Late last month White House folks put on another big national conference on faith-based and community initiatives-and President Bush even uttered the magic words, "compassionate conservatism."
Sadly, compassionate conservatism is now dead as a political label. It's dead among liberals because of the war in Iraq: They equate the term with hypocrisy. It's mostly dead among conservatives because of Bush's refusal to veto any domestic spending bills for six years: They equate the term with big government.
That's ironic, because compassionate conservatism started out as an alternative to big government. Compassionate conservatism started out as the recognition that help to the poor should be challenging, personal, and often spiritual, rather than bureaucratic, enabling, and inevitably secular.
The idea was a challenge to what "compassion" had come to mean: its common sentimental usage (feeling sorry for someone) or its common political one (demonstrate compassion by voting for a multibillion-dollar spending bill that will purportedly help the poor). Both usages opposed the biblical understanding that compassion means the offer of strenuous personal help to someone in need.
It's clear that the Good Samaritan would not have been Christ's model of compassion had he merely felt sorry for the mugged traveler or pushed through a law mandating a Traveler's Rest Area every 10 miles. So 20 years ago I started out on a mad mission to bring back the biblical understanding of compassion, and for a while it seemed to be working. Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, and others embraced books I wrote during the 1990s with "compassion" in the titles.
I still have a GOP 2000 convention button-"I'm a compassionate conservative"-that Team Bush passed out in Philadelphia to delegates and bystanders. Starting in 2001, though, the Bush administration gave a centralist rather than decentralist edge to compassionate conservatism, and in the process damaged it severely.
And yet, a concept dead in Washington is very much alive around the country. I often hear about new mad missions of brave individuals who see a problem regarding education, health, crime or something else, and do not rest until they've used every bit of their mind, heart, soul and strength in an attempt to fix it. What should we call the movement of such individuals?
British Conservative Party leaders in the early years of this millennium were enamored with "compassionate conservatism" and often used the expression, but Bush's unpopularity in Britain has now made it politically toxic. They're talking about a gutsy replacement: They want to grab back "social justice" from the left, where it has come to be a politically loaded synonym for government redistribution programs.
Indianapolis community leader Joanna Taft, who heads the board of a charter school there, also wants to rescue the term. She notes that "charter schools are often perceived as a conservative ploy to undermine the traditional public school system. By emphasizing the social justice aspects of the project-bringing black and white/inner city and middle class students together, offering a rigorous liberal arts education to the underserved, serving a high proportion of students from single parent/divorced homes, producing students who are capable of succeeding in college-naysayers have become champions for the school."
Taft points out that one Indianapolis newspaper "includes a weekly social justice calendar. This calendar lists activities addressing hunger, war, racism-all problems that stem directly from the Fall." She argues that Christians should have a gospel-centered perspective on these issues "and should be leading these discussions in the community. Instead, in most communities, the Christians are the ones absent from those discussions. We should be SETTING the social justice calendars of our cities."
True. When police don't take action against drug dealers in poor neighborhoods, that's a social justice issue. When children of impoverished parents have no choice but to go to a rotten public school, that's social injustice. When governments take taxpayers' money and discriminate against effective, strongly biblical programs that many taxpayers value, that's social injustice. When prisoners are merely warehoused, that's a social justice issue.
"Social justice" has been so twisted by the left that it now offends many conservatives and older Christians, but the term can help many younger Christians focus on what is truly just or unjust in particular proposals. "Social justice" is worth a rescue attempt.
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