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'Compassionate Conservatism' Goes To War

10 November 2001

Shrouded in the fog of the war on terrorism, "compassionate conservatism" is making a stealthy comeback. Before September 11, that slogan was slowly dying. Now George W. Bush and his administration are making the most of an unexpected chance to resurrect it. Over and over again, the president has praised the "compassion" of Americans. The word sounds innocent enough. Behind it, though, is a right-wing religious agenda ready and eager for war without end. Liberals make a big mistake if they dismiss "compassionate conservatism" as just a hypocritical catch phrase. For the right, it is a serious scheme to give tax dollars to churches through so-called "faith-based initiatives." But that is not even the half of it.

"Compassionate conservatism" is an ideological crusade to reverse the progressive social and cultural trends begun in the 1960s. It aims to take the United States back, not just to the 1950s or even the 1920s, but all the way back to the 1820s, when reformers preached the Gospel to the poor.

The ideological godfather of the movement is Marvin Olasky, a Texas professor and born-again Christian. In his preface to Olasky's book, Compassionate Conservatism, Bush wrote: "It is an approach I share." Olasky wants tax dollars for churches because the poor need religion. They got poor, he argues, because they are sinners, unable to control "appetite and lust and idleness." This is the old Christian belief in original si n, scarcely disguised: "Man is sinful and likely to want something for nothing." "Man's sinful nature leads to indolence." "Many persons, given the option of working, would choose to sit." No amount of aid will make any difference, Olasky insists, until the poor decide to live a disciplined life and earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow (at low wages, of course).

The needy must have constant challenge, testing, and scrutiny to learn the spiritual virtue of self-control, according to Olasky's ideology. His models are the 19th century religious reformers who "made moral demands on recipients of aid." They demanded the self-discipline to work hard and live by society's rules, a discipline only God and church can bring. They saw "faith as central to our being, not a lifestyle option." The poor "need the internal pressure to live honored and useful lives, modeled after our perfect leader, Christ. " This could be called blaming the victim. But the White House calls it compassion. In his inaugural address Bush called it "private character" and "order in their souls." In the conservative Christian vocabulary, "character" and "order" are code words for voluntary restraint of sinful appetites.

There is no reason to doubt that the president really believes all this. "We're all sinners," he told an interviewer. "When you admit you're a sinner, it is ... an understanding that the human condition requires a power greater than self." But conviction of sin need not bring feelings of guilt. Bush recalled being converted by America's most famous evangelist: "Billy Graham didn't make you feel guilty; he made you feel loved. ... Through the love of Christ's life, I could understand the life-changing powers of faith." Divine love is the only antidote to sin, and therefore to poverty: "Government can hand out money, but it cannot put hope in people's hearts. Government is limited in its ability to encourage love." This is this logic behind Bush's promise that religious groups taking federal money will not have to "change their mission." The only way to get self-discipline is to root sin out of the heart and replace it with love. Only religion can produce that transformation.

Bush's devoted his inaugural address, his chance to tell the world what his presidency would be about, almost entirely to "compassionate conservatism." He made it clear that he was embarking on a religious crusade: "We are guided by a power larger than ourselves, who creates us equal in his image." He could frame his spiritual message as a call to "help t hy neighbor," because in the 19th century ideology he used, attacking sin and helping neighbor were inseparable sides of the same coin. For Christians who understood the language, though, the inaugural address also announced a crusade against another kind of sin: not just the financial poverty of the lower class, but the spiritual poverty of the loose-living middle class. During the 2000 campaign, Bush called the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal "an awakening for all of us to be able to understand how important it is to keep a check on carnal desires and to be responsible for the decisions we make in life. We've got a culture that has sent a signal that says: 'If it feels good, just go ahead and do it. And if you have a problem in society, then blame somebody else.' ... What this country needs to do is to usher in what I call 'the responsibility era'--where you are responsible for the decisions you make."

