Articles of Faith: Did Austerity Politics Kill Compassionate Conservatism?

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House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, August 1, 2011 in Washington, DC.

In the wake of the debt-ceiling debate, young voters might find it hard to believe that just ten years ago, “compassionate conservative” was a mantle worn with a straight face by many GOP leaders. In fact, you could argue that George W. Bush split the independent vote with Al Gore in 2000 because of his image as a compassionate conservative. Now, of course, in the era of the kick-ass-and-kill-programs Tea Party, few Republicans who value their careers would run as a touchy-feely politician. But is compassionate conservatism dead, or just mostly dead?

Marvin Olasky, widely credited as the author of compassionate conservatism and editor of the conservative evangelical magazine WORLD, is still around. And he’s displeased enough with the GOP’s current leadership to rebuke them for embracing the individualism of Ayn Rand. “For nearly a decade Democrats have sought a religious wedge issue that could separate big chunks of white evangelical voters from their Republican home,” Olasky wrote in July. “Now they’ve found it, and are thrusting at the Social Darwinist/Ayn Rand underbelly of American conservatism.”

Olasky isn’t just warning Republicans that they may have handed Democrats a wedge issue in the form of a philosopher who sought to replace religion with capitalism–although there is some of that in Olasky’s tone. He’s also siding with the left’s criticism: “Religious liberals are now rightly chastising conservatives who idolize [Rand].”

The father of compassionate conservatism might be expected to go after those who mock the idea that government can be a partner in helping the most vulnerable in society. But other stalwarts in the evangelical community have spoken up as well. In the spring, Chuck Colson warned that Rand “peddles a starkly anti-Christian philosophy.” And the Family Research Council–no Democratic shill–recently ran an essay calling on conservatives to “exorcize Ayn Rand” and to read their Bibles and Constitutions. “They will find in these enduring documents no syllable to support the morbid maunderings of Ayn Rand,” wrote FRC fellow Robert Morrison.

You could argue that Olasky and his peers are as upset by Rand’s ridicule of Christianity and religious belief as by her philosophy of atheistic self-interest. And you might be right, although that still poses a problem for the party that sometimes like to style itself as “God’s Own Party.” The debt ceiling debate, however, triggered criticisms of the GOP more in line with the substance of compassionate conservatism, particularly from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Last week, as Congress was considering various Republican proposals to end the debt ceiling stand-off, the bishops sent a letter to Capitol Hill warning:

“A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons. It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.” [emphasis original]

In other words, a just budget as the U.S. bishops envision it is not possible given the vows Republican leaders have taken to oppose all tax increases and cuts to military spending. The letter ended with this sharply-worded conclusion:

“The moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated. Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources.”

The bishops’ letter reached Congress just a week after the conservative Heritage Foundation released a report arguing, among other things, that Americans living under the poverty line are not actually poor because they have household appliances like refrigerators. Embarrassingly, the Heritage Foundation appears to have relied on a mistranslation of one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor, for their spoilt milk shall earn them the kingdom of heaven.”

The bishops wrote Congress earlier this year as well to express “serious concerns” about Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. Conservative columnist and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has also called out his fellow Republicans from time to time, particularly over cuts to foreign aid programs. But are pleas for compassion come budget time and occasional shamings over Ayn Rand worship enough to constitute a compassionate conservative caucus on the right?

Probably not. The days of Stephen Goldsmith and John DiIulio and even George W. Bush are over just as much as those of the Nelson Rockefeller Republicans. There are two dominant responses to tough economic times–redoubled altruism and redoubled libertarianism–and the Tea Party adamantly stands for the latter.

The un-compassionate policies of today’s GOP, however, may force some religious voters and leaders to ask themselves some tough questions next year. Catholic leaders have played a significant role in recent elections by making clear–sometimes explicitly–that a candidate’s position on abortion is what matters most. Republican politicians sometimes seem determined to test how much they can get away with because of their opposition to abortion. Likewise, conservative evangelicals have professed to care most that a candidate is a person of strong faith, a bar that has been at times ridiculously low. Whether the new apostles of Ayn Rand meet that bar will be for those evangelical voters to decide.

Amy Sullivan is contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on every Friday.