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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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.