Politics of the Golden Rule (Jan-Feb 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Kasey S. Pipes
January – February, 2005

How George W. Bush’s public life reflects his private convictions

Andrew Young is perhaps the most prominent surviving veteran of the civil rights movement in America. His name is synonymous with the great struggle for freedom in the 1960s. Beaten, jailed, and threatened countless times, Young bears the scars of injustices endured, battles fought, and glories won. On April 4, 1968, Young was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He heard the shot that pierced the peaceful afternoon quiet and ended King’s life. Young’s civil rights credentials are unassailable. His place in history is undeniable.

All of which makes one question unavoidable: what exactly was Andrew Young doing at a Bush fundraiser last year? At the fundraiser, President George W. Bush described his plans for a second term and faith-based initiatives to help those left out and left behind. “I took this office to solve problems,” President Bush said. Though Andrew Young did not officially give approval to the president, Young identified strongly with Bush’s faith-based initiatives. “Everything I’ve ever done in my life has been faith-based,” Young reminded a reporter who asked about the president’s agenda for the less fortunate. He went on to discuss with pride his work with the president on United States policy in Africa. “I’ve had as much access to this president as I’ve had with any president.”

How is this possible? How could a legend of the civil rights era praise the work of a conservative president? Is there really political common ground between some liberals and conservatives?

Part of the answer to this question is that the river of politics seldom flows straight and steady. More often, its currents are deepened by incoming creeks of new issues and widened by joining streams of new allies. The Republican Party of today looks very different than it did a few years ago.

Yet too often political observers fail to see these changes as they occur. Typically, most people see politics in oversimplified terms: they believe Republicans are for business and Democrats are for helping the poor; or they think Republicans are for personal virtue while Democrats support public morality. But in politics as in life, things are seldom what they seem. Beneath the surface, a more nuanced, more intricate, and ultimately, constantly changing story is being written.

Today, many of his critics and his allies see George W. Bush as a traditional Republican. In truth, he is a transformational Republican who not only is seeking to change his world and his nation, but also his political party and the conservative movement. For example, he wants to be not just a conservative but a “compassionate conservative,” one who is concerned about public schools, health care, and poverty.

To understand the Bush revolution in the Republican Party, one must first understand the thinking of the greatest of conservative thinkers–Edmund Burke. Burke was largely resurrected by American scholar Russell Kirk who in the twentieth century began urging American conservatives to learn from the principles of the eighteenth century British statesman.

Kirk was so successful in his endeavor, that Burke is today routinely quoted by every kind of conservative, including Pat Buchanan, a television commentator and a paleoconservative, and Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee Chairman and a Reaganite. But if Burke is well-known, he is little understood. Burke never wrote a comprehensive book on conservative philosophy. He never listed a set of conservative policy issues. He never told conservatives what was conservative and what wasn’t.

Instead, Burke offered not a policy but a process. Recognizing that change in life in inevitable, Burke offered conservatives a way of incorporating change without destroying timeless values. Horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution, Burke spoke of “organic” evolution as a way of managing change so that the good of society and custom can be preserved. As Kirk famously explained it, “conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time.”

In this same sense, George W. Bush can be seen as both conservative and revolutionary. He seeks to uphold timeless values–family, faith, and freedom–even as he adapts his party to an ever-changing world. Take immigration, for example. Bush upholds the conservative values of family and economic freedom even while he calls for changing the traditional Republican position in opposition to immigration. Bush essentially argues that if Republicans truly support family values they must value families, including immigrant families. And to truly embrace economic opportunity, Republicans must recognize that the growth of the American economy depends on new workers.

But this is merely an example of a much larger principle at work, the principle that lies at the heart of the Bush agenda. Perhaps no verse of scripture has been quoted more often by this president than Christ’s admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And this belief, this basic commitment to humanity, has led him into unchartered waters for a Republican president.

Bush first began to confound political analysts when he opened his presidency four years ago by announcing that his number one goal was to improve public education. Education reform? From a Republican president? Yes, working with Ted Kennedy and others, he passed the “No Child Left Behind Act” designed to enforce standards and improve public schools.

Bush then continued his unique domestic policy journey by announcing the creation of a White House Office of Faith-based and Community initiatives. “Government can put money in people’s pockets,” Bush said, announcing the new office, “but it cannot put hope in their hearts or purpose in their lives.”