He made the same point more cryptically in the inaugural address: "We find the fullness of life, not only in options, but in commitments." The message was easy enough to decipher. Clinton and Gore symbolized the "'60s generation," who are (according to conservatives) unable or unwilling to restrain their sinful impulses. They legitimize their indulgence of appetites and lusts by calling it freedom. They have no enduring values by which to raise a stable family. They have only the inconstancy of constantly shifting "options" (and, presumably, shifting sexual partners). They justify their sinful behavior by blaming social factors. Thus, the argument goes, they sow the seeds of disorder in U.S. society. The only way to restore order is to make sure that sin carries painful consequences. (This is Bush's rationale for his frequent use of capital punishment, as governor of Texas: "If the death penalty is administered surely, swiftly and justly, it will save lives because people will know that there is going to be a consequence to crime.")

Concluding his inaugural speech, the president spoke of "our nation's grand story of courage, and its simple dream of dignity. We are not this story's author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose. Yet his purpose is achieved in our duty and our duty is fulfilled in service to one an other." This is the ideology of "compassionate conservatism" in a nutshell. Duty and service require self-restraint, character, and order in our souls, rather than self-indulgent pursuit of options. Only if Americans embrace these conservative virtues can we fulfill our divinely-appointed mission to save the world from sin. "Compassionate conservatism," enshrined in the White House, offered Bush and the Republican Party a political bonanza from the federal billions that would flow to churches. But it also offered conservatives an escape route from their fear of social and cultural change beyond their control. It was presented as a progressive program to make life better for poor Americans. Primarily, though, it was a protective program to make life bearable for Americans with money in their pockets and anxiety in their souls.

The administration's PR shop had hoped that "compassionate conservatism" and "faith-based initiatives" would define the Bush presidency. After an initial flurry of interest, though, the whole idea got bogged down in political wrangling.

Conservatives, including Olasky himself, feared that the government might well end up telling the churches how to spend their money. Among liberals, the inseparable link between social service and spiritual guidance was a frightening specter. So there was a tacit agreement between both ends of the spectrum to take the spotlight off "compassionate conservatism." This left the Bush administration bereft of a banner under which to combat sin and march into the pages of history -- until September 11, 2001, when the president and his PR staff found, as he himself put it, "our mission and our moment ."

Within hours of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the PR shop knew what the Bush presidency was now about: winning the war against terrorism. "Our nation saw evil," the president announced. "Freedom itself was attacked this morning," and "freedom will be defended." From the first, he depicted the war as a great national test and insisted that "we will pass this test," because Americans are "comforted by a po wer greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: 'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.'"

Since then, Bush and his speechwriters have constructed the war as an apocalyptic battle, pitting all the world's religions against the "evildoers." "The evil ones" are sin incarnate: irrational, inscrutable, implacable, Nazi-like beasts. So questions of motive, and certainly of U.S. policy, are irrelevant. It is simply a war of virtue against sin. No one can be neutral, because "God is not neutral."

Bush's rhetoric is built around a biblical drama of God guiding His chosen people from adversity to triumph over the forces of evil: "God's signs are not always the ones we look for," he told a national prayer service. "We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own." But he allows no doubt that God is leading the U.S. to create a better future out of the ashes: "I believe my faith teaches that out of evil can come good." American strength and resolve will create "an age of liberty here and across the world" -- after the war is won.

Already, however, Bush sees another good arising from the evil: the resurrection of "compassionate conservatism." The words compassion and compassionate are often on his lips as he shapes the nation's response to the attacks. The U.S. carries the sword of justice in one hand and the bread of compassion in the other: "Oh, yes, we're a compassionate nation, but our compassion is limited. We have great compassion, however, for the millions around the world who are victims of hate, victims of oppressive government, including the people who live in Afghanistan." (Thus the woefully inadequate food drops become "compassionate conservatism" in action.) The president even credits the attackers for the resurrection of compassion: "The evil ones have sparked an interesting change in America, I think, a compassion in our country that is overflowing. ... Our nation is united, we are strong, we're compassionate, neighbors care about neighbors."

