Compassionate conservatism is dead in Washington but alive and well across the country. Over the past year researchers and reporters have uncovered new evidence, both statistical and journalistic, that backs up the good news in that sentence.
The statistical evidence is in a book published late last year, Arthur Brooks' Who Really Cares (Basic, 2006). He showed that, measured by the giving of both money and time, conservatives are more compassionate than liberals, and religious conservatives are far more compassionate than secular conservatives (see "Money, time, blood," Dec. 9, 2006).
This issue includes some new journalistic evidence-profiles of 13 programs that are the 2007 finalists in a contest run each year by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a Michigan-based think tank. (Disclosure: I'm an Acton senior fellow.) This year 311 organizations applied for the $10,000 grand prize award (second- and third-place winners receive $1,000 each) plus the recognition they can receive from stories in WORLD and favorable mention in Acton's Samaritan Guide (acton.org/guide).
By examining applications that included detailed information about goals, procedures, finances, and results, Acton chose 13 finalists. WORLD's annual summer internship program (supported by donations from many of our subscribers; thank you very much) then became far more than a classroom exercise: Five intern reporters visited 10 of the finalists, and a sixth called and wrote about three repeat finalists that WORLD had profiled last year.
The interns did not take lightly the responsibility that goes with reporting on these groups. Before heading out, we met for three days of training in asking hard questions: What's the evidence that this program works? Forget what publicists say: What exactly can I see? Then they had a week of eyeballing and writing, followed by a grueling five days of line-by-line editing and rewriting. Every sentence gained repeated scrutiny in classes that sometimes lasted six hours per day.
The results are in the pages that follow: The strength of most of the groups portrayed suggests that George W. Bush was right to argue in 2000 that individual volunteers and neighborhood groups, often religious, can do a lot more to move people out of poverty than one-size-fits-all government programs can. Compassionate conservatism, as presented to Gov. Bush and embraced by him, meant less government spending but more help for the poor.
Somehow, that combination of less and more became lost in the shuffle of Washington. Compassionate conservatism gained a toehold but the toe was gnarled and its nail ingrown. Compassionate conservatism came to be looked upon as either a political gambit by Republicans trying to buy minority votes or as rhetoric to fool soccer moms. It also became one more Washington-centric program unlikely to help groups like those portrayed on the following pages. An earmark-embracing Congress also moved money toward those who befriended the powerful instead of empowering the poor. Two of the original central proposals of compassionate conservatism would help, though. One was a $500 tax credit for any individual who gave that amount to the poverty-fighting nonprofit of his choice, religious or not. That's $500 more going to community nonprofits and $500 less going to the Beltway bureaucracy.
A second central proposal involved social service vouchers. The idea was that instead of having the Department of Health and Human Services or powerful legislators decide which organizations would get grants, needy Americans could vote with their feet and choose groups that dealt most effectively with their problems.
Both proposals displayed compassionate conservatism as a decentralizing idea: Tax credits allow taxpayers rather than Washington to choose who gets the money, and vouchers let recipients choose who delivers the services. Sadly, Bush administration leaders discarded the tax credit idea and used vouchers only in small ways. The federal grants program has changed little.
The curse of power-seeking centralization remains, but it is a mixed curse: At least it is clear once again that we should put our hope not in governmental princes, but in God. He provides the grace that lies behind the Christian programs shown on the pages that follow, and the common grace evident in those from different perspectives that might still do some good.