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Craig von Buseck
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Compassionate Conservatism: It's The Big Idea

By Craig von Buseck Contributing Writer

CBN.comAfter the speech by Senator John McCain to the Republican Convention, a disappointed Chris Matthews of CNBC quoted Democratic advisor James Carville; "Winning in politics means having big ideas." Turning to his fellow analysts Matthews asked, "What's the big idea in this convention?"

That has been the often-repeated mantra of the Democrats and much of the media. "It’s all still at the level of symbolism rather than substance,” Mark Baldassare, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California commented to Newsweek.

In his book, Compassionate Conservatism, Marvin Olasky, disagrees with Baldassare's assessment, pointing out that the political philosophy espoused by Governor Bush not only has substance, it has results that can and must be quantified.

And Compassionate Conservatism is the big idea of the Bush/Cheney ticket.

"Compassionate conservatism seeks local, grass-roots solutions to problems," Olasky explains. "It harnesses armies of compassion that tend to spring up spontaneously where they are needed, as long as bureaucrats don't get in their way."

The cynicism of most journalists, according to the author, "comes from a belief that conservatives by definition have little or no interest in helping the poor, so anyone who does show interest must be a closet liberal or a clever hypocrite." Thus we have the pundits scratching their heads and wondering what all this talk of compassion is about -- after all, these are the Republicans, right?

As he confronted the press with the concept of compassionate conservatism, Olasky discovered that they often had two sets of questions. First, they wanted a list of principles that compassionate conservatives generally embraced. To help explain the concept to skeptical and curious journalists, Olasky came up with a list of values that he calls the ABC's of Compassionate Conservatism:

Assertive -- "Alexis de Tocqueville was astounded to see Americans forming associations to fight poverty and other social ills rather than waiting for government to act. Recently, however, many Americans have become better mannered, meekly paying taxes and expecting a paternalistic government to fight poverty.

Basic -- "Compassionate conservatives choose the most basic means of bringing help to those who need it. The goal is to look within the family first; if the family cannot help, maybe an individual or group within the neighborhood can; if not, then organizations outside the neighborhood but within the community should be called on. If it is necessary to turn to government, compassionate conservatives typically look first to municipal, then to county, then to state, and only then to federal offices."

Challenging -- "Compassionate conservatives do not merely give the poor a safety net that may turn into a hammock; they provide a trampoline … The goal is to have the affluent stretch their limits also."

Diverse -- "The compassionate conservative goal is to offer a choice of programs: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and atheist. Some programs may emphasize education, some family, some work. Compassionate conservatives make sure that no one is placed in a particular type of program against his will, but they also try to make sure that religious people are free to communicate their values."

Effective -- "Does a program have a success rate that can be quantified? The two bottom lines of helping organizations -- lives changed, funds used efficiently -- need assessment."

Faith Based -- "Judging by the historical record and contemporary testimony, well-managed, faith-based programs are more effective in fighting poverty, on the average, than their non-religious counterparts. For civil rights reasons also, the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom for religion should not be taken to mean freedom from religion."

Gradual -- "The pragmatism of compassionate conservatism suggests careful checking on what works and what does not, each step of the way. The goal throughout is gradual, sustainable change, tested at each step of the way, rather than a revolution that could be quickly followed by counterrevolution."

This is the picture that Olasky tried to paint for journalists and others curious about this philosophy. But skeptics also asked about the street-level reality of such a philosophy. Does it really work?

To answer these questions, Olasky talks in the book about a special trek that he and his fourteen-year-old son Daniel made as they visited seven big cities across the United States. They set out to find real places with real people who had embraced the philosophy of compassionate conservatism. Olasky highlights faith-based programs that have been successful and the reasons for their success. He also gives an honest evaluation of ministries and churches that have only been marginally successful -- along with his opinion as to why they are not achieving their goals.

To give his son a well-rounded education, Olasky also took him to parts of the country that had embraced a more liberal approach to social welfare -- providing personal stories, historical proof and financial data to illustrate the failure of the government's war on poverty since the 1960s.

