The Magazine

Mr. Compassionate Conservative

Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas considers a run for president. So why is he spending a night in prison?

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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You might not expect someone weighing a presidential run in 2008 to spend a dozen hours in a state prison; it's not exactly the best place to go in search of campaign dollars or volunteers. But once you grasp Sam Brownback's political vision, his visit to the Ellsworth Correctional Facility seems less odd.

Earlier this year, Brownback gave a lecture at Kansas State, his alma mater. He chose as his topic "American exceptionalism"--the idea, as he explained it, that our country is a "special place" and that it has a "special destiny for mankind." Brownback said that the source of American exceptionalism lies in "our fundamental goodness," and that while we have had our problems and "often get things wrong," we eventually find our way, because "some movement based on goodness and fixing what's wrong" starts up and doesn't stop until the problem is fixed. Like the abolitionist movement, which settled in Kansas "with a heart to end slavery." And the civil rights movement, which sought to end segregation.
Those movements, said Brownback, fought for "the inherent dignity" of every person, for "righteousness and justice." In our time, he continued, we must carry on this fight by reaching out to people who need help--"the poor and dispossessed," including prisoners and their families. We need to defend the dignity of people "no matter where they are, no matter what they look like, no matter what their status." And not just here at home. Brownback pointed to the sub-Saharan region of Africa, where he said 60 percent of the children have malaria; to Darfur, where the genocide continues; and to the Congo, where "an estimated 1,000 preventable deaths" occur every day.

Brownback didn't use his speech to offer a complete inventory of the people he thinks Americans should be reaching out to. But interviews with Brownback leave little doubt that it is a long list. It includes "the unborn," meaning the roughly 25 percent of the unborn who are aborted in the United States. And people who are physically and mentally disabled. And poor immigrants, including those here illegally. And people overseas who are persecuted for their political and religious beliefs; who are discriminated against and killed because of their race or ethnicity; who are sold into slavery; who are stricken with malaria and AIDS.

Not limited government, but compassionate government is Brownback's chief preoccupation. His focus on compassion comes, he says, from his Christian faith--specifically from the Second Great Commandment, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. "I have that up on my office wall, on a page, framed," he says. Brownback points out that the First Great Commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and it is "love for the divine" that "animates and gives you love for others." Brownback often uses Biblical terms to refer to those in need--such as "widows and orphans," "the least of these," and "foreigner in the land."

In his neighbor-love emphasis, Brownback resembles no politician so much as he does George W. Bush, who ran for president as a compassionate conservative. But Brownback believes that compassionate conservatism is "an area that lacks development," by which he means that the compassion part hasn't been extensive enough in its reach and that it needs to be broadened, particularly "toward the poor, in this country and internationally." He sees a "growth opportunity" here for conservatism and in turn for the Republican party.

Indeed, Brownback thinks the country is changing in a way that would make it more responsive to a more compassion-driven GOP. Since the mid-1990s, the nation has been undergoing what he calls "an awakening." You can see it "in poll numbers, in people's attitudes," he says. "It's an active faith, a very meaningful thing in people's lives." He points to a factory worker he met at the GM plant in Kansas City who was wearing "a ball cap that says 'God loves you.'" He mentions the people who come up to him saying, "I'm praying for you."

Brownback describes the awakening as "spiritual," not just religious or Christian. He points to "the 150 college kids who [in late April] walked two miles in the rain to the state capital" in Topeka "to recognize the plight of children in northern Uganda." Brownback is referring to children who walk up to 20 miles a day to find a safe place to sleep, where the rebel army won't abduct them. This has been going on for two decades. But "what hasn't been happening" until now, Brownback says, "is college students in the United States saying, 'This is wrong and I'm going to do something about it.'" Both Christian and "non-faith-oriented" students, says Brownback, made the two-mile walk (as did he). "A liberal bleeding heart group, and a Christian bleeding heart group. . . . And that's the beauty of it. The two groups are finding each other."