Nowadays, Mr. Olasky is the editor in chief of World Magazine, a Christian-oriented weekly publication. Asked in e-mail about the current Republican field, he had this to say: “It’s still early. I wrote a book in the late 90s, ‘The American Leadership Tradition’ which among other things looks at trustworthiness in marriage as a leading indicator of trustworthiness in public office, so I’d like to know a lot more about several of the candidates. Regarding Giuliani, I’d like some sense of the types of judges he would be likely to appoint. McCain and Giuliani have name recognition right now, but January surprises are now traditional in election years.” While unwilling to officially endorse any one candidate, Mr. Olasky did trumpet one dark horse candidate — Senator Brownback. “Brownback is embracing compassionate conservatism, and that could have great appeal to religious conservatives.” ~The New York Sun

It is interesting that Olasky makes a candidate’s marriage a possible test for gauging political leaders in terms of their trustworthiness. One might note that Mr. Bush is apparently steadfastly faithful to his one and only wife, but has also been one of the more duplicitous presidents of the last century. I would have thought that if anyone was going to make an issue out of the marital histories of the major GOP candidates, it would be for straight-up moral reasons (i.e., divorce is simply wrong and unacceptable) or because of the symbolism and role-model effect of selecting an adulterer (“it sends a terrible message to the country to nominate someone who has broken his marriage vows”). I think a mix of these two arguments (the moral and the symbolic) would be fairly effective at undermining a Gingrich or Giuliani run.

The line of attack would be personal and straightforward: “How can we expect X to fight for the institution of marriage when he failed in his own marriage? He could not keep his promises to his wife–what makes you think that you can trust him to keep his promises to the people?” (At which point, the cynics would point out that no politician keeps his promises anyway, which renders the issue moot!) The personal nature of such an attack could backfire, and the injured party could complain about the dangers of hypocrisy and moralism, etc, etc. The press would love it, and the attacks would almost certainly have to be outsourced to a 527 group. No candidate would want to be caught on tape making those attacks, even though a significant bloc of Republican primary voters would be turned off by Gingrich and Giuliani’s personal, um, foibles. But the sheer absurdity of the party that makes a very big deal out of its defense the institution of marriage nominating a known adulterer (Giuliani or Gingrich) or someone who has been once divorced (McCain) might not be too much for the big-name pundits to take, but for the voters it might introduce some confusion.

Olasky’s mention of Brownback’s “compassionate conservatism,” which I have noted and skewered before, is noteworthy for what it tells us about Sen. Brownback’s chances. The last ‘Olaskyian’ candidate was George Bush, who adopted the “compassionate conservative” shtick, er, philosophy as a way of demonstrating that he was not some right-wing maniac, because he fully expected the real challenge to his candidacy in the primaries would come from the right. As it happened, McCain came at him from the left and forced him to seize the true-blue conservative mantle, which made the “compassionate conservative” angle much less significant for defining Bush’s appeal. It was the primaries that created the illusion, encouraged by the media and the GOP, that Mr. Bush was some kind of real conservative. Thus we have been treated to a fair number of stories and editorials up until this year telling us that Bush is so much more conservative than Reagan ever was, which in so many important ways is fantastically, horrendously wrong that it would take a separate post to untangle the whole mess. Aside from the occasional refrain about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and the endlessly repeated “uniter not a divider” mantra the happy, “compassionate” Bush of 1999 and early 2000 largely went away. He was settling into rather dreary moderate Republican mediocrity in the first months of 2001 with his faith-based initiative effectively wilting into insignificance before the first year was out. He continued to blather on for years about “armies of compassion,” but you didn’t have to be a trained political analyst to know that this was never Bush’s strength nor was it a terribly appealing message.

I risk making a wildly overgeneralised statement when I say this, but I don’t think most religious conservatives care very much for “compassionate conservatism” at all and are instead fairly embarrassed by it. This isn’t so much because they think conservatism is merciless and cruel, but simply because they have traditionally been wary of secular and progressive reformist appeals expressed in the syrupy language of compassion and emotionalism. (The hysterical and at times insane enthusiasm about Terri Schiavo lead me to think that I may not understand religious conservatives today very well at all, but I would very much like to think that this episode was an extreme and bizarre mutation of much more normal pro-life concern.)

“Help the children” and the like used to be the kind of appeal that conservatives quite appropriately mocked as manipulative and often somewhat dishonest–now the “compassionate conservatives” want to come up with their own ways to “help the children”…and children in Africa, no less. Religious conservatives, if I understand them at all, once regarded this kind of language as the cover for some kind of con, which it often is, but they also have viewed it as a hijacking by government of the legitimate functions of private charity and the work of the Church and thus a danger to and an imposition upon churches. There are also some Christian conservatives, and not simply the most conservative ones, who react badly to the vague, weasel-worded appeals to “people of faith” and “faith-based” this or that; for the folks who think this is a Christian country or for those who think that Christianity in particular has been marginalised or driven out of public debate more than other religions, the deliberate refusal to speak plainly about Christian charity and Christian works of mercy probably strikes them as an appalling concession to the spirit of multiculturalism and an embarrassing accommodation with an interreligious ecumenism in which they almost certainly do not believe. (On a related note, the statements of some of the leading religious conservative leaders about Romney–it’s the issues, not his church affiliation, that matter–will encourage Romney to walk right into the middle of this minefield, as he attempts to smuggle his non-Christian beliefs into his appeal for religious conservative votes by talking about “faith” and values” that will, I suspect, leave a lot of people cold.)

Contrary to the people raising alarms about theocracy, the “faith-based” initiative appears to quite a few religious conservatives as a real defeat in the culture wars both with respect to the role of the government and the influence of Christianity on public discourse. Those who, apparently like Katherine Harris (but preferably without the lunacy), think that serious Christians should be the leaven of the nation most likely see “faith-based” government subsidies as an insulting attempt at buying off Christian voters and a means for exercising control over churches rather than having the churches exert their influence on government. Secularists become nervous about this because they think it breaks down the mythical “separation” barrier, which religious conservatives would be very glad to see repudiated once and for all provided that Christianity triumphs as a result, but I think Christian conservatives view this kind of program in a harsh light because it intrudes upon the liberty of the Church and delays and retards any progress towards a “restoration” or “taking the country back,” as they sometimes put it.

That the people who seem most likely to embrace this idea, such as it is, also seem to be rather un-conservative by the standards of many different kinds of conservatives in many other important respects does not lend it a lot of credibility. Brownback hitches himself to this broken-down “philosophy” at his own political peril. It may win over Rick Warren and some of his evangelicals, but to just about everybody else this appeal comes off sounding at once sappy and uninspiring. When Brownback starts talking about intervening to help the people of Darfur, he just sounds recklessly idealistic. When he applies the “compassionate conservative” approach to immigration, he appears to most core GOP voters as being just as bad as Bush and possibly even more sanctimonious about it.