In city after city, Olasky takes his boy onto America's mean streets to discover what is being done to try to lift people out of the icy grip of poverty. On his tour of these major urban centers, Olasky contrasts the success of cities like Indianapolis that have embraced faith-based programs with cities like Philadelphia that have resisted, and sometimes, worked against such endeavors.

In Philadelphia, they visited an area of town called Kensington, which is, according to their guide, "the cesspool into which all of Philadelphia drains." With sad detail Olasky paints a picture of broken dreams and lost hope. "North Philadelphia's 'badlands' are probably the worst American slums of the last half century, more like the shantytowns of Santo Domingo than anything we associate with the United States."

The author claims that much of this decay, and the overall deterioration of our society, has come as a result of a curious interpretation of the First Amendment's religion clause.

"Washington began bankrolling many programs that marginalized God and demanded that staffers and volunteers check their religion at the door. Officials froze out faith-based programs that offered spiritual as well as material help … Government funds could be used by religious groups, but only if they set up religion-less government look-alikes that were rarely effective. With many first-rate programs out of bounds, government often bought into the second rate … "

An example of this approach is a Philadelphia church in a blighted neighborhood that sought to purchase an abandoned lot from the city to expand its outreach to the community. The author describes the churches' fight with city hall over the nearly worthless lot. "Given the neighborhood and its plethora of abandoned homes and lots, [the] market value is about zero. The city, however, has valued the empty lot at $40,000, which is what it could bring if the neighborhood is revived … Officials might cut a deal if … they saw the value of the church activity for the city, but (quoting the pastor) 'they don't grasp that everything we do goes into the community … "

Olasky contrasts this way of dealing with faith-based programs with the approach taken in Indianapolis where former Mayor Steve Goldsmith built what he called "the Front Porch Alliance." This government entity worked with faith-based and other civic organizations to develop partnerships for neighborhood action.

The results were impressive. Mayor Goldsmith lists some of the innovations that emerged from the public/private partnership. "Churches get titles to crack houses down the street. Twenty or so churches have small contracts to maintain neighborhood parks. They meet the children and often involve them in their programs." The goal, he stressed, is "enough government participation to be supportive, not enough to distort.

"The key," writes Olasky, "is identifying and working with the numerous pastors committed to transforming their blocks."

Goldsmith paid attention to the negatives that drive middle-class people away from the city (high taxes, red tape, bad schools). "When they had problems with bureaucracy," the mayor said, "our goal was to make sure those problems were solved. The roadblocks became our problem, not theirs." Goldsmith also succeeded on the tax front by emphasizing competition in service provision -- total savings for the city; $400 million.

"The deep-rooted suspicion between government and faith-based programs must be overcome," Olasky writes. "How has it come about, that any activity funded by the government must be conducted as if atheism were the established religion? Why do we tolerate such bias against a vital dimension of our existence that has demonstrably made a difference in the lives of millions? We do so because of a river of suspicion that runs through the heart of many communities."

The author addresses the legitimate concern about religious choice being taken away and compulsory indoctrination substituted. He suggests that taxpayer funds be made available to a diversity of antipoverty groups, so recipients can choose from a variety of religious or non-religious traditions. With the freedom to choose or reject services form a faith-based organization, religion never has to be forced on clients."

The author wisely makes the assertion, "Compassionate conservatives know that in a pluralistic society, 'faith-based' cannot be code for 'Christian.' Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, and other faith-based groups all need running room, if compassionate conservatism is to be politically successful and constitutionally valid."

In his forward to the book, Governor George W. Bush writes, "Government can do certain things very well, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. That requires churches and synagogues and mosques and charities. A truly compassionate government is one that rallies these armies of compassion and provides an environment in which they can thrive."

"Marvin offers not just a blueprint for government, but also an inspiriting picture of the great resources of decency, caring, and commitment to one another that Americans share. He shows the difficulties that social entrepreneurs work to overcome, and ways for all of us to help them."

I highly recommend Compassionate Conservatism. In this book, Marvin Olasky provides us with the principles, history and common sense that can and will return faith and hope to thousands of hurting Americans -- if only America will embrace such a philosophy.

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Craig von BuseckCraig von Buseck is Ministries Director for Send him your e-mail comments on this article.


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