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Searching For a Truly Compassionate Conservatism

No one would deny that American philanthropy is grounded in good motives. But as The New Atlantis contributor William Schambra points out in a detailed article, philanthropy can become as poisoned as any other human venture:

America’s first general-purpose philanthropic foundations — Russell Sage (founded 1907), Carnegie (1911), and Rockefeller (1913) — backed eugenics precisely because they considered themselves to be progressive. After all, eugenics had begun to point the way to a bold, hopeful human future through the application of the rapidly advancing natural sciences and the newly forming social sciences to human problems. By investing in the progress and application of these fields, foundations boasted that they could delve down to the very roots of social problems, rather than merely treating their symptoms … According to the perspective of philanthropic eugenics, the old practice of charity — that is, simply alleviating human suffering — was not only inefficient and unenlightened; it was downright harmful and immoral. It tended to interfere with the salutary operations of the biological laws of nature, which would weed out the unfit, if only charity, reflecting the antiquated notion of the God-given dignity of each individual, wouldn’t make such a fuss about attending to the “least of these.” Birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, a Rockefeller grantee, included a chapter called “The Cruelty of Charity” in her 1922 book The Pivot of Civilization, arguing that America’s charitable institutions are the “surest signs that our civilization has bred, is breeding and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents.” Organizations that treat symptoms permit and even encourage social ills instead of curing them.

Schambra traces the history of “philanthropic” eugenics through the years, along with its roots and causes. “Philanthropy’s involvement in eugenics should forever remind us that, for all our excellent intentions and formidable powers, we are unable to eradicate our flaws once and for all by some grand, scientific intervention,” he writes.

The article highlights some inherent flaws in philanthropy that conservatives, and isolationists specifically, are very sensitive to: namely, the extent to which our “compassion” is motivated by a desire to control, fix, and regulate things not our business. It’s the “nanny state” paradigm, manifested in individuals like Mayor Bloomberg. It’s typically an accusation leveled at “compassionate conservatives.”

One commenter on a recent human trafficking article said he feared “a strong sense of self righteous, neo colonialist domination inherent in this kind of ‘cause’.”

However, in our fear of becoming meddlesome welfare statists, conservatives run the danger of becoming heartless. Paul Krugman accused Republicans of such sentiments in a Thursday column—he writes, “Republican hostility toward the poor and unfortunate has now reached such a fever pitch that the party doesn’t really stand for anything else — and only willfully blind observers can fail to see that reality.” Patrick Deneen excellently defined the problem with our attitudes in this regard in a recent TAC blogpost:

The motivation of charity is deeply suspect by both the Right and the Left. The Right—the heirs of the early modern liberal tradition—regards the only legitimate motivation to be self-interest and the profit motive. They favor a profit-based health-care system (one explored to devastating effect in this recent article on health care in the New Yorker), and a utilitarian university (the “polytechnic utiliversity” ably explored by Reinhard Huetter in the most recent issue of First Things). The Left—while seemingly friends of charity and “social justice”—are deeply suspicious of motivations based on personal choice and religious belief. They desire rather the simulacrum of charity in the form of enforced standardization, homogeneity, and equality, based on the motivation of abstract and depersonalized national devotions and personal fear of government punishment.

I do not think most conservatives (unless they really are Randian to the core) want to forsake true “compassionate conservatism”—just its current manifestation in political circles. How, then, does one exercise philanthropic sentiment properly?

The key, according to Schambra, is personal caritas (love). He writes,

loving personal concern is at the heart of charity traditionally understood. It can only be practiced immediately and concretely, within the small, face-to-face communities that Tocqueville understood to be essential to American self-government. There, the seemingly minor and parochial concerns of everyday citizens are taken seriously and treated with respect, rather than being dismissed as insufficiently self-conscious emanations of deeper problems that only the philanthropic experts can grasp.

One could say this is the localism movement’s compassionate conservatism. It is based in present needs, rather than remote philanthropic endeavors. It seeks to love one’s neighbor, and not to “fix” him.

Does this mean true conservatives shouldn’t get involved in global crises? It might depend on the person and situation. The concerns of Coptic Christians in Egypt are of immense and immediate concern to me, because I consider them my brothers and sisters in Christ. Do I believe all secular American should intervene on their behalf? No—it is not their responsibility as it is mine. But Schambra is right: perhaps we should first focus where we are planted, and then slowly, thoughtfully spread from there.

It is sad that the Republican Party, a political group filled with religious folk, often shows callousness toward the impoverished—either by refusing to help them, or by offering only conditional charity.  The Christian faith is filled with instructions to unconditionally love and help the unfortunate. Consider this passage from Isaiah 58, in which God rebukes the nation of Israel for being “religious” by fasting, but neglecting the poor:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ … If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.

Notice that it doesn’t say, “Only cover the naked or feed the hungry if they aren’t being lazy.” God doesn’t say, “Undo the heavy burdens—unless they really need to work harder.” Neither does he say, “Make sure they show a change of heart or get converted before you help them.” This isn’t a gospel of cutting food stamps. Perhaps it is a gospel in which food stamps never should have been necessary in the first place. If conservatives—especially Christian conservatives—want to say “government should mind its own business,” then perhaps it is time they start minding theirs.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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