Cover Story

Still kicking

Pundits who say compassionate conservatism is dead should get out more often

Issue: "Effective compassion," Sept. 2, 2006

This year, as Washington's spending spree has continued, several conservative pundits have sat in air-conditioned offices and written about the death of compassionate conservatism, which they say has become a euphemism for big government spending.

If that's true, that's a shame, because the concept originally captured the excitement of thousands of small groups, often Christian, dedicated to fighting material and spiritual poverty. Their faith-based initiatives began without governmental help and are likely to continue regardless of what happens inside the Beltway.

But the punditocracy's over-generalizations about compassionate conservatism are not true, as this special section indicates. Included in this week's issue are profiles of 15 small programs that are the 2006 finalists in a contest run each year by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a Michigan-based think tank that has as one of its components the Center for Effective Compassion. (Disclosure: I'm an Acton senior fellow.)

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The CEC gives out Samaritan Awards to small organizations that offer challenging, personal, and spiritual help to needy individuals. This year 247 organizations applied for the $10,000 first-place award plus nine other awards that bring with them recognition and help; the CEC includes 900 groups in its Samaritan Guide. But paper applications and telephone interviews are no substitute for heading out on the road and eyeballing programs. WORLD over the past six weeks sent out four reporters to visit the 15 finalists. The reporters' sketches, along with an interview of Yale professor Miroslav Volf, who has written about the theology of compassion, make up this section.

Most of these groups do not accept government money. A few accept small amounts in ways that don't alter their central thrusts or religious core. They don't spend their time and scant funds applying for government grants or attending workshops on how to apply for grants. They are hands-on, and they use the hands of many volunteers.

Organizationally, they are varied. Most are purely local groups. Some that began locally have now expanded to other cities. Some are, in a sense, franchises of national groups. Diverse organizational forms are developing as well-run small groups pass on to others the secrets of their success, and perhaps replicate themselves in other cities.

Good reporters learn to show, not tell, and it would be good for pundits to get out in the field before describing the death of compassionate conservatism. Forty-five years ago President John F. Kennedy noted a problem among the armchair prophets of his time: "There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future." Speaking in the then-divided central city of Germany, he asked the doomsayers to get out of their offices: "Let them come to Berlin."

Those who think compassionate conservatism is dead should come to programs in Richmond or Fairfield, California; Raleigh, North Carolina; Memphis or Nashville or Knoxville, Tennessee; Camden, New Jersey, or Chester, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio, or Hastings, Nebraska; Flint or Grand Rapids or Marquette, Michigan. Or at least, check out what's going on there by reading the stories below.

15 of the best groups doing the hardest work in America

Bay Area Rescue Mission - Richmond, Calif.

Jobs for Life - Raleigh, N.C.

Rachel's House - Columbus, Ohio

CityTeam Ministries - Chester, Pa.

Manoomin Project - Marquette, Mich.

Earth Keeper Project - Marquette, Mich.

Christian Women's Job Corps - Nashville, Tenn.

A Hand Up for Women - Knoxville, Tenn.

Guiding Light Mission - Grand Rapids, Mich.

Habitat for Humanity - Flint, Mich.

Mission Solano - Fairfield, Calif.

Urban Promise - Camden, N.J.

Truth Seekers - Memphis, Tenn.

A Way Out - Memphis, Tenn.

Crossroads Center Rescue Mission - Hastings, Neb.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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