Why “compassionate conservatism” isn’t

Why “compassionate conservatism” isn’t August 26, 2011

Some years ago the phrase “compassionate conservatism” became popular.  I believe candidate George Bush used it to describe his program for helping the poor.  I got to know one of its main exponents and defenders–Marvin Olasky.  He was for a while a professor at the University of Texas and I used to take classes there to meet with him after they read one of his books.  (I had them read either Renewing American Compassion or Compassionate Conservatism.  Olasky disavowed any claim to having coined the phrase, but I have often heard its genesis attributed to him.  He certainly was and still is a passionate defender of the approach to poverty expressed by that phrase.)

So what is “compassionate conservatism” and why isn’t it (compassionate)?  First, let me clarify what I mean by “it isn’t.”  I certainly DON’T mean that its advocates aren’t compassionate people.  I know Olasky well enough to know he is compassionate.  Over the years he has housed and fed numerous people and helped them find work and become independent contributors to society.  That’s all to his credit and to the credit of many conservative Christians (and others) who truly believe what they call compassionate conservatism is better for the poor than government welfare and entitlement programs.

Olasky’s compassionate conservatism, however, is, in my opinion, not compassionate in its effects.  When I say “not compassionate” I’m not talking about peoples’ feelings or motives but about the effects of an approach to public policy.  My thesis is that compassionate conservatism will not help the poor on any massive scale and, to the extent it is implemented as government policy, will hurt the most deserving of the most needy people in America.

So here’s my brief summary of compassionate conservatism as outlined by Olasky in his books and in his talks with my students.  (I now have my students reading Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and that seems to be consistent with Olasky’s compassionate conservatism.)

Compassionate conservatism is the goal of removing from government the task of helping the poor and turning that over entirely to privately run, non-profit organizations including especially churches and religious humanitarian groups.  Olasky, anyway, does not think this can happen suddenly, but he advocates a gradual, but steady, process at the end of which the government is not at all directly involved in helping the needy.  Rather, the government will (in Olasky’s compassionate conservatism) give tax CREDITS (not tax deductions) for contributions to accredited poverty relief agencies that help poor people get out of poverty, drug addicts get off drugs, etc.

In other words, under compassionate conservatism, if a person donates $10,000 to an accredited non-profit group relief group that has a proven track record of helping the poor  (Olasky’s books abound with descriptions of them), his or her tax burden would be decreased by that amount.  Of course, there would have to be limits to this so that the federal government and state governments could continue to function.  For example, the military would still have to be funded.  But government would be greatly reduced so that giving tax credits for charitable contributions would not “starve the beast” to death.  (Of course, “starving the beast” is one way of achieving the goal of reducing government, but Olasky isn’t an anarchist.  He believes government has a role; it just isn’t directly helping the poor.)

One reason for this policy, according to CCs, is to encourage direct, hands-on work with the poor.  The government’s massive entitlement programs tend to discourage individuals and churches (for example) from getting directly involved with the poor.  If the government steps aside, Olasky believes, churches will rush in to fill the gap using the greatly increased contributions people will give partly, at least, because giving will reduce their tax burden.

Another reason, according to Olasky and other advocates of CC, is that government bureaucrats should not be deciding who gets government aid; churches and charities should because they are local and better equipped to judge who is worthy and who isn’t.  They also will be more likely to hold the recipients of their charitable endeavors accountable.

Well, Olasky has many other reasons for CC.  These are just two of the main ones.

CC, as defined and described by Olasky (and Novak who doesn’t use that phrase), sounds good on the surface.  But we need to look below the surface to what it would actually do and not do.

First, I’m not convinced that ANY private organization can take on SOME of the things government does.  For example, government (usually states with federal funds) provides unbelievably expensive medicines for HIV positive children to keep them from developing AIDS.  COULD any private charitable organization replace what the government does for children–not only with HIV but other diseases and disabilities?  The costs of these programs are beyond what any private organization can reliably meet.  Simply to “turn it over” to private charitable organizations increases the likelihood of children dying of diseases that can only be treated with meds (and other treatments) no charitable organization can afford to treat.

