The paradox of American politics is that the country is shifting to cultural conservatism, yet the American people, and even many conservatives themselves, are deeply suspicious of the cultural message of conservative leaders.
This is conservatism's cultural moment. We know from Ronald Reagan's Cold War victory that conservative ideas work in national defense and foreign policy. We know from the resurgence of American capitalism that conservative ideas of tax limitation and deregulation revitalize the economy. Now is the time for conservative cultural ideas-marriage, religion, civil society-to repair the fabric of American life.
President Clinton has said that "the era of Big Government is over." He doesn't mean it. His 1998 budget is full of proposed new federal programs, as well as expansions of existing programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts, for which there is no legitimate federal role. But intellectually the era of Big Government truly is over. Even most liberals have lost faith that a large central government in Washington is the answer to the great cultural crises of our times: the epidemic of child abuse, more black men in jail or prison than in college, a public education system that fails to teach 40 percent of third-graders to read.
The answer to these problems is more individual responsibility and less government bureaucracy, more social entrepreneurship and less social engineering. Conservatives now have the opportunity to usher in a new era of self-government that relies on strong families, active religious faith, rejuvenated civic associations, accountable local governments, a vigorous market economy, and private charities to help those who fall between the cracks. Even with the re-election of President Clinton, conservatives are well positioned to define an agenda for American cultural renewal.
In his enthusiastic defense of abortion and racial quotas, the president remains on the cultural Left. But he won re-election in part because, on many issues, he ran as a cultural conservative. Most of his conservative speeches and actions-from calling for more police on the streets, to signing legislation overturning barriers to transracial adoption, to embracing the historic welfare reform of 1996-have been "me-too" endorsements of rhetoric and initiatives long championed by conservatives. The voters rewarded Clinton for adopting such initiatives; if he values his popularity in his second term, he will be receptive to others.
If this is conservatism's cultural moment, however, it is a moment fraught with uncertainty-even peril. Conservatives still haven't found the right vocabulary for framing the cultural debate. They can intimidate almost as often as they educate. They have not persuaded the overwhelming majority of Americans to welcome conservative solutions to some of our most troubling social problems. And they can divide almost as easily as they unify. No, there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of conservative ideas and ideals. Liberalism as an ideology may be in retreat, but it is institutionally powerful, and obstructers of conservative reform still dominate the media, the courts, the academy, and the interest groups sustained by a bloated federal government.
So now, the hard work of persuasion can and must begin. To set the cultural agenda, and drive home the central importance of marriage, religion, and civil society in civic renewal, conservatives face three principal challenges.
The Family. Conservatives have won the argument about the central importance of making sure that every child grows up with a mother and father. The next challenge is to translate this victory into a strategy for reinforcing marriage in public policy, and for giving parents more control over the education and upbringing of their children.
Faith. Conservatives are breaking down barriers to religion in the public square by emphasizing such principles as religious freedom and religious expression. But they haven't yet found an effective vocabulary for arguing that religion should take a more central place in American life. The next challenge is to encourage greater public appreciation of the role of religion and religious believers in healthy societies while affirming a commitment to the separation of church and state.
Freedom. Conservatives have won the argument about the importance of private voluntary associations in a free society. The next challenge is twofold: First, to strengthen civic institutions without resorting to government subsidies that create dependency and destroy any sense of mission; and second, to empower citizens to reassume the primary responsibility for helping the needy through religious, charitable, and civic institutions.
Even most liberals have lost faith that a large
The language of cultural renewal can reinvigorate a seemingly rudderless GOP congressional leadership that is struggling to recapture its momentum. Self-government-through marriage, religion, and civil society-is the essential complement to tax relief and fiscal restraint. We can't have cultural renewal without a smaller central government. And we can't limit government and provide tax relief without a vision of freedom and responsibility that will surpass the welfare state in meeting human needs.
