Where are the compassionate conservatives this year? The Republican presidential candidates have plenty of insults for one another, but maybe the worst label one Republican might tar another with is to call him a compassionate conservative.
It wasn’t always this way. George W. Bush ran as a compassionate conservative, and said, “It is compassionate to actively help our citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on accountability and results.” Some of his policies, such as increasing funding for AIDS in Africa, the Medicare Prescription Drug Act and his immigration proposals helped define compassionate conservatism.
Four years ago Gov. Mike Huckabee also sought the Republican nomination as a compassionate conservative. He said he was a conservative, and not just angry about it.
That was then. This year Republican debate audiences have booed an active duty soldier, booed the Golden Rule and cheered the death penalty.
One candidate received cheers for his proposal to electrify the border fence with Mexico.
The Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, which promises to help millions of uninsured Americans, and is based on ideas previously championed by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, is now the conservatives’ great bogeyman. In one debate, the moderator asked whether we should just let a sick and uninsured man die. There were scattered cheers, and some audience members shouted “Yes!” Ron Paul lamely suggested the churches might take care of him.
It is different in Great Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron styles himself as a compassionate conservative, and would not consider repealing their national health system. But his Conservative Party is much less infected with right-wing Christians than is the U.S. Republican Party.
In fact, the more vigorously a politician professes Christianity, the more likely he or she is to support legislation that is mean-spirited, especially when it comes to health care, the poor, immigrants, women or people who have a minority sexual orientation. And yet in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said the only issue at our final judgment will be whether we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, comforted the sick, visited those in prison, clothed the naked and welcomed the stranger.
Many conservatives say Jesus’ admonition to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger was for individuals. He never asked the government to do such things. But Jesus was dealing with the Roman Empire, not the United States. Roman Emperors were dictators. Today we are able to influence our government, and government can act on a scale that isn’t possible for individuals or charities. Our government should reflect our values.
Yet when we listen to some politicians who call themselves Christians, you might think that Jesus had said, “Blessed are the angry, for they shall see their enemies roast in hell.” What he really said was, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7), and “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours … but woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation” (Luke 6:20 and 24). And he added, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36).
Compassion, the active desire to alleviate another person’s suffering, is not just a Christian concept. Judaism, Islam and all of the other great religions of the world teach compassion, as did the ancient Greek philosophers. The Buddha’s great ethical insight was that in order to be truly happy, we must live for others.
The English Baptist preacher John Bunyan, in his 1678 book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote that many people who profess faith “are great prattlers and talkers and disputers but do little of anything that bespeaks love to the poor or self-denial in outer things. Some people think religion is made up of words, a very wide mistake.” This remains true today. What is faith without deeds?
There is too much condemnation, and not enough compassion. Condemnation is easy and feels good, but it improves nothing. Compassion can improve everything. We could use more compassion this year on both sides of the political aisle.
The Rev. Mark Worth serves the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Castine. He lives in Penobscot.