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?