The Tragedy of American Compassion

The Tragedy of American Compassion – Marvin Olasky

Reviewed by Stuart Brogden, 30 Oct 2011

Tragedy and Compassion – two words that we don’t normally associate together. How could compassion be tragic? While we likely have different levels of bad news in mind when think of tragedy, we are all in agreement that tragedy is bad and something ought to be done. Although I think the TV news industry is working hard to widen the definition to include hangnails.

Compassion is a bit more complicated. We tend to think of compassion from the ame perspective that we think of love – the unbiblical, Greco-Roman emotional view. Americans view compassion today differently than we did 250 years ago. We want to “relieve suffering” but don’t stop to think about the proper way of doing this, or even if there is such a thing. There are some issues – life threatening, for example – for which rapid elimination of the threat is proper. But there are many life issues that are the accumulation of bad decisions for which there is no proper quick relief. We can look at G.W. Bush’s policy in the Middle East, thinking the solution there was to quickly implant democratic governments. People will not value the liberty a representative government of laws brings until they realize their need of it. Small children will not realize the value of math if mom tells them the answers rather than teaches and asks diagnostic questions.

Biblical compassion is based on biblical love – wanting the best (as God defines it) for the person and to honor God. As we’ve been taught, good deeds must incorporate right motive, right method, right attitude, and right objective. So biblical compassion must be based on a biblical view of God and of man. Our goal is not to bail a man out – it is to set him on his feet, exposed to the gospel, equipped to provide for his family.

It is this framework that Olasky has done a masterful work outlining in this book. The Puritans had a reformed view of man: he is depraved and will avoid that which is unpleasant (work) if at all possible. This perspective, encoded in the laws of the late 17th century, was evidenced by giving time rather than treasure, requiring “decent living” of those being helped, punishment for wrongdoing – which included slothfulness. A key attribute of this perspective was the personal knowledge and connection between the better-off and the poor. Works-testing was required, so that a man or woman who was able to work would be put to work in order to secure food and shelter. “This social policy was based upon the theological view that stressed man’s sinfulness, which only God’s grace could change.” (pg 10) Further, “nothing that could contribute to the breakup of families, or to the loss of the family’s central role as support of its members was encouraged.” (pg 11) So a three-legged stool of family, church, and neighborhood was in place. The goal was not equal treatment of all who were in need, but personal attention to each with the aim of building responsibility and morality.

Poverty – caused by circumstances such a illness or death – was seen differently than pauperism, a lifestyle of living off others with no regard for personal responsibility. Ten causes of pauperism were identified: ignorance, idleness, intemperance (personal character), “want of economy”, imprudent and hasty marriages (circumstances), lotteries, pawnbrokers, brothels, and gambling houses (institutions). Last on the list were charities that gave away money too freely.

A key aspect of being responsible toward the poor was trying to discern between those stricken by poverty and those trying to “game the system”. “Their goal was not to weed out people – for they saw all as created after God’s image, and thus very different from weeds – but to require self-confrontation” and admission of their need. “The poverty which proceeds from improvidence and vice ought to feel the consequences and penalties which God annexed.” No one, however, was left to starve. “Tough love”, as it was called not too long ago. “When anyone asked for relief, the appropriate deacon investigated in order to discriminate and beneficially assist the really necessitous and deserving poor.” Your deacons have studied this aspect of benevolence, and have been encouraged by Job’s view of this activity: Job 29:15 – 16: I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.

These methods, motives, means, and aims resulted in changed lives. Those predestined by God to new life were saved, others found meaning in the moral goodness of working for their food. As cities grew and problems more evident, agencies emerged to take advantage of economies of scale. Yet “charity leaders believed that few would volunteer many hours each week of they did not see themselves as soul-savers and not just bread-providers.” (pg 30) In the mid 19th century, Charles Brace, who had hoped for political change to help poor folk, quickly realized that “high taxes that supported a corrupt city administration were part of the problem, not a road to solution.” (pg 31) Brace tried direct material distribution to needy children (bypassing families and churches) but learned “if you put a comfortable coat on the first idle and ragged lad who applies, you will have fifty half-clad lads, many of who possess hidden away a comfortable outfit leaving their business next day, to get jackets for nothing”. He learned that spiritual reform must go hand-in-hand with material reform. This Christian view of man and compassion took care of what modern folk have called “human debris” – those folk without normal capacities of thought or emotional relationships, which governments tend to put away.