Second, what about populations nobody really cares about and that do not have the where with all to start up their own (what Olasky calls) “trampoline programs?”  (A trampline program is a privately funded organization’s effort to help people help themselves out of poverty.)  I strongly suspect that MOST people give charitably to organizations that help people with whom they have some affinity or at least about whom they care.  THERE ARE groups in the U.S. about whom virtually nobody cares.  The point of an entitlement program is that its aid cannot be withheld from persons who meet the criteria on account of their anything (race, ethnicity, culture, gender, religion, affiliations, etc.).  A government entitlement program cannot discriminate.  It cannot say “We don’t like you, so go away.  We won’t help you.”  IF a person feels they are being discriminated against by administrators of such a program, they can go to court to force it to give them the aid they are entitled to (so long as they meet the financial citeria).

These are two of the reasons government got involved in welfare and entitlement programs to alleviate poverty and sickness.  Private organizations simply could not accomplish what needed to be accomplished.  That’s not to say government programs are a panacea; they have often failed.  But the cure for their failure is not in abolishing them but in fixing them.  Also, government got involved because private charitable organizations tended to help certain populations and ignore others.  I grew up in a state with a large American Indian population.  When I was a kid growing up in that state almost nobody cared about the plights of that population; they were considered hardly human.  IF CC were ever to completely replace government aid programs, completely abolishing the welfare “safety net” (as Olasky urges), I’m afraid we would find ourselves in a similar situation to some third world countries where packs of small children live in underground sewer systems, under bridges, etc., and eventually become targets of death squads.  (Some years ago–I don’t know if this is still happening or not–some South American countries had vigilante groups going around at night shooting homeless children as if they were rats.)  Oh, sure, it’s easy to say “That would never happen here.”  But how can you be so sure?  Is it worth the risk?  Are you certain that if government stepped aside and abolished the welfare safety net, turning all the tasks of helping the poor over to non-profit charitable groups, that all the truly deserving poor would still get the life-saving help they need?  I doubt it.

Along with that, would these non-profit organizations (NGOs without government funding) attach strings to their help for the poor that require them to buy into an ideology or religious system in order to receive the aid?  Olasky doesn’t see any problem with that.  But let’s just suppose that the ONLY NGO offering life saving aid to a certain population in a certain city is run by a religious cult that requires people receiving life saving help to become involved in that cult’s worship.  I don’t see how, under CC, that could be prevented.

I remember one time my class was meeting with Olasky in a room at the U of T.  I asked him about The Church of Scientology across the street.  (I’m not calling it a cult, by the way.)  I asked him if he thought it would be okay, under his CC, for it to require people receiving its poverty aid to undergo auditing–its therapy that is based at least partly on belief in reincarnation.  He said yes…

Closely related to this problem is another one.  Olasky admits that there would have to be a government agency responsible for accrediting NGOs.  The Church of Scientology would have to prove to that government agency its effectiveness in alleviating poverty or getting people off drugs, etc., in order to be accredited for the tax credit program.  That is, in order for people who contribute to it to receive the tax credit, it would have to demonstrate to the government that its programs work.

But doesn’t that just introduce a whole new government bureaucracy?  And how would its administrators decide what “works” means?  Could they be completely objective in evaluating churches and other NGOs?    And let’s say a certain religious NGO has a program that “works” (e.g., to get people off drugs) but requires, as a condition of their participation, that they participate in the group’s religious ceremonies.  Would that be allowed?  I think Olasky thinks that’s okay.  Imagine the harm that would cause.  First, many people would not be able to avail themselves of the program due to conscience.  Second, that could encourage a particularly large and powerful religious group to mix proselytizing with its charitable work.  That sounds fine to many people so long as we’re talking about THEIR religious group, but what if the ONLY group offering a life saving aid in a particular area is a cult or non-Christian religion?

