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Conservatism and "The Least of These"

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.