And while this country was in pursuit of this God-honoring perspective, Benjamin Franklin saw in London, in 1766, the destruction wrought by the British welfare act: “There is no country in the world in which poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken and insolent. The day you passed that act you took away before their very eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health for support in age and sickness … Repeal that law and you will soon see a change in their manners. St. Monday and St. Tuesday will cease to be holidays. In this country, such welfare was widely hated and seen for the danger it was. Charities continued to see two categories of deserving poor people – the impotent poor, who could not help themselves (due to age, illness, etc.) and the able poor, who could work and would be required to do so. Being poor carried some measure of shame, seen as a deterrent to the attraction of pauperism.

By the 1850s, the theological foundations of charity had been neglected by many and were under attack by sophisticated humanists such as Horace Greeley – a Universalist who thought man was inherently good and would naturally want to improve his lot in life. So he had no problem supporting folk who could work but did not, believed economic competition was immoral, and that people were best served by forced redistribution of wealth. Do you recognize these motives, means, methods, and aims? They are the controlling aspects of this country’s welfare system today. And even in the late 19th century, “the poor did not get the chief benefit of increased appropriations. Most of it went to underlings connected with the work of distribution.”

Olasky describes what he calls “The Social Darwinist Threat” – wherein paupers become wards of the state and developed “exaggerated notions of their claims to support” and the better-off were becoming demoralized in their giving. And so the welfare state grew. Charles Brace was amazed at how hard some paupers worked to avoid working for their food. Economic segregation kept the affluent from personal connection with the poor, hardening hearts that were being taxed for what they used to give willingly. William Sumner, a social Darwinist professor at Yale, observed with satire: “The friends of humanity start out with certain benevolent feelings toward “the poor”, “the weak”, “the laborers” and others of whom they pets. They generalize these classes, and render them impersonal,and so constitute the classes into social pets.” He revealed the reality of his own world view.

Christians who opposed this downgrade observed that Christ Himself neither abandoned the needy nor fed them immediately – first He taught them. They saw two changes needed to correct the failings of Social Darwinism and help the poor: stop creating dependents by indiscriminate giving and create opportunities rather than endless poverty.

At the cusp of the 20th century, one charity worker in Buffalo, NY observed: “It is possible to do an immense amount of harm in Charity, so-called. It is possible to reduce a fellow-being to the condition of a willing pauper, by fostering habits of indolence.” Note the view of man implicit in this statement. See how it applies today – to children in our homes as well as people on the street? The Christian response to the onslaught of Social Darwinism is summed up by the Industrial Christian Alliance, which used “religious methods” – namely prayer and worship of a God who made man a little lower than the angels, and was not content to see him little higher than the animals – “to restore the fallen and helpless to self-respect and self-support.”

Chapter 7 provides many encouraging insights into the lives of people being helped and those helping – if you haven’t read, I urge you to do so. In this chapter we also see a nice list: 7 Marks of Compassion, developed by Christian that volunteers were to abide by:

  1. To give relief only after personal investigation of each case.
  2. To give necessary articles and only what is immediately necessary.
  3. To give what is least susceptible to abuse.
  4. To give only in small quantities in proportion to immediate need; and less than might be procured by labor, except in cases of sickness.
  5. To give assistance at the right moment; not to prolong it beyond duration of the necessity which calls for it.
  6. To require of each beneficiary abstinence from intoxicating liquors.
  7. To discontinue relieving all who manifest a purpose to depend on alms rather than their own exertions for support.

In the agrarian culture of the 17th & 18th centuries, finding work the able poor was not difficult – wood always needed cutting and clothes mending. With growing populations in the cities and the soon arrival of the industrial revolution, finding work for folk became more difficult. This was compounded by the change in cultural perspective championed by Horace Greeley and his friends, where hand-outs were key, not work. Our author points out that work brought freedom – to make a living and provide for one’s family, “to work and worship without governmental restriction. Job freedom was the opportunity to drive a wagon without paying bribes, to cut hair without having to go to barbers’ college. … Freedom was the opportunity for a family to escape dire poverty by having a father work long hours and a mother sew garments at home.” Yet the sophisticated humanists in government remained in the darkness. People go to jail today if they cut hair for money without barber college and a government license. In 1950, 5% of jobs required a government license; in 2011, 30% of all jobs require a license. A taxi medallion in NYC costs $603,000; Utah requires 2,000 hours of training and a license to braid hair. Travel and tourist guides, funeral attendants, home-entertainment installers, florists, makeup artists, even interpreters for the deaf are all regulated by various states. Want to work as an alarm installer? In 35 states, you will need to earn the government’s permission. Federal regulations from the 1940s ban knitting various articles of clothing at home, protecting people from sub-minimum wages.