I think it’s ironic that Olasky (and many promoters of CC) is a Calvinist.  Calvinists, of course, believe in total depravity.  But Olasky seems to trust wealthy people to be fair and equitable with their charitable contributions.  Total depravity SEEMS to apply only to the poor.  (If you doubt me on that, read his books!  Then let’s talk about it.)

These are some of my reasons for believing that charity cannot replace government welfare programs.  (I’m using “welfare” here in its broadest sense to apply to ALL government programs aimed at helping needy people.  It’s not just food stamps and welfare checks.)  IF you are going to object and argue against me about this, please address this question.  IF the government does not provide life-saving meds to HIV-positive children (of which there are many thousands in the U.S.) who will?  Do you have any idea how much those meds cost?  Look it up first and then answer.  This is just ONE government program that, under CC, would go to NGOs (without government funding).

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  • I agree with you about the government’s role in aiding the poor. In my small hometown I grew up seeing the ramshackle shacks that poor blacks lived in. With government housing programs, we saw those shacks removed and people were able to have adequate housing for the first time. Left to charity, those shacks would still be there, and religious folk would still feel good about giving a pittance of aid a couple of times a year. That is just one example.

    Jesus gave us what one of my professors called “the final exam” in Matthew 25, where the sheep and the goats are separated. The “I was hungry, sick, in prison…” passage begins by telling us that this is how nations (not individuals) will be judged. Rather than seeing Matthew 25 as the final exam for how an individual gets to Heaven, I see this as Jesus’ assessment of what a just nation looks like. And how does a just nation provide for the least and weakest among them if not through government programs.

    The fact is that we all benefit when we provide for those who need help. My short hand take on what makes a society work is three-fold: Access to education, access to transportation, and access to healthcare. When we assure that the public has access to these services, everyone benefits. When we rig the field so that only those with money have the access, then we have increasing disparities and we will ultimately reap what we sow.

  • lotK Gray

    Providing meds to HIV-positive children is healthcare. Is it accurate that Dr. Olasky sees NO government role in providing healthcare to the needy?

    I tend to agree that a vast array of heart-motivated private groups might reach ‘the least of these’ better (or at least sooner) than bureaucratic government programs dependent on dollars collected from citizens far removed from the distribution point, having less say than lobbyists about use of the funds and no hands-on involvement. Two factors are efficiency and effectiveness; a good charity will beat government on those factors. I have seen firsthand women’s struggles with government programs. The programs are somehow easily and regularly manipulable by people lacking conscience, yet traps for those seeking to comply. Think IRS: complicated forms, every caseworker (all of them overworked) gives a different answer, subject to administrative delay, prone to error, their mistake is forgivable but yours is not! When it works it can really bridge some gaps, but is can be scary. When your food card is delayed or your aid cut off, there is nothing at all. When you have nothing, you go to a church or charity or individual. They will not let your kids go hungry.

    As for discrimination, Catholic Charities has been on the vanguard of Christ-motivated aid to those ‘about whom virtually nobody cares,’ specifically including HIV-affected children, orphans and the disabled. (Their ministries are now being circumscribed by government, however).

    Fact is, both government aid and private charity are here to stay, and some government programs are really helping people who can’t help themselves. Marvin Olasky has a great quote about Christians opposed to government aid, yet who also don’t tithe or give to charity — something about hypocrisy. He’s right. The less we trust in government programs the more charitable we should be… while continuing to pay taxes and voting as best we can, with our imperfect knowledge.

    • rogereolson

      My main objection to Olasky (and so many others who agree with him and are under his influence) is his determined call for the abolition of the safety net. I have talked with him face-to-face about this. He admits it may take years, but he is adamant that the government get out of the business of helping people. Where is the line between providing life-saving medicine to HIV-positive infants and children (to keep them from developing AIDS) and welfare? Sure, lots of government aid programs need to be improved, but abolishing government help to the needy and turning it all over to NGOs without government support is, my opinion, a dangerous goal.

