Compassion is Good, but Justice is Better

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

May 1, 2001

Here’s a little quiz related to political support for faith-based organizations. Which of the following three statements was said by George W. Bush?

Statement A: “I am a supporter of these programs in which faith-based organizations help the government serve public purposes. If a drug addict or a prisoner or a homeless person can find inspiration and strength within himself to deal with his or her problem, then don’t we all gain from that?”

Statement B: “I have seen the difference faith-based organizations make. I believe the lesson to the nation is clear. In those instances where the unique power of faith can help us meet the crushing social challenges that are otherwise not possible to meet, we must explore carefully tailored partnerships with our faith community.”

Statement C: “This is a meeting to begin a dialogue about how best to help faith-based programs change people’s lives, how best government can encourage, as opposed to discourage, faith-based programs from performing their commonplace miracles of renewal.”

If you picked “C” as Bush’s statement, you were right. Statement A was made by Sen. Joe Lieberman and Statement B was made by Vice President Al Gore last May. I suggest that this indicates some sort of consensus, or at least less dissension than you might have expected on these programs.

Martha Minow of Harvard Law School offers a simple summary of a sensible approach to these programs by people who might have a certain skepticism about the interpenetration of religion and faith, but also a sympathy for what these programs actually do. “If charitable choice implies a simple solution of turning all areas, all public duties in a state over to the religious organizations, it is unwise, unworkable, and probably unconstitutional,” Minow writes. “Yet, as a matter of policy, partnerships between governments and religious organizations hold genuine possibility for better responses to human needs.”

She continues, “If the government becomes involved in promoting a particular religion and religion in general, there are risks of the kind of entanglement between religion and government that can endanger both.” The remedy for the risk, she says, is a vigorous pluralism that promotes individual freedom, equality, and mutual respect among different groups.

Minow also cites the wonderful Michael Ignatieff line: “We need justice, we need liberty, and we need as much solidarity as can be reconciled with justice and liberty.” That’s an interesting test for these programs.

At its best, the Bush approach to this—or you might say the Bush-Gore-Lieberman approach to this—recognizes that all of us know people whom we routinely describe as saints. By saints, we’re not making a theological judgment, but we’re describing those people we know whose satisfaction in life comes not from accumulating power or money but from devoting themselves to other people. Those saints are not necessarily in religious programs—they are also in public schools; they work in housing projects; they do many different kinds of work—but many of them are in the churches, the synagogues, the mosques, and other houses of worship.

Whether it’s George Bush in office or not, if we begin to recognize the centrality of the work of the saints in our society, that will be a positive good. Further, it’s a positive good to acknowledge that miracles happen every day in church basements, childcare centers run by religious institutions, in prison fellowships, and the like.

This idea of charitable choice is not suddenly bashing down a thick wall that has always existed between church and state. We know, to pick two obvious examples, that Medicare and Medicaid money have been flowing into religious hospitals for years and government student loans have helped students attending religious colleges and universities for many years. Even more recently, government money has flowed very heavily into voucherized childcare programs, where lots and lots of kids are taken care of in the basements of houses of worship.

My doubts about charitable choice are less on constitutional grounds—although there are questions that can be raised, especially on the issue of religious discrimination—than about what it will mean for broader policy toward the needy.

The first argument that needs to be made is that religious groups cannot be seen apart from the broader fabric of civil society. At least for the moment, the Bush administration seems to be going this way. If the case is made that religious groups do things particularly well and the money should go exclusively to religious groups, that will not only fail on constitutional grounds and political grounds, but it’s a misreading of the promise of charitable choice and of the faith-based organizations. This has to be seen as part of a broader effort to strengthen the voluntary sector as a whole and civil society as a whole.

Second, generous words about the poor aren’t the same as money. Perhaps the question to ask my friend John DiIulio is: “Show me the money.” We are going to have to test what this initiative means, compared to what government does in other areas. Because as Minow says, there are many areas—health care being the obvious one, income maintenance being another—where the religious institutions will not and cannot supplant the fundamental role of government.

Now Bush himself has said that he does not propose to replace government with these groups, and that’s good. But it’s fair to stack up the size of the tax cuts against the resources that go to the very poor, in this program and all the others.

I have a certain sympathy for compassionate conservatism. First, it’s got to be better than other kinds of conservatism. Second, in my experience many people who call themselves compassionate conservatives really have a bad conscience about poverty, which is to say they really do care about the poor. They have argued, “We conservatives have talked endlessly about reducing the role of government. Yet, we have not had an answer to the problem of how you help the poor.” So I respect what many of these folks are trying to do.

But I think that within the compassionate conservative idea is a kind of individualism that is masked at times by communitarian language. The bumper sticker to summarize my view on this would be, “Compassion is good, but justice is better.” As a society, we need to look at how these efforts to help the poor as individuals stack up against our efforts to improve society as a whole.

A lot of what Bush has said about charitable choice focuses on the individual disability that leads to poverty. Bush does not say this in an uncharitable way, but he does focus on the individual disability. Faith-based organizations in this light are seen as ways of converting the individual heart. That is a favorite George Bush term.

The other way to view faith-based organizations is as builders of community in our nation. It sees the faith-based organization as a source of solidarity.

Whatever our political differences in the long haul, I think there is a kind of yearning Left, Right, and Center that I summarize with the question, “Is this all there is?” I believe there’s a quiet revolt against materialism going on in the country.

Recently the front page of The New York Times featured some of the wealthiest people in America saying they oppose the repeal of the inheritance tax. They were saying that their own wealth is not the most important thing to them. They believe that there is something called the common good; they believe that we should not be an aristocracy of wealth.

What you see in Bush’s language and what you see in the language of religious progressives is a kind of revolt against materialism. That is very promising to us as a nation. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that God isn’t going to do all of it by himself, and this initiative is certainly in that spirit. But when we look at faith-based initiatives, we also need to acknowledge that religion’s role in public life is necessarily vexed. Religion can be unifying, it can be divisive; it can build community, it can separate communities from each other; it can bring us to a self-critical morality or it can inspire a self-righteous moralism.

Churches and religious institutions have the capacity to call us to the better side of those things, to call us to community and to call us to solidarity. The great opportunity in debating George Bush’s faith-based initiative is not necessarily that this initiative itself will solve all of the social problems it claims to solve, but that in the course of discussing it, people will, by the very logic of their position, be drawn into the values of solidarity and community?even people who have not been drawn to those ideas in the past. That is my hope, and that is also our challenge, a challenge to both supporters of the program and its critics.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from a forum at Harvard Divinity School on the book Who Will Provide?: The Changing Role of Religion in American Social Welfare (Westview) with permission of Harvard Divinity Bulletin/Religion & Values in Public Life.