The term “compassionate conservatism” would have sounded weak to me as a young Republican inspired by Richard Viguerie’s religious right in the early 1980s. Later as a moderate it felt forced to me — dangerously naïve even, given its popularizers.
Today it feels hollow (Are you tired yet of hearing or saying, “I’m a fiscal conservative but social progressive who likes efficient government?”). But it somehow also seems lined with yearning and hope. We want to fill it with our own definitions: “Compassion” means either tough-love bootstrap invocations or grace-filled economic support; “conservatism” is either pay your own way or get help from the church, not the government.
When my oldest daughter, Hannah, was in elementary school she asked me to explain the difference between conservative and liberal. I replied, “It’s too complicated.” She said, “Try me.” So I told her my best description was a metaphor, that of life as a high-wire act. Liberals are worried that without a net below the high-wire act of life, the performer may die or suffer when they fall. Conservatives are worried that if a net is built below, the performer may not be concerned enough about falling and use the net as a hammock. She paused for a moment and responded, “Why not build a trampoline below, so if they fall it will send them right back up?” Indeed.
How did we get here, and, more importantly, how might we find our way to a useful practice — or at least better definition — of compassionate conservatism?
When ‘Compassion’ Served Conservatism: How Did We Get Here?
Compassionate conservatism has long-served as a noteworthy turn of phrase — from its origination in the late 1970s with political operative Doug Wead, through its use by political campaigns — because it can perform three functions at once for the user:
1. Provide conservatism a better image,
2. Redefine compassion as tough love, and
3. Call on conservatism to consider compassion’s relationship to justice.
Many right-of-center politicos have appreciated the wide berth the phrase gave, filling it with whatever meaning they needed at the time. It has been argued that there’s not much real compassion in the practice of compassionate conservatism, including by former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who noted the term was devoid of meaning (while struggling with his own public image regarding compassion).
Media usage of the term spiked between 1998-2004, but harder to nail down is what was the peak of its practice, either in the populace or in policy. Is this phrase compassionate conservatism more appropriately a conserving of compassion? The primary difference between the conservative and the compassionate conservative might be one of style or presentation more than of ideas. That could certainly be the starting point for evaluating the practice of the philosophy.
The helpful question is how much true compassion is in your conservatism — and, if you are using a religiously informed definition of compassion, how much grace is in your compassion, versus merely tough love.
So why isn’t compassionate conservatism used as a trope in the 2016 presidential campaign? One possibility: When you aren’t focusing on economic issues in a serious way, it’s difficult to focus on the philosophy behind, say, strictly regulated free markets or social safety nets in ways that would require one to think of the phrase, much less use it in any deeply meaningful way.
Perhaps if Paul Ryan or John Kasich were on the ticket, or even together, the opportunity to revive it might have presented itself. But compassionate conservatism answers questions that aren’t being asked in this political season. This is ironic and unfortunate given the economic devastation and fragility that is being tapped into and addressed by both Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ movements.
If ever there were a time to revive it more substantively as a platform plank or policy inspiration, this would be the moment.
Searching for Results: The End Goals of Compassionate Conservatism
It is often asserted that liberals neither emphasize personal responsibility nor acknowledge the importance of culture in values formation, and conservatives don't give structural injustice and cultural malleability its due. But what if results were to become the measure? Knowing the end goal of the philosophy is central to executing it well.
If you were to answer the question, “Do you live in a neighborhood that desperately needs compassionate conservatism?” you might begin with an analysis of the extent to which people are experiencing hope or opportunity there (inclusive of but not exclusively economic hope and opportunity). Just as a body with a low-functioning immune system can succumb to a virus that might not ordinarily kill it, an individual, family, or even neighborhood might survive for a while missing only economic opportunity. But compassionate conservatism would need to account for weaknesses not merely in economic opportunity but hope, institutions, education, morality, family structures, and so on.
Compassionate conservatives should be, for example, in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement, as conservatives are ideally against a government’s rule of law that systematically prevents people from benefitting from something that is a public good in an ostensibly equal way. You can believe that people need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (problems with this metaphor aside), but you would never tolerate your own kin being prevented from buying said bootstraps at the store, or having them stolen from them systematically, or being given inferior bootstraps at a separate but unequal bootstrap store. Nearly everyone is born with the ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (what are those anyhow?), but not everyone is born with the same access to bootstraps.
Given this, what do we owe one another? That depends on who the “one another” is. We’ll sacrifice a great deal to ensure our own child gains admittance to a pre-kindergarten education program, only sacrifice a little to ensure our neighborhood church preschool reaches out to help undereducated preschoolers, and less still to ensure state-funded Head Start programs stay in the budget for children we imagine we’ll never meet (though we certainly will as they prepare food, enforce laws, care for us at the end of life, and attend church with us).
And once you get to the national level, it’s so large and complex that we’d rather support an orphanage in Kenya as it’s simpler to understand and sympathize with — especially if it gives us an opportunity to share our religious faith with them as a bonus.
If government is merely the name we have given to that which we have decided to do together, then it may be that scale and complexity paralyze us in realizing its promise.
We Americans have a bond, and what we owe one another is protection of one another. Conservative compassion could be a recognition that we are all relying on one another and owe each other a great deal while being responsible for ourselves in living that out. Instead it’s too easy to ask: What do I owe you and how much will that cost?
But as a Christian the question turns deeper quickly — as in, how much of my life am I willing to sacrifice for you, my enemy, or you, a stranger?
The Christian Imperative
So what then is our Christian responsibility regarding one another? Is there any difference between compassionate conservatism and Christian compassionate conservatism?
The Good Samaritan story is only one of many such inspirations to those of us who have committed our lives to living out the beloved community. It’s a heavy burden, and sometimes when I think about what I’ve signed up for in following Jesus, it just seems unreasonable on so many levels. I thought conserving things was hard, then I add true compassion, and now I must add following someone who gave his life for people who hated him? Then add in love for family and sacrifice for country to such grand aspirations? It’s almost too much to consider. Let me just go to work, feed my family, entertain myself, wave to my neighbor, and repeat.
Often we feel we can’t be compassionate (personally or at the policy level) if it means: a) others are taking advantage of us; b) the scale is so large that it doesn’t seem relatable; c) my people aren’t taken care of first; d) I fear others are just going to use my compassion to harm me in the future; e) it would stop me from climbing the ladder higher myself or will help them climb the ladder past me; f) it means going upstream to find out why so much compassion is needed in the first place; or, g) it’s done in a way that doesn’t reflect my conservative values.
Even if we get the definitions right, the execution of compassion demands accountability, self-reflection, and grace. That’s why it’s easy to disagree on how we get there, even when we might agree on the end goal. Proud to be a conservative, fine. Proud of aiming toward compassion, absolutely. Willing to be called out when we fall short according to our own standards? We must if we are to have integrity.
How do we do this in a practical sense? Try sacrificing financial and personal capital to help your neighbor get a leg up if they’re willing to take it. Ask local religious or community leaders what they need to help them improve compassion in the area. (Learn about what Louisville, Ky., mayor Greg Fischer is doing to have his city become known as the most compassionate city in America.) From a higher view, start influencing state-level politicians, many of whom are surprisingly open to conversation. There are boundless opportunities to engage in ways that reflect our values.
Because, clay feet and all, we are thrown into the fire of daily life, and compassion should be generous when we give it and available when we need it.