Bait and Switch

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.