      • K Gray

        Where is the line? One is specialized healthcare to meet acute needs of a relative few; the other is regular supplementation of daily living expenses (e.g. food, housing, unemployment, SS) for a large and expanding percentage of citizenry. They overlap but seem different in nature. Interesting question, I will try to ask Dr. Olasky about it.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Excellent topic, Roger. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Olasky seems to have a dislike and distrust of government at a very basic level. In as much as that is true, I share it. From a moral point of view, government can only give what it first takes (I’d say “steals”, but that would be inflammatory rhetoric) from others. Whatever they might do that is good, they did so first by at least as serious a bad action.

    “IF the government does not provide life-saving meds to HIV-positive children (of which there are many thousands in the U.S.) who will? you ask. Excellent question. I’d nominate myself, but I have other priorities. Why don’t you do it Roger? And in your pursuit to see it done I would help you, if you ask. But with all your good intentions, please don’t throw me in jail, garnish my wages, or plunder my savings account if I don’t give you as much as you hope.

    (James J Hill built a railroad across America without government help – and he did it way more efficiently and effectively that the US government did. If he can do that, then you can do this good work if you put yourself to it. In addition, I’d bet God would bless your efforts mightily.)

    • rogereolson

      I’ve toured Hill’s mansion in St. Paul. He lived a life of extreme luxury and opulence while hundreds, if not thousands, lived in squalor in Frogtown a couple miles away–really within site of his front door. Sorry, I don’t care about Hill. He’s a bad example of anything but greed and conspicuous consumption. Can I take care of even one HIV positive child? No. The expense is way beyond my means. Even my church of 500 could not begin to provide for more than a few. Without government programs, hundreds, if not thousands of them would die.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        You and your church might have more resources to give if the government didn’t take them away from you. Where do you think the government gets all its money to do these things you want done?

        The example of JJHill was one of opportunity. If you produced the wealth that Hill did, you wouldn’t have to excuse yourself by saying “The expense is way beyond my means.” So, make the money, recruit partners that will care for these children. Excellent. But by turning to the government, you are asking for the chance to force others to contribute to the causes you want. While I appreciate your compassion for these unfortunate people, I must reject in principle the extortion (there’s that silly rhetoric again) involved in using other peoples’ money for your priorities.

        There has been no greater force for killing and oppressing Christians (and others as well) around the world than governments. They brutalize and corrupt without peer. I would not trust government as you seem to.

        (And thank you and the other readers for putting up with me. I understand I have a minority opinion. But the bottom of the article instructs me to “Leave a Reply”. What else can I do?)

        • rogereolson

          Do you also oppose governments taxing to support the military? I certainly never felt threatened (and don’t believe I was) by Granada or Panama or many other countries the U.S. has invaded militarily. Yet I gladly pay my taxes to support our military because, even though I don’t think everything it does is good or necessary, it exists for the common good. And by paying taxes to support it I have the right to attempt to influence what it does. Why is it okay for government to have a robust military and require us to support it but not okay for the government to have a robust safety net for its citizens? I could ask the same about education. I sent my daughter to a parochial high school but paid taxes to support public schools because I think universal, free (to children) education is a good thing. I also think saving HIV-positive children from dying is a good thing and I’m convinced none but government can do.

          • Tim Reisdorf


            I think you did not read my post very carefully. I’m distrustful of all government – including military. Usually, the military is the means of oppression, though the US has laws against that for the time being. But you are correct in saying that the military (as defense) is for the good of all the citizens. It is one of the few things in our founding documents that the Federal Government was encouraged to do (defend the borders from invaders). We haven’t been attacked for many decades and few times in our history.

            My wife and I homeschool our kids and have money taken from us (I believe you call that “taxation”) for other families to send their kids to “free” schooling.

