from a government-funded faith-based provider during the Bush or Obama administrations objected to the service provider being faith-based.

But as AEI fellow Angela Rachidi noted, the efforts to reform the welfare state to accommodate faith-based groups remains a limited one. Welfare may have been reformed, but other government programs designed to assist the poor haven’t. Food Stamps may now be called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and a debit card may have replaced the stamp, but the lack of restrictions on getting this subsidy hasn’t changed very much in the last 40 years. Nor have any restrictions been placed on any other federal subsidy except for welfare.

Washington, however, can easily place roadblocks in the way of constructive nonprofits.

Christopher Fay is head of Homestretch, a Falls Church, Virginia nonprofit that takes homeless people and gives them the skills needed to get their own places to live and find jobs. (A recent interview with Fay is here.) In 1990 Fay was a sexton at Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City, which had a soup kitchen where volunteers doled out food each day to the indigent. One day, the volunteers didn’t showed up, and some people in the soup line leaped at the chance to do real work.

As Gerald Wisz noted in a 1994 article in The Freeman, Fay read an article by Marvin Olasky in Policy Review called “Our Miserly Welfare State,” that said that without imposing any limits on grants it would not be possible for a welfare state to serve everyone who wanted aid. You could give and give and it wouldn’t be enough. Far better to teach the skills they needed to enter the labor force.

So Broadway Presbyterian began a program to teach the poor culinary skills so they could get jobs at restaurants. The people Homestretch serves also have similar requirements, including saving 10 percent of their incomes. The people who join homestretch usually enter with debts and leave with savings.

But Homestretch doesn’t get government grants because of the strings imposed by the state. Fay said his nonprofit was involved in a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which was tasked to place 300 people in the labor force. Of the 300 nine got jobs, and eight of the nine were from Homestretch. The HUD bureaucrats placed Homestretch in last place because they imposed requirements on recipients of their aid that none of the other nonprofits had.

In my view, “compassionate conservatism” is a category error. It is good that faith-based organizations can compete for government contracts on an equal basis with their secular counterparts, but this is a small reform and not a large one. Such policies do little or nothing to increase individual charitable giving.

Conservatives should be compassionate, because compassion is a virtue, and conservatives should be virtuous. But the key to advancing compassion in America does not lie in reforms to federal contracting rules, but in Americans working with the tens of thousands of churches, synagogues, and nonprofits where thousands of poverty fighters do their small, but vitally important, part to make our country a better place to live.

Martin Morse Wooster†

Wooster was a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center. He is the author of three books: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute, 1994), The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor…
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