Bait and Switch

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A
year ago the Intercollegiate Studies
Institute
held a conference in Indianapolis on the theme of
"Compassionate Conservatism." The event put some intellectual
flesh to the bare bones of the slogan. Dr. Marvin Olasky, the originator
of the term itself, was there and explained precisely what it meant:
pulling back state-imposed restrictions on religious charities.
Church-run soup kitchens, Olasky told us, gave the homeless food
but could not give them Bibles. Attached to any federal money such
charities received were regulations preventing them from proselytizing.
Compassionate conservatism, in this instance, would mean abolishing
those regulations.

This
was something an anti-statist could support. There was no talk of
new spending, no mention of increasing the number of religious charities
accepting federal funds. The impression I received was that groups
that were already receiving the money would simply be set free to
fulfill their primary mission at the same time: saving souls. Olasky's
idea, as I understood it, was sound.

Sadly
that idea has since been perverted. Somewhere along the line a bait
and switch occurred, and what was an anti-regulation proposal turned
into an excuse for more spending and – it follows spending
like night follows day – more regulation. Indeed, the Washington
Post reports
that even as Bush expands the number of federal
projects that religious groups can participate in, he retains the
requirement that faith based groups "segregate their religious
and service messages."

It's
exactly the opposite of what Olasky originally suggested. Sure enough,
the Bush plan would increase church participation in government
programs, but it would actually remove the religious content. Churches
might be able to do more, but at the cost of their very purpose,
which is not simply to fill stomachs. Every hour a religious person
spends helping with a state-sponsored charitable program is an hour
in which he cannot spread the good news about his faith. It's one
more hour spent working for the State and one less hour working
for God.

Many
religious conservatives, and religious people of all ideologies,
oppose this scheme and will not take part in it. In that sense there's
a limit to how much damage it can do, although if this initiative
causes any erosion of religious sentiment it will already have done
too much. There is however another danger here, even on top of the
spending, increased regulation and temptation to the churches. There
is also the problem that this initiative is warping conservatives'
minds.

As
usual, National Review Online provides us with a good example.
Take a look at what Michael
Long wrote recently on NRO
:

"Is
our goal as conservatives to help people in need, or is it simply
to diminish the role of government without assuming the burden
of helping our fellow man?

Notice
that Long takes it for granted that "assuming the burden"
means supporting another government program, Bush's faith-based
initiative. It doesn't occur to him that we can assume the burden
without any help from Big Brother. Either that, or he's taking a
leaf from the Left's playbook and equating opposition to a government
program with being anti-poor. Later Long writes, "faith in
market's does not relieve us of the burden of coming to the aid
of others in distress." Who ever said it did?

Most
of all though, Long just doesn't get it. He has missed Olasky's
essential point. Ladling soup doesn't do much to help the poor.
What does help is repairing the spirit. Real compassion isn't giving
a man free food, it's leading him to religion. Religion, which is
the one element of a "faith-based charity" that isn't
allowed into the Bush plan.

By
the way, Long's byline identifies him as "director of the White
House Writers Group
." It's a pretty good example of the
movement of political values into private life that I briefly alluded
to in my
last article
. And for that matter what George Orwell called
"Newspeak." Taking political spin from the White House
to Wall Street to main street. And into your head.

The
phrase "compassionate conservatism" was coined to say
that conservative opposition to the State and its programs did not
mean a callous disregard for the poor and needy. But now, how do
we explain that opposition to this spurious "compassionate
conservatism" doesn't amount to hard-heartedness? The words
themselves have been perverted as thoroughly as the idea. That's
probably for the best, since most committed conservatives were never
too keen on the term. But it does mean that conservatives (and other
anti-statists) are back to square one, only now some of the statists
who are calling us hard-hearted for opposing socialism have the
temerity to call themselves "conservatives" – compassionate
conservatives, that is.

March
15, 2001

Daniel
McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University
in St. Louis.

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