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God’s Country


The words “compassionate conservatism” sound like and have often been dismissed as political rhetoric, a construction without intrinsic meaning, the Bush campaign’s adroit way of pitching the center, allowing middle-class voters to feel good about themselves while voting their interests. Former Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called them “weasel words.” Joe Andrews, the national chairman of the DNC, called them “a contrived copout.” “You can’t have these massive tax cuts and at the same time…be a compassionate conservative,” Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota told The New York Times. To the extent that the words were construed to mean anything at all, then, they were misunderstood to suggest a warmer, more generous, more ameliorative kind of conservative. “I’m a conservative, and proud of it, but I’m a compassionate conservative,” Senator Orrin Hatch told Judith Miller of The New York Times in March of 1981. “I’m not some kind of ultra-right-wing maniac, despite some portrayals in the press.” Former Governor Pete Wilson of California offered a still more centrist reading: compassionate conservatism, he was quoted as saying by The Washington Post, is “old-fashioned budget-balancing with spending for preventive health measures and protection of the environment, and a strong pro-choice position on abortion.”

This suggests a pragmatic but still-traditional economic conservatism into which many Americans could comfortably buy. Yet the phrase “compassionate conservatism” describes a specific and deeply radical experiment in social rearrangement, the aim of which was defined by Governor Bush, in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, with sufficient vagueness to signal the troops without alerting the less committed: what he meant by compassionate conservatism, he said, was “to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity.” Marvin Olasky, the journalism professor at the University of Texas who has been a Bush adviser since 1993 and is the author of the seminal work on the subject, The Tragedy of American Compassion1 (this was the 1992 book that Newt Gingrich received as a Christmas present from William J. Bennett in 1994 and promptly recommended to all Republican members of Congress), and of this year’s Compassionate Conservatism,2 has been more forthright. “Compassionate conservatism is neither an easy slogan nor one immune from vehement attack,” he advises readers on page one of Compassionate Conservatism:

It is a full-fledged program with a carefully considered philosophy. It will face in the twenty-first century not easy acceptance but dug-in opposition. It will have to cross a river of suspicion concerning the role of religion in American society. It will have to get past numerous ideological machine-gun nests. Only political courage will enable compassionate conservatism to carry the day and transform America.

The source of this “river of suspicion” and these “ideological machine-gun nests” becomes clear on reading the text, which is largely devoted to detailing a 1999 road trip during which Olasky, who before “God found me and changed me when I was twenty-six” had wrestled first with atheism (“I was bar mitzvahed at thirteen and an atheist by fourteen”) and then with the Communist Party USA (“What if Lenin is wrong? What if there is a God?”), introduces his fourteen-year-old son, Daniel, to anti-poverty programs in Texas, the Midwest, and the Northeast. The drift soon emerges. “God’s in charge,” a retired couple who run a community center in South Dallas tell Olasky and Daniel. “I had to learn that God’s in charge,” they are told by a former user of heroin and cocaine who now runs the day-to-day operation of a recovery center in Minneapolis. A teacher at an evangelical summer school in Dallas explains how “curriculum is cleverly tied” to a pending mountain field trip, for example by assigning “Bible passages concerning mountains, eagles, and hawks.”

Outside Houston, they visit “Youth-Reach Houston” and its founder, “Curt Williams, forty, who wears his long black hair pulled back in a pony tail” and who in 1984 “followed a pretty girl into a church and found welcome there…. Having hit bottom, he went to church and felt spiritually compelled to throw away his drugs and pornography.” In Indianapolis, they meet with Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, chief domestic policy adviser to the Bush campaign and a civic leader who had studied “the negatives (high taxes, red tape, bad schools) that drive middle-class people away from the city” and found the answer in “using his bully pulpit to promote Catholic schools,” since, as he tells Olasky and Daniel, “only hardened skeptics have trouble accepting that widespread belief in a Supreme Being improves the strength and health of our communities.”

Again and again, Olasky and Daniel learn of successful recoveries effected in one or another “have-not” program, which is to say a program prevented from receiving the funding it deserves for the sole reason, Olasky suggests, that it is “faith-based.” Again and again, they hear the same language (“hitting bottom,” “putting God in charge,” “changing one life at a time”), which is, not coincidentally, that of the faith-based Twelve-Step movement, from which a good deal of the “new thinking” on welfare derives. (Alcoholics Anonymous, according to James Q. Wilson, is “the single most important organized example of personal transformation we have.”)

Visiting a faith-based prison program outside Houston, the Olaskys meet Donnie Gilmore, who was “pushing thirty with a résumé of breaking into houses and stealing cars” when “his four-year-old daughter asked him about Jesus, and he realized he had never opened a Bible.” Gilmore then joined the “InnerChange” program (“Texas Governor George W. Bush gave the program a try, and state officials kept the American Civil Liberties Union at bay…”) developed by Prison Fellowship Ministries, which is the organization founded by Charles (“Chuck”) Colson after his release from the Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama and in which “the keys to success” are “God’s grace and man’s mentoring.” “I have a couple of editions of the Bible with me,” Colson reportedly said on the day he left for Maxwell to serve seven months of a one-to-three-year sentence for obstruction of justice in the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg. “That’s all.”