Marriage: In the Driver's Seat
The most effective way for conservatives to talk about "family values" is to stress the importance of making sure that every child in America grows up with both a mother and a father. This lesson is clear and fundamental. There is no longer any doubt that illegitimacy and divorce are harmful to children. Social scientific evidence shows unequivocally that, among whites and black alike, the collapse of the family is the most important cause of crime, poverty, academic failure, and personal unhappiness in America today. The evidence is so overwhelming that liberals who five years ago mocked Vice President Dan Quayle's "Murphy Brown" speech now acknowledge, in the words of President Clinton, that "there were a lot of good things in [the Murphy Brown] speech. . . . This country would be better off if more babies were born into two-parent families. Too many kids are growing up without family support." Liberals will not necessarily endorse conservative proposals for putting the family back together, but they nod in agreement when conservatives describe the harm caused by the collapse of the family.
How were conservatives able to win broad recognition of the benefits of two-parent families? One reason is that racial politics has changed. In liberal circles, it used to be considered racist to talk about the dangers of illegitimacy. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was ostracized from the liberal establishment in 1965 when he warned that America's black communities would be hurt by an out-of-wedlock birth rate then surpassing 25 percent. Now that black illegitimacy has reached 70 percent, more and more African-American political, cultural, and religious leaders are recognizing that the collapse of the family is devastating their communities. Now that illegitimacy among whites exceeds 25 percent and is rising rapidly, liberals feel more comfortable with plain talk about a problem that also affects whites.
Conservatives have also discovered ways to talk about the family without invidious racial distinctions, such as pointing out that there is little difference between white and black criminality when the studies take into account family structure. Both blacks and whites who grew up with two parents have low crime rates; both blacks and whites who grew up in broken homes have high crime rates. Two-parent black families have two-and-a-half times the median income of white families headed by single mothers.
Conservatives have used the collapse of the family to undermine the legitimacy of the federal welfare state. Proponents justify government anti-poverty programs primarily in the name of children. But that argument falls in the face of clear evidence that the huge expansion of federal, state, and local anti-poverty programs over the last 30 years has coincided with skyrocketing rates of illegitimacy and divorce that have devastating effects on children. Conservatives furthermore have exposed the disastrous incentives of welfare programs themselves. They have shown how federal welfare programs discourage both marriage and work and have the unintended effect of subsidizing and promoting unwed motherhood. By reducing the penalties for divorce or nonmarriage, the easy availability of welfare also discourages mothers and fathers from reconciling their differences and staying together.
Conservatives are in the driver's seat on this issue. Liberalism in the last 30 years has sought to diminish individual responsibility for raising children and to augment collective ("state") responsibility. This impulse is summed up best in Hillary Clinton's slogan, "It takes a village to raise a child," which implies that America is a national village in which everyone is responsible for everyone else's children. Conservatives countered effectively that it really takes a family-mothers and fathers-to raise children. At the 1996 Democratic Party convention, the First Lady was forced to backtrack, saying that "parents first and foremost are responsible for their children," though she also went on to make the breathtaking assertion that "it takes a president" to raise a child. It is time to make her backtrack again. The experience of the last few years suggests that conservatives will win this argument if they continue to emphasize that it takes a married mother and father, not a government, to raise a child.
Conservatives have shown, however, they can occasionally mishandle this issue by becoming too preachy or sanctimonious, or by impugning the "family values" of their opponents. Such approaches usually backfire. On a subject as close to Americans' hearts as marriage and the family, it is important for political leaders not to be self-righteous. Audiences resent a tone of moral superiority. Moreover, since all political leaders are human-which is to say, all have character flaws-the self-righteous politician is likely to be branded a hypocrite when his own shortcomings are exposed.
A number of leading conservative politicians have obtained divorces while their children were still minors. This should not disqualify them from the debates over parental responsibility; on the contrary, they may be able to add sensitivity and wisdom learned from the sadness of their own experience. It does mean, however, that they and their political allies need to approach debates on parental responsibility in a spirit of personal humility. Cultural conservatives run a great risk when they frame a debate over who has the best and strongest personal commitment to family life. It is more effective to argue over who has the best ideas for putting the family back together and for repairing the fabric of American life.