“Late 19th century Americans who read the Bible regularly did not see God as a sugardaddy who merely felt sorry people in distress. They saw God showing compassion while demanding change.” While working with folks – within the guidelines of the 7 mark of compassion – “Christians had the expectation that the Holy Spirit could and would rapidly transform the consciences of all those whom God had called.” This was and is the only hope for lasting change. Christians must bear in mind that all men will answer to God, else our view of God and of man – and of compassion will be warped and conformed to that of the world.

And as the 20th century dawned, a demand for the transformation of the masses rather focusing on individuals revealed a foundational belief “that man was naturally good and productive unless an oppressive system got in the way.” Olasky contrasts Social Calvinists with Social Darwinists and Social Universalists – outlining a continuum of drifting away from God’s Truth towards the deification of man. This focus on the masses rather than individuals endangers biblical charities, as “the contribution of money became more important that contributions of time.” Robert Ellis Thompson warned, “the state, as the institute of rights, can give nothing to any man without conceding that it is his right to have it. Therefore, the state is the worst possible dispenser of alms. Every dollar it spends on the relief of the poor, is an admission that they have the right to be supported at public expense, whether their need be due to idleness and improvidence, or to a blameless failure to succeed in life.”

On popular minister of the early 20th century, R.M. Newton, maintained that government welfare programs should “become the outer form of the altruistic spirit – the unselfish, loving, just nature of the new man.” This new social construct attacked the biblical concept of a sinful human nature – “there were sins but not sin, evil acts but not evil. Problems arose from social conditions rather than an inherent moral corruption.” A “good environment” was all that was necessary to save the masses. And only the collective coercive state can provide that. The close personal connection insisted upon by the Puritans “was reduced to donors receiving photographs of grateful clients, delivering guilt-soothing praise for their selfless “compassion”.

As FDR’s New Deal was being developed, most folk had a remnant of morality and would often try 7 alternatives, sequentially, before going on the dole. They gathered up their accrued benefit rights, applied for commercial aid, dipped into savings of immediate family, put children to work, borrowed against property, sought loans or gifts from extended family, then friends. Only then would they look to the government – with hope of work. This chapter reveals how we got where we are today. “At the end of the 1930s and during the war 3 subtle changes pointed America toward a universalistic welfare system that would not stress work and worthiness”. These 3 shifts were:

  1. An emphasis on the collective with a corresponding decreased sense of personal responsibilities of the givers.
  2. A cold, clinical institutional view of charity – facilitating wide scale fraud.
  3. A growing Marxist worldview within social workers, emphasizing society at the expense of the individual poor people.

With LBJ in the White House, the New Deal gave way to the Great Society – wherein it became better to accept welfare than to take in laundry, and shining shoes was demeaning while accepting the dole allowed one to keep his dignity. The federal government began to fund legal advocacy of social welfare, which focused on providing “alms” rather than rescuing people from poverty. Being required to present evidence that might reduce welfare grants was seen as a violation of 5th Amendment rights; welfare benefits were seen as “property” – with 4th Amendment protections. If you pay attention to the spoiled brats involved in the #Occupy movement, you will see they hold the same collective, Marxist views that our government has been teaching for decades. And with The War on Poverty, we have seen the truth of Milton Friedman’s maxim: “If you want less of something, tax it; if you want more of something subsidize it.” Poverty became a booming business – prospering all participants except the intended beneficiaries, giving breadth and depth to what former President George W. Bush called, “the soft tyranny of low expectations”. By the 1980s, three clear big losers were easily identified:

  1. Social mobility. Poor people were trapped by a system that paid them to be poor but made it very difficult to escape poverty (minimum wage and licensing regulations).
  2. Private Charities. Biblical charity, with discernment and demands placed on the poor, was unable to compete with the no barrier, deep pocket attraction of easy money.
  3. Marriage. Policies and human depravity cooperated perfectly to demean the role of fathers and emphasize the lie that any form of “family” was good as another. The welfare mother’s “husband” was the federal government.