Repeatedly,” Olasky notes with approval, “Daniel and I had found that the impetus for a compassionate conservative program came out of a Bible study or some other church or synagogue function.” Both father and son are made “uneasy” by more secular programs, for example KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy, a charter school in Houston, where, despite the fact that it seemed “excellent,” its public nature meant that “students miss out on that added dimension,” i.e., prayer and Bible study. Similarly, in Minneapolis, they visit a Goodwill program that seems to be successfully introducing women to the basic workplace manners (be on time, answer the phone politely) needed to make the transition from welfare to work. “All of this was impressive,” Olasky allows, and yet, “as Daniel noted in comparing this helpful program to the faith-based equivalents we were seeing elsewhere, ‘The absence of interest in God is glaring.”’

This use of “faith-based” is artful, and worth study. Goodwill was founded by a Methodist minister and run during its early years out of the Morgan Memorial Chapel in Boston, which would seem to qualify it as based in faith, although not, in the sense that Olasky apparently construes the phrase, as “faith-based.” “Faith-based,” then, is, as Olasky uses it, a phrase with a special meaning, a code phrase, employed to suggest that certain worthy organizations have been prevented from receiving government funding solely by virtue of their religious affiliation. This is misleading, since “religiously affiliated” organizations (for example Catholic Charities) can and do receive such funding. The organizations that have not are those deemed “pervasively sectarian,” a judgment based on the extent to which they proselytize, or make religious worship or instruction a condition of receiving aid. This, the Supreme Court has to date maintained, would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the original intent of which Olasky believes to have been warped. “Daniel and I spent some time talking about what happened 210 years ago,” he writes. “There’s nothing about ‘separation of church and state.’ That was Thomas Jefferson’s personal expression in a letter written over a decade after the amendment was adopted…. The founding fathers would be aghast at court rulings that make our part of the world safe for moral anarchy.”

Olasky is insistent that the faith propagated by these “faith-based” organizations need by no means be exclusively Christian, and here we enter another area of artful presentation. “My tendency is to be inclusive,” he told the Los Angeles Times in July. “That can include Wiccans and Scientologists. If people are going to get mad at me, then so be it.” The goal of compassionate conservatism, he has written repeatedly, is “faith-based diversity,” a system in which the government would offer those in need of aid a choice of programs: “Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, atheist.” Perhaps because the theological imperative to convert nonbelievers runs with considerably more force among evangelical Christians than among Buddhists or atheists, most of the programs described in Compassionate Conservatism are nonetheless Christian, and, to one degree or another, evangelical. “All organizations, religious or atheistic, [had] the opportunity to propose values-based pre-release programs,” Olasky notes by way of explaining how Texas state officials “kept the American Civil Liberties Union at bay” on behalf of Prison Fellowship, “but only Prison Fellowship went all the way.”

In Philadelphia, Olasky and Daniel visit Deliverance Evangelistic, where John J. DiIulio Jr. “took his first steps toward faith in Christ” and where the pastor speaks of how “the ACLU is using and abusing” the First Amendment. They also visit the Bethel Community Bible Church, where they meet a paraplegic weight lifter who “sold drugs and saw no meaning to life until God grabbed him twelve years ago.” Now he runs the Bethel weight room, which is “used by forty men each week, with no payment or conditions for use except one: the men need to attend church, Bible study, or church counseling at least once per week.”

Some of the programs Olasky describes refuse to compromise their evangelical mission by accepting government funding (“the reason we’re here is that kids need to come to Christ”); others take the money, and devise ways of nominally separating it from the teaching mission. Olasky and Daniel for example visit “the praying tailback,” Herb Lusk, “the first National Football League player to use the end zone as the pulpit by crouching prayerfully following a touchdown.” As pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Lusk does accept government funding for the church’s welfare-to-work training program, but works around it: “‘No, we don’t talk about Christ during the training, but we promote our offer of a free lunch for participants, with Bible teaching during it.”’

Evangelism is central to everything we do,” Olasky is told by a Dallas woman, Kathy Dudley, who left her suburban home for the inner city, where she defines her mission as “discipleship.” “Early in the 1990s,” he reports, “one official offered her a $170,000 grant, but she asked, ‘If I take this money and hire a housing director, I will hire a Christian and expect a certain standard of behavior. If the director has sex outside of marriage, I will fire him immediately. Do you have a problem with this?’ Yes, the official told her. She spurned the grant.”

  1. 1

    Regnery, 1992. 

  2. 2

    Free Press, 2000. 

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