The next challenge in the "family values" debate is to explore how public policy can make it more likely that the overwhelming majority of children grow up with parents who are married to each other. In certain important areas of public policy-for example, Social Security payments, pensions, and the tax treatment of health insurance-the law already favors marriage. In others, such as income taxes and welfare, public policy actively discourages marriage. Perhaps no policies hurt marriage as much as the no-fault divorce laws currently in place in 49 states; but family law has been, and ought to remain, the bailiwick of state rather than federal government. There are nevertheless many areas in which federal political leaders can make an important difference in supporting and reinforcing marriage:
Taxes. In the great tax-reform debate to come, a central question will be whether tax policy should be made to favor marriage instead of undercutting marriage as it does today. There are three dominant reform ideas in conservative discussions about taxation. One is the principle of neutrality-that government should not use the tax system as an instrument of social engineering. A second is the principle of simplicity and fairness-that all income should be taxed only once and at the same rate. A third is the principle that tax policy should encourage investment and growth-for example, through a consumption tax or low marginal rates on income. All of these principles would remove some of the current penalties against marriage, but none embodies a preference for marriage. As conservatives lay the philosophical and political groundwork for major tax reform over the next few years, they must decide whether such a preference should be combined with the other reform principles.
One of the most significant but seldom mentioned features of the Armey-Shelby flat-tax proposal is that it ends marriage penalties for dual-income couples while also making it easier for married mothers not to work. Under any flat tax or consumption tax, dual incomes would no longer push married couples into a higher tax bracket. But perhaps most significant, the plan's large personal exemption ($10,700 per parent and $5,000 per child) would reduce the tax burden on lower-income families and make it much easier for mothers with children to stay at home. This almost certainly would make marriage much more attractive for lower-income women.
There is a steep price for generous personal exemptions: The tax rates are higher than they otherwise would be. But economic conservatives should be prepared to pay this price, and to embrace the proposition that it is important to favor marriage in the tax system, for the sake of building a broad-based coalition among economic and social conservatives on behalf of the Armey flat tax or similar tax-reform proposals. No fundamental tax reform can be achieved without such a broad-based coalition.
Welfare. The welfare reform of 1996 does not promote marriage directly or end the subsidization of illegitimacy. Political leaders may wish to debate how to go further in reforming welfare not only by removing the remaining incentives for illegitimacy and divorce in poverty programs, but also by actually using public assistance to promote marriage. Should married couples receive preference in public housing and rent vouchers? Should married couples warrant a larger Earned Income Tax Credit, or perhaps be its exclusive recipients? Should men who marry welfare mothers be allowed to fulfill the mothers' work requirements under the new welfare legislation? Should welfare authorities give some sort of dowry to men who take women off welfare by marrying them? There are downsides to such approaches. They might encourage greater dependency on welfare among married people, for example, and might be unfair to mothers who truly have been deserted or are otherwise unmarried through no fault of their own. But it would be helpful to start debating what public assistance can do to favor marriage.
Report on the Family. Every year, the President delivers a few significant reports to Congress, the most notable being the Economic Report of the President. It is time to establish an Annual Report to Congress on the State of the American Family. This would be a comprehensive report to Congress on the state of marriage, divorce, abortion, cohabitation, stepfamilies, parental time devoted to children, and the relationship between family structure and such indicators as educational attainment, religious practice, and income. Such a comprehensive report could be compiled from the large national surveys that the federal government already undertakes. The extra cost would be small and could easily be diverted from within other parts of the overall research budget that Congress allocates to the social sciences every year.
Sex education. Congress should hold hearings to explore why sex-education programs in high schools and junior high schools have failed to reduce teenage out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Hearings also should be held on private programs, such as Elayne Bennett's Best Friends and Kathleen Sullivan's Project Reality, that have outstanding track records in reducing teen pregnancy by encouraging abstinence (see "Chastity Programs Shatter Sex-Ed Myths," page 12). Similar hearings also could be held on the bipartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, established recently in response to a challenge from President Clinton with the goal of reducing the teen pregnancy rate by one-third by 2005. One of the most significant features of the campaign is its acknowledgment that "part of a strategy for reducing teenage pregnancy should be a more overt discussion of religion, culture, and public values."
Homosexuality. A renewed focus on how public policy can make it more likely that children will grow up with both a mother and father gives conservatives a new vocabulary for talking about homosexuals, a vocabulary that recognizes their rights as citizens of a free country without according them special status or approval. Public policy gives special privileges and protections to marriage because it is the most important institution for the raising of children. Homosexuals are free to form their own lasting unions and to make their own personal commitments to each other, but it trivializes marriage to give such unions the special protections of the law or the subsidies that are intended to help mothers and fathers raise children into upstanding citizens.
