Friday, February 04, 2005

Replacing the welfare state with churches

Several interlocutors have told me that although they buy the general gist of my argument that Rove and Bush's larger political strategy is to undercut the Democratic Party by replacing the institutions of the welfare state (which for good reason have traditionally been identified with the Democratic Party) with religiously-based charities, they have felt that I failed to provide evidence that replacing the welfare state with church-based charity is the explicit goal of the Republican Party. Okay, so here's some evidence.

The New York Times in 2000 offered an article on Marvin Olasky, the deep thinker behind the "compassionate conservative" phrase that was the hallmark of Bush's first campaign for the White House, that described him as a leader of "cadre of thinkers on the right had been trying for years to fashion a form of conservatism that rejected the welfare state but did not turn its back on the poor." In an introduction to one of Olasky's books published while Bush was governor of Texas, Bush describes Olasky as "compassionate conservatism's leading thinker." So, step one of the argument is that Bush explicitly puts Olasky's ideas at the center of his own domestic policy vision.

So what does Mr. Bush's house intellectual for his domestic welfare agenda believe in? The article explains that the ultimate goal is to replace government welfare with state-funded but church-administered welfare:

In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Mr. Olasky, whose personal pilgrimage led him to become first a Marxist and then an evangelical Christian, concluded that 19th-century America's religious-based charity was preferable to the welfare state. He thought that the social revolution of the 1960's was "disastrous" because it emphasized public assistance as an entitlement, asking nothing in return. The "key contribution" of the War on Poverty, he wrote, was "the deliberate attempt to uncouple welfare from shame." Religious charities of the last century, he argued, were more effective because they made demands in exchange for aid and because they required donors to give time as well as money. The attack on the counterculture struck a chord with Mr. Bush. "It really helped crystallize some of my thinking about cultures, changing cultures," he said in the interview.
When I say that these clowns want to roll back the twentieth century, I'm neither kidding nor exaggerating.

Bush had begun implementing some of Olasky's ideas when he was in Texas, for example promoting "hostels for welfare mothers and legislation that encouraged religion-based drug treatment centers and prison ministries." Once he entered the White House in 2001, Bush operationalized this philosophy with his Office for Faith-Based Initiatives. The way conservative think tank Heritage Foundation describes it, Bush's goal with the OFBI was to "confront the deepest flaws of the welfare state" by shifting "resources from failed secular programs toward those with a moral backbone." In other words, to churches.

Now, that's not to say there's not a debate on the right about all this. From the start of the Bush regime, Capitalist Magazine argued that Bush's effort to promote "faith-based initiatives" amounted to a concession that government-funded welfare was here to stay, but that at least it might be put to conservative uses. Other wingjobs went further in their criticisms, arguing that any state-directed effort at redistribution is essentially forcible robbery, and therefore at odds with Christian ethics. Then there are many Christians who, wisely, worry about the long-term consequences for religious freedom of Bush regime's erosion of the line between church and state. (For evidence, just google "separation and church and state" and look at the Christian sites.) Finally, there are those like John DiIulio, who quit as director of the OFBI when he concluded that Bush was subordinating the moral imperative of dismantling the secular welfare state to the political goal of destroying the Democratic Party. It was this bitterness that led DiIulio's to coin the phrase "Mayberry Machiavellis" to describe the current White House.

DiIulio may be right. It's possible that Bush and Rove want to roll back the welfare state not because they believe this would be a morally good thing, but because they wish to help the kinds of people they hang out with in Kennebunkport, and they've seen that the only way to justify the rollback is to find an alternative to the moral discourse of secular social solidarity which historically has provided the bedrock of support for the welfare state in the West.

(Theda Skocpol is also right that the American secular left made this opportunity available to the likes of Rove by intentionally reading the contribution of churches out of the historical record of welfare achievement in the United States. To get a sense for what Skocpol is pointing to, just contrast the way Americans think of the history of social welfare to the way, say, the Dutch or the Italians narrate the history of social welfare in their countries.)

Whether you prefer to think of Bush as a fundamentalist fanatic, or simply as an amoral politician serving the vested interested of his social and economic class (and the evidence can probably support either position) it's transparent that his aim is nothing less than to roll back the secular welfare state and replacing it with church-based charities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The class that's the biggest pain to the rich is not the poor, it's the middle class, who have the money and power to prevent the rich from doing whatever they wish.

It's becoming clearer to me all the time that the current right wing shenanigans are really the same old story familiar to anyone who's read history: the arrogant powerful doing whatever is neccesary to get more power to keep themselves in power. ( and money in large amounts *is* power, whether the holder excersises that power or not. That's why wise conservatives thoughout the ages have supported progressive taxation. )

The difference now is the sophistication of the methods used, as modern psychological and marketing techiniques and technology ( TV, the ultimate megaphone ) is something no plutocrats have ever had before, and also that the risks of the inevitable failure are much worse ( global anarchy, nuclear weapons, mass starvation ) then ever before.

When the plutocrats ( or royalists, or oligarchs or whatever label works, ) play their games, disaster is the usual result. They're devious and clever, but not a fraction as smart as they like to think.