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Compassionate Conservatism: What it is, What it Does, and How it Can Transform AmericaThis week, I am interviewing Dr. Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World magazine. Click here for part 1 of our interview.

Trevin Wax: How would you define the word “evangelical”?

Marvin Olasky: That’s a good question. I’ve been thinking of doing a contest for readers of World. “Define ‘evangelical’ in fifty words or less.” Here is my top-of-the-head attempt:

Evangelical: A sinner saved purely by God’s grace because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Relies on an inerrant Bible, so is ready to give up money, power, and security to follow Christ. Realizes that righteousness is imputed, not imparted, so is skeptical toward those who claim special holiness.

Or we might ask readers to Twitter what the Bible teaches — and with an added challenge, make it rhyme. Here’s my humble 16-word attempt:

We are jerks. Nothing works. Holy land? Not so grand. Christ’s death pays. God’s love stays.

Trevin Wax: What advice would you give pastors who are thinking about politics and the pulpit. Many pastors want to use their platform in a good way for the Kingdom of God and also battle the temptation to weigh in on specific political issues. Where do you see that line between the pulpit and politics to be?

Marvin Olasky: I recently had a good discussion with John Piper about this very issue. He does not give political sermons, but he gives sermons that are very much related to politics. He asks questions like, What does the Bible say about abortion? What does the Bible say about same-sex marriage? These are two critical issues right now.

A pastor should not be in a pulpit, saying, “I want you to vote for this candidate” or “I want you to vote against this piece of legislation,” etc. Instead, he should be formed by the Bible and ask, “How are we to think about this?” Let people think it through and connect the dots.

The word politics comes from the word polis, which means “city.” Politics deal with the important issues that affect people. When you talk about the Bible and preach from the Bible, people will make the connections with these issues.

Trevin Wax: To what degree do evangelical Christians have influence in the current administration?

Marvin Olasky: Evangelical Christians, just like any citizens in America, should try to get the government to do smart things. There is an Evangelical Left that is riding very high right now. It’s actually much smaller than the Evangelical Right, but it certainly has some influence in the administration.

My disagreement with the Evangelical Left on foreign policy is that it doesn’t take into account human nature. In foreign policy, if you have a biblical sense of human nature, you know that peace treaties are often not worth the paper on which they are written. Singing around the camp fire will not bring peace to the world.

When we interpret “Turn the other cheek” to mean, “Let the dictators in places like Iran do whatever they want and then play patty cake with them,” we are proving that we have a sub-biblical understanding of human nature. (That’s not what the “turn the other cheek” passage is about anyway.)

One of our professors at The King’s College, Joe Loconte, wrote a good book about liberal churches – the Evangelical Left of the 1930’s, if you will. The applauding of pacifism at that time emboldened Hitler and led to World War II. If you don’t have a Biblical understanding of sin and the ravages of sin in the world – broken actors on a broken stage – then you will make mistakes, and those mistakes can be fatal.

Trevin Wax: You first began writing about American compassion in 1992. In 2000, you wrote a book called Compassionate Conservatism: What it is, What it Does, and How it Can Transform America. Here we are, ten years later. Where do you see Compassionate Conservatism today? How can a new generation of conservatives move forward? What lessons have been learned in the past 10 years?

Marvin Olasky: My views have not changed. The book is based on the Bible and on history. The Bible has not changed. Neither has history. So… the theory is still good. The practice is still good. I have seen poverty-fighting groups in at least 60 cities. It works.

Trevin Wax: You have profiled them in World. Quite a few of them.

Marvin Olasky: Indeed, we have.

We have learned a lot about politics in the past ten years. Very few ideas go through the Washington meat grinder and end up the same as they were at the start.

Here’s what happened. First, Newt Gingrich picked up the idea and used it for welfare reform. Then, George W. Bush picked up the idea. (Actually, he already had that sensibility from his father and from his own experience in being something close to a drunk who wound up changed through God’s grace.)

Bush understood that people can change. He wanted to put some legs on the idea, and he implemented some good ideas in Texas. The idea was to remove the barriers that government had set up. Some of those barriers were so high that they kept people from doing good things.

Compassionate Conservatism eventually became part of his campaign. In terms of governmental mechanisms and Washington policy, there were two ways to put it into practice.

The main way that was advocated by some was for Washington to start giving grants to good groups. I didn’t really care for that idea because I’d seen what government grants do. I had witnessed the way they are parceled out for political reasons (and often in really stupid ways).

The other way was to implement Compassionate Conservatism in a decentralized way. One of the problems that had built up over the years was the growing tax burden. Many organizations had a shrunken capacity in understanding what to do. You could not make an immediate transition in which the government would essentially say, “Private sector and church groups, you just take it over!” We could not do it that way.

My idea was to give tax credits. Instead of sending money to Washington, individuals could designate their money to go to local poverty-fighting organizations.

The campaign talked about both options. They talked about grants, and they talked about tax credits or vouchers. (Tax credits are better than vouchers, because the money never gets to Washington. But vouchers still could work.) The bad option was the grants.

Bush ran with this idea because he believed in it. Karl Rove ran with it because he saw the political value of it.

Eventually, Compassionate Conservatism gets to Washington. The people in the administration have a choice. They can have the pleasure and the political value of giving grants to the organizations they really like (which will also produce a political payoff). Or they can have tax credits and vouchers. They said, “No-brainer!”

I should have been shrewd enough to know that once you start talking about both grants and credits, the grants would win and the tax credits and vouchers would be tossed to the side. So, the whole idea of Compassionate Conservatism, instead of being decentralized, was thought by people to be centralized. Conservatives particularly began to see it as a big government thing.

President Bush, for reasons I still don’t understand, did not veto anything for the first six years of his administration. Spending was on the rise, and Bush never vetoed anything. Perhaps the War in Iraq was priority, and he did not want to jeopardize congressional support. I don’t know what happened.

So, unfortunately, many conservatives think of Compassionate Conservatism as just another big government program. Of course, it’s spoken of sneeringly by Liberals. The name itself may be dead, although I see some attempts to revive it. The impulse isn’t dead though. I still see it going on all over the country. The idea is still a good idea. Someone else will have to come up with some new terminology for it.

The Brits actually picked up the idea from us. They saw it working here, and the British Conservative Party is now using the term.

Someone is going to come up with a term that will embody that same idea, and it will still work. Who knows? It will have to be someone who is creative with language. Mike Huckabee still likes the idea. We’ll see what happens.

Tomorrow, we will discuss changes in journalism and Dr. Olasky’s role at The King’s College.

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2 thoughts on “Evangelicals & Compassionate Conservatism: Interview with Marvin Olasky (2)”

  1. RJ says:

    I think Mr Bush would be proud of Mr. Olasny’s defense of the term “Compassionate Conservative”. But to me the term is definitely an oxymoron, at least how it was played out during the Bush years. Dr. Olasky certainly has strong views but so does Rush Limburgh but that doesn’t necessarily make either of them right. When Jesus told us to take care of the least of these he was referring to those that the extreme political right show a definite disdain for.

  2. scott says:

    Ummmm… you seem to take for granted who “the least of these” are. Are not, say… the unborn… or the elderly… or ministers of the gospel (as in the biblical context) the least of these?

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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