Parental rights. Last November, Colorado voters defeated an initiative amending the state constitution to guarantee that "the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed" by government action in, for example, sex education, school counseling, and medical examinations without parental consent. In Congress, the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act sponsored by Iowa senator Charles Grassley and Oklahoma congressman Steve Largent would give parents the right to direct or provide for the education of their children; make all health or mental-health decisions for them (with exceptions for imminent harm or life-threatening conditions); discipline the child, including reasonable corporal punishment; and direct or provide for the child's religious and moral formation.
It would be better to enforce these commonsense rules through local policy and custom rather than through constitutional provisions that will invite frivolous lawsuits and judicial intervention. But the grass-roots movement for such amendments clearly reflects the profound anxieties of many American parents that they are losing their power to shape their children's upbringing.
Educational choice. Perhaps no other reform can do more than educational choice to empower parents in the upbringing of their children. Although school funding is primarily a state and local responsibility, federal legislation can be used as a catalyst to encourage state and local voucher initiatives. The Watts-Talent Community Renewal Act, which incorporates the principle of targeted school vouchers in its strategy for empowerment zones, is an excellent vehicle for jump-starting voucher movements at the grass-roots level. Parents and students who have benefited from vouchers can be brought to testify on Capitol Hill; or perhaps better yet, congressional hearings can be held in schools where large numbers of low-income students could benefit from vouchers.
The teachers and principals in religious and secular private schools should figure prominently in these media and publicity strategies. Not only are they eloquent spokesmen for vouchers, but it is important to make these accomplished and dedicated teachers and principals heroes in the education profession. But it is just as important to win friends for school vouchers among public-school teachers. All good teachers know how important it is for parents to be involved more actively in their children's education; it is important that public-school teachers learn from their private-school counterparts how parental choice has helped them as teachers.
The unions will fight school vouchers bitterly. Their opposition will be ferocious, well financed, and well organized. But teachers and principals need not and should not be enemies of reform. No education reform worth achieving can win widespread acceptance without strong support from many teachers and principals. The next challenge for the voucher movement is to win such strong support.
Centrality of Religion
One of the great cultural achievements of conservatives in the last 15 years has been to convince political leaders from across the ideological spectrum that government ought not discriminate against religious believers and institutions. By emphasizing principles that draw the assent of liberals, such as religious freedom, freedom of expression, and nondiscrimination, conservatives have been able to build powerful left-right coalitions to break down barriers to religion in the public square, including public schools.
The Equal Access Act, which requires public secondary schools to treat student-initiated and student-led religious meetings the same as other student gatherings, became law in 1984 after passing both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins. It passed with the support of such diverse groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, the National Evangelical Association, and the Christian Legal Society. The law embodies two principles attractive to liberals: nondiscrimination and freedom of expression for students. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, also approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress, says that government may interfere with religious practices only if it can show that the regulation or action in question furthers a "compelling governmental interest" and is the least restrictive way to further that interest.
In 1996, the Clinton administration issued guidelines suggesting that school curricula make more room for religion as long as schools teach about religion. The guidelines also suggested that it is constitutionally appropriate for students to write or give oral presentations in the classroom about religious subjects. School districts are beginning to use the Clinton guidelines to resolve disputes over religious expression in the classroom.
The "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, which was added by Missouri senator John Ashcroft, was approved by 67 Senators without much debate on the Senate floor. The provision is a landmark in public policy because it insists that government respect the religious freedom of groups with which it does business. Religious organizations may receive state contracts for social services without having to remove their religious symbols, change their internal governance structure, or change their hiring practices. Moreover, if states give contracts for such services to private organizations, they are required to treat religious and secular organizations equally.
Three safeguards in the charitable-choice provision helped win the support of those who otherwise might have objected to the legislation on church-state grounds:
Vouchers. The law prohibits federal expenditures for religious worship, instruction, or proselytizing unless aid is given in the form of a voucher that enables a beneficiary to choose a social-service provider from a range of religious and nonreligious alternatives. Faith-based organizations receiving nonvoucherized state welfare contracts can conduct religious activities only with funds received from private sources.
Nondiscrimination. Faith-based providers receiving state contracts may not discriminate against beneficiaries on the basis of religion, lack of religious belief, or a refusal to participate in a religious practice.