And when he got around to a traditional Republican issue, cutting taxes, he did so in a non-traditional way. Bush insisted his tax bill include tax cuts and incentives for families and the working poor.

The common thread tying these disparate domestic policies together? Bush was seeking new solutions to old problems. Many conservatives want to cut taxes simply to grow the economy, Bush wants to cut taxes to grow the economy and help the poor. And unlike some liberals who want to simply spend more money on the poor, Bush wants to use private charity groups to help change the lives of the poor. In short, Bush is addressing traditionally liberal issues with traditionally conservative solutions.

What is unique here is that Bush is spending time and capital on issues that are essentially public morality issues–education, welfare, poverty. For some perspective, consider that just twenty years ago, President Ronald Reagan was so uninvolved in social justice issues and so unfamiliar with his staff who worked these issues that he actually introduced himself to his Housing Secretary at a White House meeting.

If nothing else had happened during his presidency, on domestic affairs alone, Time would have been justified in labeling their 2004 Man of the Year, George W. Bush, as an “American Revolutionary.”

But something else did happen . . . something that would change the world forever.

The first moments of dawn, September 11, 2001 revealed a glorious New York City morning draped in sunlight and caressed by a gentle breeze. Some people were still making their way to work when it happened . . . suddenly, violently, tragically. A loud crash, a powerful jolt and the World Trade Center towers seethed with black smoke. In less than an hour, the two buildings convulsed before collapsing into a permanent tomb for thousands trapped inside.

The worst terrorist attack in American history had just occurred. And the War on Terrorism had just begun.

Americans had never seen a terrorist attack quite like 9-11 . . . but the terrorists had never seen a president quite like George W. Bush. He immediately and effectively began operating as a wartime president.

Yet even as the fires still raged at ground zero, President Bush sought to pursue a war policy that matched his principles. He began by mourning for the lost and with those left behind. He visited mosques and urged Americans to refrain from any religious hatred. And he promised not a war of revenge, but rather a war that would “bring justice to our enemies, or our enemies to justice.”

In a larger sense, Bush placed the war effort within the context of the universal desire for freedom, rather than in a specific U.S. national interest.

Since the days of Woodrow Wilson, American liberals have typically preached the importance of the freedom and human rights of all people all across the world. Conservatives, by contrast, have generally favored a foreign policy based only on national interest. Think of it this way–liberals have sought to “make the world safe for democracy,” to use Wilson’s phrase, while conservatives have often sought to make the world safe for America.

In contrast, implicitly rejecting the “American exceptionalism” that has dominated the political right for decades, Bush instead argues that “freedom is God’s gift to humanity.” In the aftermath of his liberation of fifty million people in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush has insisted that new democracies can and will work in these ancient lands. Ironically, in so doing, he essentially has taken the historical position of the political left. And Senate Democrats, in questioning whether freedom can work in other places, have unwittingly taken the historical position of the political right. Thus, Bush has traded in traditional Republican realism for traditional Democratic idealism.

Indeed, Bush has essentially argued that human rights is in the national interest of the United States. After all, a world that is more just is a world that is more safe. This is a unique Bush contribution to the evolution of conservative foreign policy.

But what Bush has done–fight two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq–is not as revealing as how he has done it. Bush has steadfastly insisted that his troops behave as “liberators, not conquerors.” And his military was under strict orders to minimize civilian casualties. For a comparison, consider that the Allies decimated entire cities in World War II (e.g., Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The deaths of the innocent men, women and children were justified by the Allies in the name of winning the war and stopping fascism.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, enemies were so aware of Bush’s concern for human life that they routinely hid their weapons in civilian areas knowing the American military would hesitate to risk civilian causalities. In this way, their evil schemes were a testament to Bush’s noble intentions.

Yet even as he waged this world war, Bush continued to depend on his faith. Years before he became president, Bush’s friend Doug Wead talked to him about the story of the Good Samaritan. Wead remembers Bush asking a powerful question about the familiar parable. “What would be expected of us if we got to the wounded man fifteen minutes earlier?” Bush asked Wead. Clearly, in Afghanistan and certainly in Iraq, Bush felt he could indeed get there early and save countless lives before tyranny stamped them out.

