© AP/David J. Phillip
                       © AP/David J. Phillip

Compassionate Conservatism. The words sounded promising in the early days of the presidential campaign. Compassion must be the bedrock of any Buddhist politics, and validating it as a core value of the Republican Party seemed a hopeful sign. The fact that under Governor Bush Texas had executed 152 people—a rate of one state-sponsored killing every two weeks—suggested a narrow definition, but we waited to discern what form compassion would take under the new president.

We didn’t have to wait long. Soon after the inauguration, the White House announced the new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in a document entitledRallying the Armies of Compassion. It begins with these words:

America is rich materially, but there remains too much poverty and despair amidst abundance. . . . Government has a solemn responsibility to help meet the needs of poor Americans and distressed neighborhoods, but it does not have a monopoly on compassion. America is richly blessed by the diversity and vigor of neighborhood healers. . . . These quiet heroes lift people’s lives in ways that are beyond government’s know-how. . . and they heal our nation’s ills one heart and one act of kindness at a time.

The purpose of the new office is to “energize civil society and rebuild social capital” by enabling small faith-based institutions and other organizations to receive federal funding for innovative and effective programs that help citizens in need. The plan has raised many vexing questions, such as how to decide which religions are kosher enough to receive federal funding. But if this plan can pass Congress and satisfy the courts, isn’t it possible that America’s churches, temples, and mosques will find the funding to unleash a wave of compassion that could transform many blighted lives?

If the resources are there. Which brings us to President Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut. From the beginning, changes in tax law to stimulate charitable giving was touted as a cornerstone of the faith-based initiative. “We will encourage an outpouring of giving in America, encouraging giving by everyone in our society,” Bush said during the campaign. For the nonprofit sector the most important of these tax changes was granting the 80 million taxpayers who do not itemize their returns the ability to take a deduction for charitable contributions. “This initiative,” the White House said, “will spark billions of dollars in new donations to charitable organizations.”

But in the bill that the President finally signed, this spark had been extinguished. An administration official explained that the $90 billion in tax breaks to aid charities had been dropped because it was not one of the four administration priorities: lowering tax rates, eliminating the estate tax and marriage penalty, and boosting the child credit. “Congress has passed a bill that will reduce charitable giving and harm the millions of Americans who rely on the vital services provided by charitable organizations,” said Peter Shiras, spokesman for a nonprofit consortium, as reported in the Washington Post on May 30.

The White House had abandoned, stillborn, the one piece of the agenda that was guaranteed to help nonprofits bring services to the needy. Conversely, the administration fought aggressively for, and won, the elimination of the estate tax. According to one study, expanding the charitable deduction would have increased giving by $15 billion a year; repealing the estate tax will decrease bequests to nonprofits by up to $6 billion a year.

Though many of society’s problems are complex and intractable, the fundamental concept of charity—the perfection of giving—is a simple one: When someone is in need, you give them the resources to satisfy that need. You can devise sophisticated theories about how best to engineer the elimination of poverty, but in the end, you either put up the money to accomplish the goal or you don’t. The inherent contradiction in “compassionate conservatism” is that conservatives, by definition, don’t believe that it is government’s role to pay for solving the problems of the poor. In the shaping of its massive tax cut, the Bush administration reserved its compassion for the millionaires and billionaires who had been compelled to give back to society (after they died) a portion of the wealth which that society had enabled them to accumulate. Though compassionate conservatism cannot eliminate death (as the attainment of enlightenment can), at least it has eliminated the suffering of the death tax.

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