Conservatism and “The Least of These”

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Whenever I tell someone I know (an in Minneapolis, most of those people are liberals) that I am a Republican, they give me this odd look because in their minds, Republicans and conservatives are heartless towards the poor. Now, I know many Republicans that do care about the poor and needy, but the caricature remains. The fact is, many conservatives, like myself, are deeply religious people who take the teachings found in the Bible to do justice towards those who less fortuate very seriously. We might abhor a big, statist government and like free markets like all other conservatives, but we also think government should have a role in providing uplift to the poor and care for creation.

In Europe and Latin America, there is strain of conservatism that melds traditional conservative values like limited government with Catholic (and some Protestant) social teaching. It’s called Christian Democracy. There are several Christian Democratic parties throughout the world, the most notable is Germany’s Christian Democrats.

At times, I have wondered if a Christian Democratic movement could take place here in the States. I believe now is as good a time as any, as many evangelicals, which tend to vote Republican, are stressing more concern about issues like the crisis in Darfur or global warming then they are about gay marriage or abortion.

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for the President Bush, is taking the current crop of presidential candidates to task for not caring about the poor or minorities and for being so fixated on the anti-government base of the party. He is calling for a revolution within the party to be more focused on using limited government and free markets to solve grinding social issues.

He talks about the differences between what he sees as the two competing philosophies in the modern GOP, libertarianism and Catholic social thought:

The difference between these visions is considerable. Various forms of libertarianism and anti-government conservatism share a belief that justice is defined by the imposition of impartial rules — free markets and the rule of law. If everyone is treated fairly and equally, the state has done its job. But Catholic social thought takes a large step beyond that view. While it affirms the principle of limited government — asserting the existence of a world of families, congregations and community institutions where government should rarely tread — it also asserts that the justice of society is measured by its treatment of the helpless and poor. And this creates a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering.

This obligation to protect has never, in Jewish and Christian teaching, been purely private. Hebrew law made a special provision for the destitute — requiring that a portion of harvested crops be left in the field to be gathered by the poor. The Hebrew prophets raucously confronted the political and economic exploitation of the weak.

A significant portion of the Republican Party and the American public is influenced more by the social teachings of the Jewish and Christian traditions than by the doctrines of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Religious conservatives, broadly defined, prefer free-market methods. But they believe that the goal directing all our methods must be the common good.

Gerson then takes Rudy, Mitt, John, Fred, Mike and all the others wanting to be #44 to the woodshed:

What does a narrow, anti-government conservatism have to offer to urban neighborhoods where violence is common and intact families are rare? Very little. What hope does it provide to children in foreign lands dying of diseases that can be treated or prevented for the cost of American small change? No hope. What achievement would it contribute to the racial healing and unity of our country? No achievement at all.

As the Republican candidates attempt to prove themselves the exemplars of conservatism, they should consider what that philosophy can mean: the application of conservative and free-market ideas to the task of helping everyone.

I think this is the reason that you are finding more people interested in the Democrats these days to fix issues like health care. The leading presidential candidates are more interested in pleasing the anti-government people like Club for Growth, then they are in wondering how to make sure that 45 million people get access to health insurance. They are quick to say any Democratic health plan is “socialized medicine” (which for the most part is false, since most of the Dems plans are modest compared to systems in Canada and the UK which are socialized) than they are in finding ways to solve the problem.

I applaud Gerson for pushing for a “kindler, gentler” conservatism. Count me as one who will join him in the fight. Wanting small government should not mean having a small heart.

  • Rob

    Sorry, I just can’t dunk my religious donut in my secular coffee.

    Preventing the strong from exploiting the weak is a reasonable task for the government to assume (even though imo it does the opposite).

    But appropriating the assets of the strong to build up the weak (also the opposite of what we’ve seen lately imo) is the not the role of government. Such actions should be voluntary participation through private action.

    Just my 2c.

  • Jeremy

    “I applaud Gerson for pushing for a “kindler, gentler” conservatism. Count me as one who will join him in the fight. Wanting small government should not mean having a small heart.”

    Dennis Sanders, I think you put that so eloquently. All I want is America to live up to its reputation. We are supposed to be the most powerful this and that, well if that is the case then why is it the most powerful nation on earth has so many of its own people without health care? I contend it is greed. There’s a reason why health care cost in this country are sky-rocketing, and it’s not because the services becoming more expensive to implement, it’s simply about greed.

    I don’t care what you want to call a system that covers Americans when it comes to their health, call it socialized medicine, call it whatever the hell you want. We’ve tried the “free-market” system, it’s failing the American populace that cannot afford this artificially inflated care. The Republican party would contend for the next thousand years that “only a free-market system can work for America” all the while millions and millions continue to go without any sort of viable health care. If your idea of health care is going to the ER, then you are when uncompassionate individual.

    Health care should not be a luxury for only the rich, we’ve tried that system in this country for over 200 years and it has failed millions upon millions of Americans since the very start. It’s time to start treating Americans like Americans, not like some third-world unwantedes.

    How ironic it is that our government sees within itself to spend hundreds of billions of American taxpayer dollars in a country that we should have never been involved, yet we can’t afford to cover our own children because it is said that it sounds too much like “socialized” medicine. This country’s logic is just morbidly twisted. Spend money on bombs to kill but not medicine to save. Yeah, okay!