But President Bush has not been content to fight the War on Terrorism and establish fledgling democracies. He has also sought to alleviate the conditions that sometimes foster terrorism. And so in Africa he proposed an historic “Millennium Challenge” to provide aid to countries fighting aids and poverty. And in the Middle East, Bush became the first president in history to call for the creation of a Palestinian State, even while he has steadfastly defended democratic Israel and demanded the removal of Palestinian leaders “tainted by terrorism.”

Finally, Bush has sought to promote a fair and humane immigration policy here in America and sought to place sanctions on countries practicing sex trafficking all across the world. Simply put, Bush’s policies are helping to warm the cold of life for countless people all across the world.

Anywhere and everywhere, the underlying Bush principle has been compassion for humanity–compassion for the oppressed peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq . . . compassion for the those in the Middle East . . . compassion for the immigrant . . . and compassion for those abused by sex traffickers. In any other time in history, this might look a lot like a Democratic president’s foreign policy.

Indeed, in discussing Bush’s Africa policy, Bob Geldof, British human rights activist and founder of the Live Aid benefits for Ethiopia, called the Bush presidency the “most radical” since Kennedy. He meant it as a compliment.

Yet Bush’s foreign policy is not the compassion of the bleeding heart, but rather the broken heart. Having fought his own personal battles as a young man, Bush knows that more than a handout is needed to help transform lives and nations. His policies almost always insist on results and reforms to match the money. He often speaks of his faith with the humble confidence of a man who was saved by a power greater than himself. “Faith changes live,” Bush has said, “I know because it changed mine.”

When the great conservative icon T.S. Eliot first read the new conservative magazine, National Review, he had a simple a criticism. He found it “too consciously the vehicle of a defiant minority.”

Perhaps the greatest of the transformations brought about by George W. Bush is that conservatism has finally become a mainstream force. Fifty years after Eliot cautioned against the angry rhetoric of the opposition, Bush’s Republicans today preach optimism, hope and aspiration. No longer relegated to the back benches of Congress, today Republicans hold more seats in Congress, more seats in state legislatures, and more seats in city halls than the Democrats. This is arguably the first time since Theodore Roosevelt that such a Republican majority has existed. And Bush intends to use it.

He knows that with his majority comes responsibility. In the past, a conservative movement could afford to be defiant and ignore large segments of society. No more. Bush’s conservatism seeks to speak to, about, and for the majority of Americans. And to enact his majoritarian agenda, Bush will continue to rely upon the most diverse cabinet in history. And he will continue to practice the “politics of the Golden Rule” by bringing different Americans from different corners of America into his party and his movement.

Ironically, those who oppose this may well be Republicans. Already the grumbling can be heard. Why is he speaking Spanish to these immigrants? What is he doing visiting another inner city school? How can he spend so much time and money trying to save the world? Where did our party go? A certain Nietzchean quality permeates much of these complaints. Why is Bush focusing on the poor, the weak, and the oppressed? Doesn’t he realize that power is what matters?

Bush believes principle matters too. And his principle is caring for his fellow man. He believes he can and is creating a better nation by creating a better world, one life at a time.

A fellow struggler with Andrew Young in the civil rights movement, an African-American minister in Birmingham named John Rice, told his daughter that the struggles of the 1960s were about building a better future for her. Today, Rice’s daughter packs her boxes in the West Wing and prepares to take over as the first African-American woman Secretary of State in history. Condoleeza Rice doesn’t just argue for Bush’s evolving brand of conservatism–she embodies it. She doesn’t just represent the changing face of politics–she is the face. And if George W. Bush has his way, the changes are just beginning. New Wineskins


Resources

David Aikman, A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush
[read a review]

George W. Bush, A Charge To Keep
[order]

David Frum, The Right Man
[CNN Review]

Russell Kirk, Burke: A Genius Reconsidered
[order audio book]

Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
[order]

by Karen Hughes, Ten Minutes From Normal
[review]

Marvin Olasky, Compassionate Conservatism
[news item discussing this]

Kasey S. PipesKasey S. Pipes wrote speeches for George W. Bush from 1999 to 2003. In 2004, he was the chief author of the Republican Party National Platform. He is currently working on a history of the Republican Party and civil rights.

photo by Jason Jones / Abilene Christian University

categoria commentoNo Comments dataFebruary 5th, 2014
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About...

Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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