            “And by paying taxes to support it I have the right to attempt to influence what it does.” That’s a nice idea. 49% of the voting-age population pays no income tax and they still have a right to attempt to influence what it does. Your paying taxes merely keeps you out of jail.

            Thanks again, and have a super weekend.

        • traveller

          Olasky’s suggestion that contributions to these charities should receive a tax credit, not a deduction, means that the government, or more accurately other tax payers, are actually bearing the entire cost of a particular tax payer’s choice of charity. It also means the contributing person is not carrying their fair share of funding for what the government does do, which results in others disproportionately carrying that burden. So, in reality, his proposal only varies in detail the complaints of some here, and elsewhere, about taking people’s money and using it in ways without their consent. The only difference is whether the government carries out the program in a consistent manner nationwide or a hodge podge of NGOs which may not address the particular need except in a small geographic area. Otherwise, both are “government” and “tax-payer” funded. Even a deduction, as opposed to a credit, means others bear a part of the cost.

      • That is so true, Roger. My five year old had to be life-flighted last year due to a horrible head injury. The cost for the helicopter flight alone (not a long distance, 100 miles or so) was $18,000. It was out of the covered area, so no insurance coverage for that. $18,000 for one child, one instance, one aspect of care. No church wants to begin to touch that – nor can most. The cost for the totality of children who need it is unmanageable for the Church to handle.

        Also – your statement regarding churches tying help to church membership or at the very least attendance. Also true. I’ve seen it all of my life. Locally, we have one militia driven church (truly militia driven – the pastor stocks guns and gold…) that runs a food pantry but people may only get one visit to the “store” (ever) unless they begin attending church and then apply for membership. They wonder why no one wants to come, then conclude that our area does not have “true need.”

        Finally, I’d like to thank you for humoring me here on your blog with the comments. I know that I am simply a mom and a “layperson,” and as such don’t stack up academically either to yourself or to your other commentors. I’m always humbly aware of that, and comment with fear and trembling. (Yet I seem to have enough inner chutzpa to continue…)

        What you say and teach matters to me, though. I’m a homeschooling mom of nine children, and I am using your books in my older children’s education. My oldest son reads here, as well. I am Wesleyan, and care deeply that I properly understand what I am teaching my children. It matters to me, my husband, and to the kids. I don’t have much influence in the world (yet..ha ha…just wait until the grandkids start coming…) but I am greatly influential in my children’s lives, thought processes, philosophies, and in how they view God and the world. That’s why I’m here, that’s why I read and ask questions, too. That’s just a little aside, but something I’ve wanted to say for some time now. Thanks so much for blogging. You educate me. 🙂

        • …and….I’ve read Olasky’s book. He didn’t remember coining the phrase, but he was happy to use it and to run with it. 🙂 Olasky is at least a Calvinist one can converse with. 🙂 (I know…unfair. I’ve been bitten by more than a few “conversations.”)

  • What is to prevent a church board dominated by ‘big givers’ from setting up a minimum outreach under their church’s name simply to increase their tax break? Why should churches need to be tempted (even spiritually overthrown) with money awards and incentives?

    I think the whole idea that churches should take care of the poor is a mis-reading of 99% of the New Testament. People should be functioning as good citizens when they take care of the poor and not principally as good ‘Christians’ or ‘Buddhists’ or ‘Jews’

    And that Scientology example is perhaps too extreme to point out the heart of the problem. Will the poor who are ‘helped’ by this program be forced to listen to Calvinist and other fallible human theologies of salvation which a majority of Americans believe to be heretical and simply unspiritual? I am a Christian believer who rejects Calvinism and all of its strange North American off-shoots, and I see this program as a veiled form of Federal aid to churches – a mixture of church and state which essentially diverts potential public revenues to religious organizations, and which poisons good-will with tax incentives.

    Roger, you covered the other problems pretty well.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I suspect as you do, but didn’t say it because I can’t provide evidence to support it. Anyway, I suspect SOME supporters of “compassionate conservatism” have the goal of establishing a semi-theocracy in America through government financial aid to churches.