Chapter 12 details with heart wrenching detail how even “conservative” social programs only work in opposition to the biblical model. In-school abortion services as a companion to the fatherless families spawned by institutional, unbiblical welfare. The chapter ends with one D.C. social worker concluding that “a program to be effective must be redemptive.” Instead of offering money, we need to find ways to bring back the fathers.

The last chapter is the shortest – a summary of the book and a call to action, with many penetrating questions we must answer. Olasky reminds us that “the chief erosion (of the 19th century) was theological”. He describes the state of man’s depravity as “wilderness”. “The War on Poverty of the 1960s was a disaster not so much because of its new programs but because of their emphasis on entitlements rather than need. Freedom came to mean governmental support rather than the opportunity to work and move up the employment ladder. In the new dispensation, compulsive philanthropy became standard, and those who complained about the income transfer through taxation were thought to lack compassion.” “Today, when confronted with a needy individual, do we find out “who is bound to help in this case”, or do we immediately proffer aid? Are boards of deacons often mere distributors of “deacon’s funds” of cash donations and cans of food, or do they act as a switchboard to connect better-off congregation members with the needy?”

Extreme Home Makeover – Home Edition. People are examined to determine need; large, expensively appointed homes are provided free of charge. The standard of living for the recipients is greatly enhanced. But at a high cost. In recent months, with the slumping economy, six families that have appeared on the show have already found themselves unable to afford the higher property taxes, utility and maintenance bills. In addition, the IRS will treat any prize that you win on one of these shows as income and will force you to pay substantially increased taxes. Modern compassion without the biblical understanding of man, leaves many ruined lives in its wake. Most do not show up on TV shows.

Olasky’s book does an excellent job showing us how we got where are. Another book focuses on what the local church can do in response. What Is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert “makes sense of social justice, shalom, and the Great Commission”. In their conclusion, these authors quote Kostenberger: “The church ought to be focused in the understanding of its mission. Its activities should be constrained by what helps others come to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.” And they follow that up with, “the Great Commission must be the mission of the church for two very basic reasons: there is something worse than death, and there is something better than human flourishing.” Buy it, read it – our church will benefit and you will be equipped to defend the biblical perspective of compassion – avoiding the tragedy that aptly describes our cultural view of it.

There’s an Arabian proverb that is most appropriate: Fire, water, and government know nothing of mercy. While we have a different God and view of man than do most Arabs, this proverb would serve us well as we focus on the Lord Jesus, our high priest, and remember His compassion on us as we seek to show compassion to one another.

This book available inexpensively here.

5 thoughts on “The Tragedy of American Compassion

  1. I am going to purchase this book to read. Thank you for the extensive review. It really seems to go along the lines of: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day….teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime!

    Ordered it! 🙂


  2. Katy – I thank the Lord that the elders of my church lined this book up for us men to read. I was not interested in it at first, but a friend showed me the Half Price Book web site where I was able to get it for $5 delivered. And my copy is signed by the author! I was so struck by the message that I volunteered to teach this book to our men at that month’s meeting. Hence, my review.

    Blessings in Christ to those who love Him – He first loved us!


  3. I just finished reading this book a couple weeks ago. What a great treatment on the history of charity in our great land! I’d swear the author is a Calvinist too. I’ve recommended this book to several of my friends and family, and it is certainly up there on my list of top 10 reads. Not an easily read, to be sure, but historic and interesting. Made me mad, on more than one occasion too.



  4. Being politically very conservative, this book even moreso confirmed in my mind that if a person shall not work, then neither shall he eat. Hunger is a pretty strong driver, no? Considering that nearly a third (or is it more now) of our citizens are on some form of gub’mint assistance, and what, 47 million “takers” of food-stamps now too, is it truly shocking to anyone that nearly 60 cents on every dollar we earn is taken to redistribute to others – in the name of “fairness” no less! Indolent, unworthy poor, alcholics, drug addicts, lazy, slothful ALL on “the dole.” Shame on us…and it is INDEED a tragedy.



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