The compassion Bush speaks of is no vague notion of helping others. It is the very specific ideological compassion of "compassionate conservatism." Far from trying to hide this, he boasts that he "had planned a new initiative called Communities of Character, designed to spark a rebirth of citizenship and character and service. The events of September the 11th have caused that initiative to happen on its own." His words about the war are a powerful springboard for resurrecting the full ideological freight of "compassionate conservatism." That ideology now permeates all of his rhetoric.

He paints the war as a grand chance to wage the same moral crusade at the heart of "compassionate conservatism." By portraying the attacks and the attackers as absolute evil, Bush makes it clear that the U.S. now represents absolute good. The moral relativism and pursuit of "options," so widely attributed to "the '60s generation," is no longer an option. (New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, made this point explicitly.) Americans are now "less innocent," the president says, meaning (in conservative jargon) that we now believe in the reality of uncaused and absolute evil. The "evildoers" must take the full, lethal consequences of their acts. No appeal to circumstances or external factors is permitted.

If there is now a war between absolute good and absolute evil, there is an inescapable duty to fight against evil. Accepting this difference and duty becomes the test of a patriotic American. And patriotism itself becomes a test in presidential rhetoric. Americans are all challenged to show resolve and discipline. It is a test of our willingness to sacrifice immediate pleasures for a longer term good. When the president urges Americans to boost the economy by spending money, he frames this, too, as a form of test and sacrifice.

Bush creates a direct link between sacrifice and "compassionate conservative" values: "So America is sacrifice. ... Many people are reassessing what's important in life. Moms and dads are not only reassessing their marriage and the importance of their marriage, but of the necessity of loving their children like never before. I think that's one of the positives that have come from the evildoers." "I see a great opportunity when I see moms and dads spend more time with their children here at home. I see, out of this sadness and grief, an opportunity for America to re-examine our culture, to re-examine how we view the need to help people in need whether it be in our own neighborhood and around the world."

The unrestrained sin of the attackers calls for greater self-restraint among the victims, Bush's rhetoric suggests: "This new era requires new responsibilities." But he sees everyone responding to the call, even the young, who might be least expected to discipline themselves: "Since September 11, an entire generation of young Americans has gained new understanding of the value of freedom and its cost and duty and its sacrifice." "I see, out of this evil, will come good, not only here at home, as youngsters all of a sudden understand the definition of sacrifice, the sacrifice of those brave souls on Flight 93, who after the 23rd Psalm said, let's roll to save America." This is a splendid opportunity to dispel "the wrong idea of Americans as shallow, materialist consume rs who care only about getting rich or getting ahead" and show that America is "full of kind and loving people, people of faith." With words like these, Bush speaks not merely of defending the physical lives of Americans, but of saving souls from "the evil one." Compassion will save Americans because it is the fruit of self-discipline, of "character" and "order in their souls."

In Bush's rhetoric, compassion, self-sacrifice, and the U.S. war effort are interwoven weapons against sin. So he gives compassion an explicitly religious meaning: "Helping people in great need is a central part of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, as well as many other faiths. It is also a central part of the American tradition." "Many people [are] spending more time in prayer and in houses of worship." "We've got moms and dads reassessing values, recognizing there are things that are so precious in life, like their children and their marriage and their family and their church and their synagogue and their mosque. Values are strong in America." Presumably those values are the "family values" so closely linked to the ideology of "compassionate conservatism."

If "compassionate conservatism" is the standard of religious virtue, it is the ideology on which all virtuous people around the world must agree. Thus it becomes the source not only of national but of global unity. Anyone who questions this ideology is, by definition, an enemy of compassion and true religion. The president even assumes the right to define "true Isl am." Not surprisingly, it turns out to be fully consonant with "compassionate conservatism" and U.S. war policy. The terrorists, on the other hand, have "no religion."

