by Marvin Olasky
September 16, 2006

This year, as Washington’s spending spree has continued, several conservative pundits have sat in air-conditioned offices and written about the death of compassionate conservatism, which they say has become a euphemism for big government spending.

If that’s true, it’s a shame, because the concept originally captured the excitement of thousands of small groups dedicated to fighting material and spiritual poverty. Their faith-based initiatives began without governmental help and are likely to continue regardless of what happens inside the Beltway.

But the punditocracy’s over-generalizations about compassionate conservatism are not true. In recent years I’ve visited more than 100 small, faith-based groups that are doing terrific work from sea to shining sea. The Acton Institute’s Center for Effective Compassion (disclosure: I’m an Acton senior fellow) has just given Samaritan Awards to 10 such groups.

Forty-five years ago President John F. Kennedy noted a problem among the armchair prophets of his time: “There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future.” Speaking in the then-divided central city of Germany, he asked the doomsayers to get out of their offices: “Let them come to Berlin.”

Those who think compassionate conservatism is dead should come to Samaritan Award programs in Richmond or Fairfield, California; Memphis, Nashville or Knoxville, Tennessee; Camden, N.J., or Chester, Penn.; Columbus, Ohio, or Hastings, Neb. or Marquette, Mich.

These programs provide challenging, personal and spiritual help to jobless men, homeless women, feckless teens and fatherless children. Space doesn’t permit me to show their merits here, but World magazine profiled the 10, plus five others on Sept. 2. And these programs are just the iceberg’s tip. Acton has more than 900 groups in its Samaritan Guide, and thousands more are little-known.

Few of the groups receive government money. They don’t spend their time and scant funds applying for federal grants or attending workshops on how to apply for grants. They are hands-on, and they use the hands of many volunteers. Most are purely local, but some that began locally have now expanded to other cities. Diverse organizational forms are developing as well-run small groups pass on to others the secrets of their success, and perhaps replicate themselves elsewhere.

These groups show how “the long tail” affects society as well as commerce. (Chris Anderson’s best-selling The Long Tail shows how merchants traditionally look for the few products that will sell an enormous number of units, but that there’s gold to be prospected, especially in the Internet age, among the many that sell few.) Compassionate conservatism in the United States has a small head and a very long tail.

The Bush administration in 2001 could have chosen a decentralizing strategy based on vouchers for the needy and poverty-fighting tax credits. That would have allowed citizens, rather than officials, to decide which poverty-fighting charities were worth supporting. Instead, the administration chose largely to maintain the centralized grant-making strategy of the previous 40 years, but with theologically conservative organizations allowed to compete for grants that had previously been monopolized by secular or theologically liberal groups.

That was an improvement over the previous leftward tilt, but it still didn’t do much for the small groups that make up the long tail. What now? “There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, and the same goes generally for presidential administrations. But maybe the newly refurbished Bush team has a chance to escape that common decline.

In the past three months, two people aware of the entrepreneurial potential of the long tail, Karl Zinsmeister and Jay Hein, have joined the Bush administration as chief domestic policy adviser and director of the White House’s faith-based office, respectively. Maybe they can act in decentralizing ways that for once will help the little guys. But regardless of what happens in Washington, compassionate conservatism is still alive and kicking.


— Dr. Marvin Olasky, is editor-in-chief of World Magazine and is widely credited as the father of President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”.