The Man in the Middle

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The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and
individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

I . . . pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho,
we will not pass to the other side.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FIRST INAUGURAL

Despite the material prosperity America was enjoying when President Bush came to office, the attendant moral and social decay was real. America’s social fabric was fraying. Too many marriages ended in divorce; the out-of-wedlock birth rate was high; the sheer destruction of the nuclear American family in some socioeconomic quarters was frightening, as was the increase of gambling addiction, pornography use, and gangs in urban areas. The number of hopelessly drug- and alcohol-addicted Americans was high. The net result was significant levels of poverty, homelessness, a growing prison population, and a general brokenness in the lives of too many Americans. What would the new president say about this? How would the new administration address America’s most pressing social problems?

As governor, President Bush was impacted by the work of two important scholars, the University of Texas’s Marvin Olasky and the Manhattan Institute’s Myron Magnet. Both thought deeply about how civil society, not government, should be empowered to address these pressing social problems. Their books, Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion and Magnet’s The Dream and the Nightmare, a social history of the 1960s’ Great Society programs, documented and illustrated the deleterious effect of more government involvement in trying to address serious social problems.

In one of his first major speeches after coming to office, President Bush was invited to deliver the May 2001 commencement address at Notre Dame University. The speech is now largely forgotten. It deserves to be remembered. Its historic importance is its direct challenge to President Lyndon Johnson’s famous 1964 University of Michigan speech commencing the Great Society’s war on poverty. President Bush said repeatedly during his campaign that a new emphasis on faith-based solutions to some of America’s most entrenched social problems would be an important element of his domestic agenda. He said one of his priorities, the one closest to his heart, would be a specific directive to knock down institutional barriers in the federal government to the funding of religiously based social programs. Those who kept those walls high erroneously believed there was a constitutional prohibition on the funding of such programs.

In that Notre Dame speech, the president set out the intellectual, constitutional, and policy basis for the creation of the new Faith-Based and Community-Based Office at the White House, and he illustrated what would come to be known as his “compassionate conservative” agenda. Juxtaposing the failure of the Great Society’s welfare provisions with a new way forward, rooted in a partnership among faith- and community based groups with government, the president said that while the Great Society “had noble intentions and some enduring successes . . . the welfare entitlement became an enemy of personal effort and responsibility, turning many recipients into dependents.” He said the war on poverty turned “too many citizens into bystanders convinced that compassion had become the work of government alone.”

The president believed neither an all-big-government nor a libertarian, hands-off approach to addressing America’s most entrenched social decay was the way forward. Instead, he called on the country and new Congress to “revive the spirit of citizenship, to marshal the compassion of our people to meet the continuing needs of our nation.” He said he would do this by creating a new partnership between faith and community groups and the federal government. He said he would give the private sector wider latitude to address and resolve some of the pressing needs of the country. It was a practical commitment to compassion, rooted in Judeo-Christian social thought. Government would have a role, he said, but the historic brick wall of discrimination between government grants and contracts to faith-based groups would be eliminated and dismantled.
President Bush believed without religious liberty all the others liberties were not secure either. He favored religious freedom at every level of American life, including the ability of those charities to apply for government funding.

The president made his intentions clear from the outset of the creation of the faith-based office. What he did not want was government funding religion. Rather, he envisioned funding to support the “good works” that religious groups were doing in every community in America to help the poor, the needy, the destitute, the lonely, the orphans, the prisoners, and the widows. In addition, he wanted American taxpayers to be able to deduct their charitable giving, which in turn would create a new pool of nearly $15 billion a year in private funding. Also, he called on corporate America to do its part.

The president’s personal faith was the genesis of these policies, a faith that taught him duty to others was more important than self; that serving a neighbor in need gave life deeper meaning and purpose. He said, “The same God who endows us with individual rights also calls us to social obligations.” He offered a challenge to the sea of young people before him that day at Notre Dame: “You’re the generation that must decide. Will you ratify poverty and division with your apathy? Or will you build a common good with your idealism? Will you be a spectator in the renewal of your country, or a citizen?” The president wanted the rising generation to “build a common good” by working to fight poverty and to battle against the social destruction that had descended on America. In the decade after that speech, a new generation of evangelicals, orthodox Catholics, and conservative and orthodox Jews made helping the poor and desperate a foundational part of the way they saw their faith.

Taken from "Faith, Compassion, and Conflict," chapter 7 of The Man in the Middle, by Timothy S. Goeglein. Copyright 2011 by Timothy S. Goeglein. Used by permission of B&H Books, Nashville, Tenn.
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