Eight years is an eternity in the life of what was once a hot new idea. At the GOP convention in Philadelphia in 2000, Bush staffers handed out buttons proclaiming, "I'm a compassionate conservative." Lots of delegates and staffers wore them. Some Republicans believed in the importance of finding better ways to help the poor. Others saw "compassionate conservatism" as their ticket to the White House.
At the Republican convention coming up next week in Minneapolis, such buttons will probably be as rare as "Harold Stassen for President" items. As Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, "compassionate conservatism" became connected to "massive spending increases and entitlement expansion." For six years President George W. Bush issued no vetoes-zero-as spending soared. His faith-based initiative started to be seen as just another way to spend more money without restructuring the way money is spent.
Recently, the faith-based initiative has taken some of the decentralizing steps that it should have taken all along. The Access to Recovery program emphasizes vouchers that can be used at Christian programs such as Teen Challenge as well as at secular and mildly religious programs. But for conservatives the changes are too little and too late-and liberals had always disliked programs that had the potential to reduce the size of government.
The good news, though, is that true compassion-suffering with those in need-is alive and well across the country. For the third year in a row WORLD interns, in conjunction with the Acton Institute for the Study of Liberty and Religion (disclosure: I'm an Acton senior fellow), have visited and reported on the finalists in Acton's nationwide Samaritan Award competition. Our five interns fanned out around the country last month, each visiting two finalists, and then came together for a week in New York of intensive editing. The interns learned to ask hard questions and to pin down details, including names. (They honored agreements in a couple of cases to use first names only to protect privacy.)
All 10 of these faith-based finalists spend money garnered by voluntary contributions, not Washington lobbying: They are compassionate conservatives in the original sense of the term. All 10 emphasize real change in lives, not the passing out of spare change: As it turns out, eight of the finalists this year are rescue missions or rehab centers of various kinds; the other two are a program for developmentally disabled adults and another for women fleeing prostitution and strip clubs.
Our first five profiles are of Lighthouse Ministries (Lakeland, Fla.), New Life Center (Franklin, Va.), Fresno Rescue Mission (Fresno, Calif.), South Side Mission (Peoria, Ill.), and Faith in Action (Grand Rapids, Mich.). Then comes an intermission: an interview with psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, who explains how an odd coalition of cultural leftists and fiscal conservatives did not show compassion toward the mentally ill. The mentally ill now constitute at least one-third of our homeless population and are among the hardest to help when they refuse to take their meds. We hope to see more evangelicals helping them.
Then we have five more profiles of faith-based groups: Promise of Hope (Dudley, Ga.), Redwood Gospel Mission (Santa Rosa, Calif.), A Way Out (Memphis, Tenn.), Harvey House (Harvey, Ill.), and Panama City Rescue Mission (Panama City, Fla.). And we also announce this year's Samaritan Award grand prizewinner and the two runners-up (see below)-but, as you read the descriptions of the groups, you might enjoy guessing.
The grand prize winner (of $10,000) is A Way Out, the program that helps Memphis prostitutes and strippers change their lives. A Way Out has been a finalist two years running and now breaks through. Our article ends with a quotation from director Carol Wiley: "We find them dancing in the dark and we want them living in the light." More light is coming.
The two runners-up this year, each of which receives $1,000, are from California and Illinois: the Fresno Rescue Mission Academy and Harvey House's Restoration Ministries.