Why 'Compassionate Conservatism' Failed | Sojourners

Why 'Compassionate Conservatism' Failed

George W. Bush in Manchester, N.H. Jan. 2000. Shutterstock / Joseph Sohm 

After a recent spate of state level laws curtailing abortion passed in Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia, I noticed a familiar argument from progressive friends. If evangelicals truly embraced a pro-life ethic, I was told, they should also favor expanding welfare state programs like Medicaid and SNAP. I also heard the argument that conservative evangelicals have no problem with state intervention in people’s lives when it comes to abortion or LGBTQ+ rights, but show their hypocrisy when they don’t extend the role of the state to providing programs that provide for people’s health.

I understand the kneejerk urge to point out this perceived hypocrisy, but I think these arguments misunderstand how evangelical Christians think about poverty solutions.

The birth of a phrase

In 2000, Marvin Olasky published the book Compassionate Conservatism. Named after a phrase that George W. Bush popularized during his first presidential campaign, the book outlines a change in political and rhetorical strategy for conservatives. While welfare reform successfully shrunk and changed the responsibility of government, it hadn’t done enough to address the needs of people once they moved off of welfare. In other words, it wasn’t compassionate enough. Those people needed compassionate, local organizations to promote and instruct them in rehabilitative change.

Compassionate conservatives promised to pick up the slack. In his foreword to the book, Bush writes that conservatism “promotes social progress through individual change.” This became the guiding principle by which his administration evaluated nonprofit and faith-based organizations when giving them grants.

The book has an interesting back and forth. On the one hand, individuals struggling with poverty, addiction, and education need something beyond themselves to get ahead. On the other hand, the government absolutely cannot provide what they need: local, community support. In a speech on the topic, Bush said: “in solving the problems of our day, there is no substitute for unconditional love and personal contact,” two ingredients the government cannot provide.

All of this amounts to an outsourcing of the welfare state to local charities and nonprofits. In that speech, Bush promises $8 billion to charities, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations that work with the poor. He also fully expected these organizations to compete for these dollars, writing “we will allow private and religious groups to compete to provide services in every federal, state, and local social program.”

Once in office, he created the Office of Faith Based Initiatives, a department tasked with assisting faith-based organizations in applying for and receiving federal grant money. They used the “Charitable Choice Provision,” which allowed churches and religious organizations to receive federal dollars marked for welfare programs, typically job training programs. In his book The Job Training Charade, Gordon Lafer notes the effect that the shift in federal dollars towards job training had on community organizations in the 90s. Organizations that had previously had a wide array of programs like voter registration efforts slowly let those go as more grant dollars flowed to work-oriented programs.

After welfare reform

As a white, suburban evangelical in the early 2000s, I grew up going on short-term mission trips every summer and participating in charitable missions during the school year. When I think back on it, I now see that these trips and the kinds of charity they encouraged began to fall out of favor around the mid 2000s, around the time that the grants from Bush’s faith-based office would have kicked in. Books like When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, and Toxic Charity and its follow-up Charity Detox by Robert Lupton, exemplify the way that Christians on both the right and left would come to absorb the ideological imperatives of welfare reform.

These books begin with a basic premise. The authors have bad news for Christians: direct charity to the poor has failed. Missions endeavors like soup kitchens, food pantries, Christmas presents for kids whose families can’t afford them, and other direct aid not only don’t alleviate poverty. They actually harm the ones these well-meaning Christians intended to help. They do so because they foster dependence amongst those that receive the handouts. Lupton goes so far as to write, “giving to people in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may we be the kindest way to destroy them.”

Charity destroys people because it fosters (or in Lupton’s case, infects) them with dependence. In their understanding, people are powerfully shaped by even the smallest interactions. Hand a guy a dollar on the sidewalk? You might have infected him with the disease of dependence. People need initiative, training, and will-power in order to provide for themselves, presumably by earning a wage at a job. They suggest job skills training and financial education.

These authors acknowledge that systemic injustice has an effect on people’s earnings, but it always does so through culture. The material, structural barriers to self-sufficiency worked by instilling bad characteristics of learned helplessness in minorities that work against the motivation necessary to get a job. At the institutional level, they think churches should work to expand businesses to produce more job opportunities and something called “Asset-Based Community Development.”

Making money without working

I still hear people reference these lines of thinking and these books in churches, both conservative and liberal. Well-meaning people come to believe that Christian service to the poor means helping them grow in market-based self-sufficiency. But this framework doesn’t help the poor. It doesn’t help the poor because capitalism causes poverty. And capitalism can’t cure poverty because the owners of assets will always pull in more money than people that work. That’s how the system is designed.

However, I do agree that people making money without working represents a big problem in our society. In 2017, in America’s metro areas, 37 percent of all income came from non-labor sources, meaning the recipients got paid without having to work. One might be tempted to think of the welfare recipients that Corbett, Fikkert, and Lupton warn their readers about. However, only 1.6 percent of all personal income came from government “handouts” that they say harm the poor. Compare that to the 20 percent of all income in metro areas that came from dividends, interest, and rents. For all the worry about handouts making poor people lazy, the poor have nothing on capitalists.

Moving from a personal understanding of poverty to trumpeting the virtues of capitalism and baptizing it in Christian mission makes one an even greater enemy of the poor. Without attacking the ownership structure that allows capitalists a greater share of the value created, we’ll live a long way from anything resembling the Kingdom of God as Jesus described it.

When Bush talked about the virtues of compassionate conservatism, he described an organization that practiced it with their “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” policy. Bush says, “This is a demanding love - at times a severe mercy.” Those last few words reference a book, A Severe Mercy, in which a husband reflects on the cancer that killed his wife as the key to his growth in his relationship with God. The cancer was the severe mercy.

If anyone bears the risk of poisoning, it’s those that think that Christian mission to the poor simply means training people in hard work, initiative, and business opportunities. And they’re in danger of being infected with capitalism, the cancer that’s killing not just the poor, but all of us.