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Spring Edition
Volume 99, Number 4

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The politics of compassion (continued)

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Messiah students volunteer at a local social service agency.
Many Messiah College students work to meet the needs of the local community on a regular basis through their involvement with outreach progrmas including after-school tutoring, homeless shelters, retirement centers, and food banks.  Pictured here are two student volunteers who participated in Service Day, a day the College sets apart each year fo sutdents and employees to work with local organizations.

While many have been referring to The Compassion Forum as a “historic” gathering, we must remember that compassion is not a new issue in presidential politics. Actually, during the last half century at least two American presidents have made this idea a major theme in their administrations. The Great Society reforms of Lyndon B. Johnson were couched in the language of compassion. In 1964 Johnson told an audience in Gainesville, Georgia, that “Our administration is going to be a Government of compassion, compassion for the one-fifth of our people who are ill-fed, compassion for the one-fifth of our people who are ill-clothed, compassion and concern for the one-fifth of our people who are ill-housed.”

Four decades later, George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” offered faith-based solutions to the social problems facing the United States and the world. He provided funds to alleviate AIDS and malaria (both Clinton and Obama praised Bush’s work in these areas), established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and defended a compassionate immigration policy against many in his party who opposed it.


Johnson’s compassion was rooted in American liberalism. Bush’s programs have been driven partially by Christian convictions. Both approaches relied heavily on government aid. And both plans were largely derailed by wars. Johnson and Bush learned that it is hard to provide butter when so much of the nation’s resources are invested in guns.

Though politicians have often spoken the language of compassion and used the federal government to promote it, American history teaches us that the most effective works of compassion have been performed by Christians working outside the political realm. Compassion-driven evangelicals today take inspiration from the courageous work of their nineteenth-century counterparts who fought against slavery and alcohol abuse, pushed hard for women’s rights, and reformed prisons and mental health facilities. Others are motivated by the example of twentieth-century Christian leaders such as Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Pope John Paul II, or Christian organizations such as the Salvation Army, World Vision, Mennonite Central Committee, and Compassion International.



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