The Magazine

Bracing Lessons for Bush

Compassionate conservatism before compassionate conservatism was cool

Sep 11, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 48 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a compassionate conservative? George W. Bush sought to answer that question, both in his acceptance speech in Philadelphia and (more extensively) in an address in Indianapolis on July 22, 1999. As a compassionate conservative, he proposes to "speak without apology for the values that . . . help overcome poverty." He praises the work of charities that make moral demands on the poor, treating them "as moral individuals, with responsibilities and duties, not as wards or clients or dependents or numbers." Governor Bush particularly supports faith-based charities, which "have shown their ability to save and change lives."

The laudable aim of compassionate conservatism is to promote self-reliance. In effect its contention is that the moral buck must stop with the poor if the economic bucks are to start flowing toward them. Significantly, that contention was also the hallmark of much nineteenth-century antipoverty policy, which was largely developed by administrators of charities. Thus, compassionate conservatism has a history, which offers helpful guidance to its advocates today.

Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890) was one of the preeminent charity workers of the nineteenth century. In 1853 he founded New York's Children's Aid Society (still very much in existence) to assist the vagrant youths, many of them orphans, who roamed the city's streets. Brace offered housing (for which youths paid, out of their earnings as boot-blacks or newsboys) and industrial training to his charges, as well as the opportunity to begin new lives with adoptive families in the country.

In many respects Brace's convictions were akin to those of the leaders of faith-based charities hailed by Governor Bush today. Brace was an ordained Congregationalist minister. He believed that charity was useless if it did not "touch habits of life and the inner forces which form character." "The higher education of character" that constitutes Christianity must be given to the poor, to ensure their self-reliance; if it was, "only seldom will either alms or punishment be needed." Not surprisingly, Brace advocated what is now called charitable choice -- state support of private, faith-based efforts that serve a secular purpose. If "a private charity is accomplishing a public work of great value, which is not and perhaps cannot be accomplished by purely public institutions," its efforts should be supported by the state, regardless of whether "the charity is 'sectarian' or not."

But Brace's experiences also offer useful cautions to today's compassionate conservatives regarding what can be accomplished and how. First, although Brace did save and change lives, it's worth considering whose lives he chose to affect.

Brace sought to shape the character of poor children and adolescents because he despaired of success in affecting adults in need of character reformation. His early experiences working with adults led him to conclude that "no permanent result . . . can be hoped for [from] works of reform . . . which do not bear upon the young." Attempts to cure the dependency of "the old poor," or to reform the character of misbehaving adults, were "almost hopeless," because it was hard to alter habits and passions once people were set in their ways. In contrast, children and adolescents could be formed and set on the proper path with comparative ease.

Far from being unique to Brace, pessimism about the reformability of adults was standard among practitioners and observers of nineteenth-century charity. A survey of American charitable practice in 1894 concluded that "except among dependent children, the cure of dependency is the exception rather than the rule."

This nineteenth-century pessimism should give today's compassionate conservatives pause. In the absence of hard data, they sometimes declare that faith-based charities work wonders in curing, for example, drug addictions and assorted other social ills. Although successes in individual cases undoubtedly occur, nineteenth-century assessments give little cause for confidence that the success is particularly widespread.

A second caution concerns the role of faith in faith-based charities. Here too, Brace's example offers a surprising twist. Despite his extensive discussion of the Christian basis of his (and in his view of all effective) charitable work, in practice the Children's Aid Society was nonsectarian and offered little religious instruction. Brace even welcomed atheists ("those of no defined religious belief") as workers for the society.

Religion posed a thorny issue for Brace, because it is impossible to be religious in the abstract. Instead, worshipers have to adhere to one or another concrete, particular religion. Brace himself was Protestant, but many of the New York youths whom he served were Catholic. Brace accordingly deemphasized religious (as opposed to moral) instruction, in a not altogether successful effort to ward off charges of proselytism.

He also deemphasized religious instruction because of its sometimes limited appeal to his youthful charges. Brace believed that changing the circumstances in which youths lived (by transporting them from the city to the country) was often "of far more importance . . . than any possible influence of Sunday-schools or Chapels." And he sympathized with street urchins who were unreceptive to the long-winded orations of preachers intent on their reformation. Similarly, one of Brace's counterparts today -- the Reverend Eugene Rivers -- is said to keep preaching to a minimum in his work with Massachusetts youths. When he pushed religion harder on kids in the past, Rivers reportedly discovered that many of them were intimidated and turned off.

To judge from Brace's testimony, appeals to religion seem often to have motivated desirable changes in character. But at other times, religious appeals seem to have aroused suspicion and to have evoked resistance. Compassionate conservatives should consider whether religion today is likely to produce only the desired result, but never the undesired consequence.

Brace's career also offers a third lesson to today's compassionate conservatives, concerning the role of government. In Governor Bush's formulation, "Government cannot be replaced by charities -- but it can welcome them as partners, not resent them as rivals." Were nineteenth-century charitable leaders more suspicious of the role of government? Not Brace. In the heyday of laissez faire he welcomed the prospect of partnership with government. Brace was among the earliest advocates of social insurance for the working poor: government programs (paid for in part by workers' contributions) to assist workers and their families in coping with old age, accident, and illness.

Needless to say, in the last two generations government programs by themselves have not managed to eradicate poverty. The recognition of this failure explains the interest in supplementing -- or replacing -- compassionate liberalism with compassionate conservatism. More than a century ago, Brace seems to have understood the insufficiency of government without religion, as well as the insufficiency of religion without government. Was he wrong?

Joel Schwartz is the author of Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America's Urban Poor, 1825-2000, forthcoming in October from Indiana University Press.