Bush and his speechwriters are using the language of "compassionate conservatism" to tie together all the pillars of their war rhetoric: national unity, firm resolve to pass the test, and obedience to God's will, insuring continuing divine guidance. However, they are also using the language of war to rescue "compassionate conservatism." They turn the genuine compassion of so many Americans into evidence of a 19th century-style moral reform. "Compassionate conservatism" becomes the antithesis of the sin and the essential weapon to defeat "the evil ones." "Compassionate conservatism" and the war on terrorism become interwoven ways to do God's will and fulfill America's divinely appointed mission. This gives new urgency to the social and political project of "compassionate conservatism."

Can sin ever be finally defeated by human effort? Devout Christians have debated that question for many centuries. So does the Bush administration. The president and his top advisors often sound convinced that the final battle can be won. In their more honest moments, though, they admit the truth. Just a few days after the war started, Vice-President Dick Cheney said, "There's not going to be an end date when we're going to say, `'There, it's all over with.''' Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that U.S. actions "surely will not" eliminate terrorism "completely from the face of the Earth." Bush himself was only a bit more circumspect when he described the war as "a task that does not end."

These remarks make it clear that, despite the apocalyptic rhetoric, the operative goal is not to eliminate, but only to contain, terrorism. As Rumsfeld said, this war "undoubtedly will prove to be a lot more like a cold war than a hot war.'' Terrorism replaces communism as the chief sin to be contained. But the goal is still defined in the familiar cold war terminology of containment and stability. Terrorism anywhere would "threaten the stability of legitimate governments," Bush warns. "And you know what? We're not going to allow it." "Compassionate conservatism" is the domestic counterpart of the war on terrorism: an equally long-term war to contain destabilizing forces that will always threaten America.

By making the war and "compassionate conservatism" partners in the quest for stability, the president clearly implies that foreign terrorists and domestic liberals have joined hands to undermine our familiar, safe, and stable life. Both his domestic and foreign policies aim to contain and restrain these twin agents of sin. On both fronts, he urges virtuous people to conserve what now exists against the destabilizing changes that the forces of sin seek to instigate. For conservatives, war and compassion are two different kinds of barriers erected to hold back the same enemy. Today it comes dressed as poverty and "lifestyle options" and global terrorism. Tomorrow it may wear some other guise. Always and everywhere, though, the enemy's true face is sin and change.

That is why conservatives may be untroubled if the war on terrorism is indeed "a task that does not end." Conservatives are conservative precisely because they believe that sin, like terrorism, can never be eliminated by human effort. They point to the September 11 attack and the persistence of terrorism as proof that sin and evil are permanent facts of li fe, eternally threatening the nation's existence. And they recognize, however reluctantly, that change is an equally permanent reality. So they are easily convinced that "compassionate conservatism," like the war on terrorism, will be needed as long as history endures. The nation's virtue will always be put to the test. A true patriot will fight and sacrifice endlessly just to keep the forces of sin at bay.

This is a vision to warm a conservative's heart. For conservatives, the victory comes not in eradicating sin, but in fighting it forever. As long as sin threatens and the whole nation is mobilized to do battle against it, conservative values and policies will prosper.

As the rhetorical context of "compassionate conservatism" changes, its policy goals change too. Now the spiritual and material needs of the poor are eclipsed by the security needs of the nation. Yet conservatives were always using the needs of the poor as a vehicle to promote a middle-class spiritual revival. As long as the war can do that job more effectively, the war will remain in the conservative spotlight. Of course, the president's new-found popularity will make it easier to move many millions of tax dollars to the churches. That goal is surely not forgotten.

I have no fly on the White House wall. So I cannot say whether they are talking openly about using the war to save "compassionate conservatism." But the longer the war goes on, the better chance they have to execute the sharp right turn their slogan represents and turn that slogan into political policy and cultural reality. This is one more good reason for the forces of peace and truly progressive values to oppose the war.

Ira Chernus.
Professor of Religious Studies,
University of Colorado.

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