The Grace and Compassion of George W. Bush
What do you mean when you say that George W. Bush had a Catholic sensibility?
George W. Bush made it a point of his domestic and his foreign policy to project the idea and make it crystal clear that justice is one of the most important, perhaps the most important, purpose of government. This was true as a two-term-elected governor of Texas, and it was true during all eight years of the Bush administration. Justice was at the center. It was at the center of foreign and security policy, even on controversial issues, but it was also true in the domestic arena. Justice was at the core, for instance, of the President's decision-making process in the stem cell debate.
In The Man in the Middle, I devote a whole chapter to the stem cell issue. I frame it as a debate in the West Wing and the Oval Office that was centered in justice. Yet—and this is important for history to understand—as the President made this very consequential decision, he reached out deliberately to people with widely divergent views, many of them from different faith traditions, because he wanted to hear many different views before he made that decision.
President Bush's first meeting with Pope John Paul II, at Castel Gandolfo, took place at the same time as he was addressing the stem cell issue. It shaped his thought. Justice was at the center. It was not coincidental that it grew from the President's Christianity. But also it's directly related to this Evangelical-Catholic sensibility that I think applies very uniquely among the contemporary presidents to George W. Bush.
The catch phrase, when President Bush first came to office in 2000, was "compassionate conservatism." Do you think President Bush lived that out?
In my present role with Focus on the Family, I had to be up in South Africa earlier this year. Everywhere I went, whether for business meetings or ministry meetings, I was amazed at how highly regarded George W. Bush is in Africa. That's a direct result of his compassionate conservatism and his historic work battling AIDS and malaria there. The President's PEPFAR initiative against AIDS, and his anti-malarial program, stand among his most significant foreign policy achievements, and yet they're little known or appreciated now, at least in the United States. I hope they will be recognized over time.
It's worth revisiting what the President said when he spoke, in his first inaugural address, about the parable that Jesus told of the road to Jericho. The meaning of compassion stands at the very heart of that parable. The Priest and the Levite walk directly past the man who's been injured and stripped naked. The Good Samaritan crosses the highway to help the man and pays for his care. Jesus says that the Good Samaritan had "compassion" on the injured man. We understand that in Christian scripture as having true mercy.
This is what George W. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism. It's not that the federal government was going to come in and supply every need. Just the opposite. When George W. Bush gave one of the most important speeches of his Presidency, at Notre Dame, he was specifically countering Lyndon Johnson's notion of the Great Society. What George W. Bush wanted to do was not to continue to insert a wasteful big government into programs and projects that don't work. What he wanted to do, and what was at the heart of compassionate conservatism, was to advance mercy and compassion by removing an institutional bigotry within the federal bureaucracy against faith-based programs that were turned away just because they were faith-based. George W. Bush made clear that the federal government was not going to buy the Bibles or the crucifixes, but they could further the good work that these faith-based organizations were doing.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.