  • Steve Rogers

    Nearly half of U. S. wage earners pay no federal income tax. Average giving to churches comes in at a paltry 2 – 3 % of income from the 30 % of the population who even attend church. CC is therefore even more idealistic (unrealistic) than liberalism. Left to our own devices, we will not gravitate toward giving away more of our hard earned money. What we do give will tend to go toward needs with which we have direct contact and personal interest. So the question for me becomes who/what best holds us accountable to the principle that the poor must be cared for? Government? Or religious institution? Without some pressure (taxation) there will be no safety net. I don’t like paying taxes any more than anyone else, but I’d much rather have an ostensibly non-sectarian government levying the necessary welfare taxes than some denomination or religious institution.

  • K Gray

    As charities of differing ideologies and beliefs abound, choice increases. As government programs — with their own ideology, mandates, goals and restrictions — expand, choice decreases. An extreme example is China’s one-child requirement. Having two children may disqualify its citizens from many essential things like jobs and housing.

  • Timothy

    This is a view from the other side of the Atlantic. All that Roger says I accept and yet, and yet…
    The problem with the opposite, what might be called compassionate liberalism, is that it creates a corrupt society. And a corrupt socity is just as bad for soceity as an incompassionate one. Before this sounds too extreme I had better say that what I am calling for is not one over the other but that the weaknesses of each be recognised so that we can adjust appropriately. Roger has dome a good job at expounding the weaknesses of one; I would like to mention some of the problems of the other. In the early 1980s Margaret Thatcher made a famous remark that there is no such thing as society. This has been ritually misunderstood. What she was drawing our attention to, and failing miserably, was the tendency in UK to say that ‘society owes me something,” whether a job or an education or medical care or a home or a TV. But there is no separate ‘thing’ called society. Society is made up of you and me. The ones who ‘owe’ these things are the other people, one’s next door neighbours and so on. In saying society ‘owes me such and such a thing’ is to say that I have a right to take something belonging to another for myself. In reifying society one avoids the obvious selfishness entailed and cultivates a sense of grievance when not all our desires are met.
    This has been most dramatically revealed in the recent widespread looting in UK. So many people thought they really deserved the TV in the shop that when the authorities could not stop them they would take them.
    I accept that this is not the product solely of the welfare state in this country, that other things such as celebrity culture feed into this. But the brokenness of Britain clearly seen in some aspects of Britain today are not entirely independent of the welfare state.
    The problem with the welfare state is that it distances the giver from the recipient. The giver feels no merit in the giving, just annoyance at being taxed. The recipient feels no gratitude, just a sense of receiving just dues at best or just as likely an abiding irritation at not receiving more.
    This is true in the international arena and in the missionary arena. It has been cogently argued that aid provided to African nations has actually served to impoverish them. Churches in for instance in Cambodia have been corrupted by foreign money.
    I am not arguing for the abolition of the welfare state in this country (UK). I am quite prepared to accept that more should be done in America, if only because I know so little about America. But whatever is the best, it is likely to be a combination of things and not one or the other. And the weaknesses of each of the nostrums, the baleful side-effects if you like, need to be recognised.

    • Timothy

      Further to the above, this is an interesting article

  • Interestingly, for all of the complaining about taxation within Christian circles, I rarely see complaints at how Church tithes are spent. If 10% of an OT tithe went to the priests, and 90% went to the poor, that ratio is reversed in the American Church.

    Perhaps Compassionate Conservatism could steadily change religious culture AND the government at the same time!

  • Jason

    I am disturbed by posts like these from the left and the right. I believe if the Church would be the Church, then many of the societal problems we face would decline. The problem, IMHO, is that too many Christ-followers have given up on the scriptural vision of what the Church is to be Biblically. On this see, Greg Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Nation,” and James Emery White’s “Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day.”