  • sleipner

    The phrase “compassionate conservatism” is as much an oxymoron today as when it was invented decades ago to try to convince gullible people that Republicans weren’t the heartless, conscienceless, greedy power and money grubbers they appear to be. Even their touting of “family values” is really just a code word for supporting racism and bigotry in a callous move to trick poor whacko fundamentalists into voting for them, despite how much damage Republican policies do to those constituencies.

    If Republicans truly want us to believe they care about anything other than themselves and their rich cronies they could try to do the following:

    1. Stop trying at every turn to cut funding or cancel all programs that help the poor and sick.

    2. Stop trying at every turn to give tax breaks to rich people and corporations while doing everything you can to make sure real wages for the middle and lower class remain stagnant or decline.

    3. Stop trying at every turn to remove all governmental regulation of safety and environmental practices of corporations while simultaneously trying to increase the government’s knowledge of and control over people’s private lives.

    4. Stop using ultimatums, threats, personal attacks, and brute force as your only negotiation tools for all circumstances. Start trying to use diplomacy and compromise to reach a reasonable middle ground with your opponents, whether they be Democrats or foreign nations.

    I could keep going, but I think you get the drift. Fortunately, the world is finally catching on to the lies and the evil, and the swinging pendulum of public opinion is going to fling even more Republicans into the Rapture in 2008. My only hope is that Bush and Cheney, in their desperate attempts to incite World War 3, don’t take us sane people with them.

  • http://www.stxjames.com David

    “The fact is, many conservatives, like myself, are deeply religious people who take the teachings found in the Bible to do justice towards those who less fortuate very seriously. We might abhor a big, statist government and like free markets like all other conservatives, but we also think government should have a role in providing uplift to the poor and care for creation.”

    Gee, that sounds nice and all, yet you vote in the likes of Bush and Gulianni. We’ll know you by your fuits, not the worthless platitudes you spew forth as you happily spred war across the globe. Guess what…Jesus would puke at the thought of any of today’s republicans. I’m sorry, either leave the party or be held responsible for it’s biggoted, hate-filled, war mongering stands.

  • DosPeros

    This liberation theology makes me want to vomit.

    Thank God for true Catholics like Pinochet and D’Aubuisson that rooted this communist shit out of Latin America and out of the Church.

    “Christian Democrat” is euphemism for just another socialist shitheel.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    Reading your post reminded me about Ryan Sager’s 2006 book: The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party (which I recommend). The theme of the book is that from a historical and purely practical political perspective, Republicans can only achieve electoral success when they have a candidate that fuses the “evangelical” and libertarian” constituencies of the Republican party. I think it speaks to your thesis, although it is not clear to me Sager’s “evangelicals” and your (Gerson’s) “Christian Democrats” share the same values.

    I am not completely comfortable with Sager’s terms “evangelicals” and libertarians” to identify these constituencies- “fiscal” and “social” conservative, probably identify the same groups. The point is that regardless of what you call them, Republicans cannot win when these groups are not on the same page with a candidate. While Sager’s book is commenting on the state of the Republican fusionist alliance, he did not invent the meme. It has been pretty much dogma among Republican strategists for years, of which Karl Rove was the most recent proponent. Frank Meyer is usually credited with formulating and rationalizing the strategy:

    “In his important 1962 book, In Defense of Freedom, Meyer writes that “the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man” is what conservatives are trying to preserve. Both traditionalists and individualists should therefore acknowledge the true heritage of the West: “reason operating within tradition.” This theory was later dubbed “fusionism,”

    Perhaps Gerson’s views of the traditional “Christian Democrat” form of values voter can be a way to rebuild the social/fiscal fusion in the Republican party. Not sure whether any actual candidate out of the current crop of Republicans even comes close to this view – You really can’t do anything with this thesis unless there is a candidate that embodies it. Maybe Huckabee?

  • Tony

    The positions of Mike Huckabee are the closest to Christian Democracy in the race right now. I guess you might call it Conservative Populism here. William Jennings Bryan was also a good example of this.

    He’s socially conservative, but believes in the government helping the poor and taking care of the environment. I like how he says, “I’m pro-life, but I believe that life also extends to those who have been born.”

    It’s a catchy message, and I think that Christian Democracy would be incredibly popular throughout the United States. In the South, people would especially enjoy this. It’s essentially what the Southern Democrats preached for the better part of a century. And now that the South is primarily Republican, I think it’s time for the Republicans to go down the populist, Christian Democratic route. And it’s not going to repel a horde of Democrats… unless their libertarian small-government and civil libertarian Democrats. But keep in mind that almost a third of Democrats consider themselves to be conservatives. It would be a wise strategy.

    Unfortunately, parties rarely adopt wise strategies. A few exceptions have been in 1994 and 1932. But I don’t see it happening any time soon.

  • http://itsthe21stcenturystupid.wordpress.com/ Jim S

    But at the same time Huckabee buys into the condemnation of any new model for health care as “socialized medicine”. And frankly, pro-life means anti-ESCR and we don’t need any more of that.