Nonreligious alternatives. Any beneficiaries who object to receiving services from a faith-based organization may ask the state to provide them with services from an alternative (nonreligious) provider. The charitable-choice provision in the welfare legislation is a model for public housing, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and other areas of public policy where religious groups have been reluctant to take government contracts for fear of losing their distinctive religious mission.
Conservatives have been less successful, however, in convincing the electorate that religion should play a much more central role in American life. Few people worry about private renewal or revival of faith within religious communities. But many Americans are worried that public expression of faith by energized, religiously committed groups and movements will lead to religiously inspired bigotry, discrimination against religious minorities, and an accentuation of religious conflict. In many parts of the country, conservatives will be on the defensive in talking about religion until they can overcome these widespread fears.
A revival of religious faith and observance is central to the conservative vision of American citizenship and self-government. This notion-that faith commitment helps create and sustain the moral communities that make self-government possible-is a theme sounded in nearly every important proclamation on religion in American life, from George Washington's Farewell Address to Martin Luther King Jr.'s evocation of the prophet Isaiah in his "I Have a Dream" speech. While it is beyond the power of presidents, legislators, and judges to lead a religious revival, national political leaders can help encourage greater respect for religion and religious believers.
They can begin by reminding Americans of their historical traditions. They can stress the importance of the Great Awakening in the American Revolution, the religious character of the anti-slavery and civil-rights movements, the historic contribution of churches and synagogues to the creation of so many colleges, hospitals, and charities in the 19th century. Conservative political leaders can argue that it is consistent with this tradition for religious leaders to speak out on great moral issues of the day such as abortion and homosexuality, and that it is outrageous-indeed un-American-for anyone to try to stop them from doing so.
On a more practical level, they can point out that religion offers answers to many of the great social crises of our times. Government, for example, cannot build and sustain healthy marriages or teach children to be hard-working, responsible, and virtuous. The family will be restored not primarily by public policy, but by private character-building institutions that touch the souls of men and women and inspire them to be more responsible husbands, wives, and parents. This is, above all, the task of religion.
Religion is the great wellspring of charity and voluntarism. Nearly half of all charitable donations are given to churches and other religious organizations. Weekly churchgoers give 3 percent of their income to charity; those who attend church less than once a month give less than 1 percent. Religious revival dwarfs tax incentives as a means to encourage more involvement with charity.
It is vital for
It is similarly important for conservative leaders to humanize the Christian Right so it is better understood by all Americans. Though the Christian Right is frequently vilified by liberals and the national media, it is one of the most constructive forces in American culture. In the tradition of Mormons, Jews, and other religions with a strong charitable culture, conservative Evangelicals and Catholics run schools for low-income children. They operate maternity homes that give unwed mothers the love and support they need to choose life over abortion. They go into our cities' meanest streets and rescue gang members, drug dealers, prisoners, and prostitutes from lives of violence, addiction, and desperation. Name a social ill afflicting our cities-poverty, unemployment, illiteracy-and you will find a religiously affiliated program attacking the problem with prayer and sweat and a small army of volunteers. Conservative political leaders can draw public attention to these programs by regularly visiting and attending services at churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions that are leading the moral revival in their communities.
National political leaders can pray publicly and seek divine guidance on momentous occasions. In his first official speech as president after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman drew from the Bible as he addressed a joint session of Congress: "At this moment I have in my heart a prayer. As I have assumed my duties, I humbly pray Almighty God, in the words of King Solomon, 'Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people.' " So long as it is done in an ecumenical spirit, such public prayer is completely consistent with religious freedom and American tradition.
Religious conservatives are correct when they criticize court rulings that threaten and belittle religious expression in our common culture. The Supreme Court and the lower federal courts often have used the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as a club to browbeat the exercise of religious freedom, especially in our public schools. Justice Antonin Scalia has aptly criticized the High Court's so-called Lemon test-a standard to determine when government action violates the separation of church and state-as a "ghoul in a late-night horror movie" continually "frightening little children and school attorneys."
