The Grace and Compassion of George W. Bush
And he was right. The private sector, the intermediary institution, the concept of subsidiarity, these were so important to President Bush. He believed in this mission, believed that faith-based groups were often addressing social ills more compassionately and more effectively than the government could do. Removing the institutional bigotry against faith-based programs was exactly the right thing to do.
So "compassionate conservatism" wasn't just a campaign slogan to get him elected?
George W. Bush was sincerely one of the most compassionate people I've ever met. I saw this on multiple occasions. He treated the lowest staffer with the same respect he did a king, a queen, or a pope or prime minister. This was a direct result of his faith.
As you know, the first chapter of The Man in the Middle is about the grace and mercy and compassion he showed to me in a way that was very personal and, in the political classes, rather unparalleled. When you embarrass the president, the vice president, or the like, you immediately become persona non grata. They need to hold you at a great distance. You're simply not invited to the White House and extended grace and compassion in the way the President did to me.
What I'm saying is, George W. Bush's faith shaped not only his foreign and domestic policies but also the very basic ways in which he treated people. He had this gift and ability to connect with real people regardless of their station in life. It was indeed a very compassionate conservatism that he represented.
What do you say to those who assert that "compassionate conservatism" was code for "big-government conservatism"?
George W. Bush never spoke in code. George W. Bush is that rare politician—and I have worked in Washington for nearly twenty-five years, I've walked with the princes of this world—he is that rare politician who is the same in private as in public. He says what he means and means what he says.
Compassionate conservatism was not a euphemism or code. It represented, and represents, precisely who he was and is, as a result of his faith. It really was dramatized in George W. Bush's visit (when he was Governor) to a prison in Texas where Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship had become very active. The President saw the results of their ministry, and the way that their work was impacting these otherwise-very-hardened criminals. A seed was planted. George W. Bush came to see that there was an absolutely critical role for faith-based and community groups. They were the "little platoons" doing the most important work. He resolved that when he came to the Oval Office, he would take that model or paradigm and apply it nationally.
Compassionate conservatism was George W. Bush's character and it was his commitment. It was not code or an effort to be clever.
America's evangelical community seems to be wrestling with the better and worse ways of bringing faith and politics together. You're thoroughly familiar with many figures from the "Religious Right"—people like Jerry Falwell, whose funeral you attended on Bush's behalf. If you could reflect on the heyday of the Christian Coalition and figures like Robertson and Falwell and James Dobson, were there some errors or excesses in the previous generation of the Religious Right that conservative Christians today would be wise to avoid?
When I joined the Bush campaign in 2000, there was an extraordinary group of faith leaders, most of them evangelicals, some Catholic, who had been a part of the rise of the New Right. They were Paul Weyrich, James Dobson, Bill Bright, Chuck Colson, Adrian Rogers, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and a few others.
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.