The Christian Coalition has said it seeks a constitutional amendment that "allows voluntary, student, and citizen-initiated free speech in non-compulsory settings." This is an important statement, for it is vital for religious conservatives to proclaim their commitment to religious freedom and the separation of church and state. It is important to insist that the powers of government not be enlisted to proselytize for any faith. And it is important to be sensitive to the concerns of religious minorities, especially those with children in public schools. Just as many conservative Christians want to protect their children from sex-education classes that contradict their moral teachings, so members of religious minorities may want to protect their children from prayers that contradict what they are taught at home.
How To Promote Civil Society
When Ohio congressman John Kasich, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, travels to his district and around the country, he likes to ask his audiences how many think they could do a better job than federal bureaucrats in picking which charities can serve their communities most effectively. Typically, 299 out of 300 hands go up. This is a powerful current in public opinion. One of the main challenges for conservatives is to find ways to give Americans the tools to make the decisions they are ready and eager to make.
One approach would be through tax credits for charitable giving that go beyond the current deduction for those who itemize gifts to charity. However, tax-credit approaches run contrary to the objectives of flat-tax proponents and other conservative tax reformers who are trying to simplify the tax system. It also is probably best not to limit tax credits to organizations that are defined specifically as "poverty-fighting"; some of the most effective poverty-fighting groups may be churches, Boy Scout troops, libraries, and other organizations that would fail to qualify under such a definition. But if there are some serious problems with the charity tax credit as legislation, it has great rhetorical advantages. One of the best ways to make the case for federal spending cuts is to tie those cuts, dollar for dollar, to tax credits for families. This encourages families to take more responsibility for the needs in their community and to find out which charities are the most effective and the most consistent with their values.
Policymakers in Washington need to find ways to help civic institutions in their districts without direct government subsidy. One of the most effective ways to do this is to identify and overturn federal regulations that are interfering with their work. For example, the Clinton Labor Department has made life much more difficult for one of the most important community institutions in suburban and rural America: volunteer fire departments and rescue squads. Prodded by the International Association of Firefighters (an AFL-CIO affiliate), the Clinton Labor Department has barred professional firefighters who work elsewhere in their county of residence from volunteering to protect homes and lives in their own communities. This restriction not only robs firemen of the freedom to volunteer their services in their own free time, but also denies volunteer firehouses some of the best expertise available to them. The firefighters union so far has blocked legislation sponsored by Virginia congressman Herbert Bateman that would overturn this restriction, but if America's 1.2 million volunteer firemen and rescue workers (about 80 percent of the total) mobilize behind this change, conservatives can win this battle against union bullying.
Representative Rob Portman of Ohio has come up with an innovative way to promote citizen initiatives in his Cincinnati district. Portman's constituents were upset about rising drug use among teens, and Portman wanted to address their concerns without adding to the $13 billion that the federal government already was spending annually on drug-control programs. He helped establish the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati, bringing community activists already involved in anti-drug work together with business leaders, religious leaders, the media, parents, young people, and law-enforcement officials. As a result of his work, every leading media outlet in the area is running anti-drug public service announcements and advertisements; some of the radio spots were recorded by a popular local rock band. Health-care providers are offering financial discounts to businesses that adopt certified drug-free workplace programs. And parents in every school district are receiving practical training on steps to keep their children drug free. Portman's anti-drug work is a new model of constituent service that avoids pork-barrel spending and is custom-made for the revitalization of community institutions.
Every congressional district, every rural or metropolitan area, has success stories of grass-roots heroes who already embody the conservative alternative to the welfare state. Members of Congress can visit them, listen to their stories, discover the principles that led to their success against the odds, and find out the principal obstacles (including government regulation) to being even more effective. Such visits offer two vitally important benefits for conservatives in Congress.
First, they provide real-life examples that illustrate the conservative vision of self-government in a caring society based on personal and community responsibility. If conservatives are to articulate an alternative to the welfare state, it is essential to provide examples showing conservative ideas and principles at work. And for politicians, nothing is more persuasive than stories from their own districts or metropolitan areas. Conservative senators or representatives ought to be able to point to four or five religious and civic organizations in their districts or states that are providing care or opportunity for low-income people without encouraging long-term dependency on government or private charity. Political leaders can then explain that many more such organizations are needed if America is to become again the kind of self-governing republic that conservatives envision.
Second, conservative members of Congress may learn ways they can be helpful to grass-roots community organizations, and thus over time build constituent-service relationships with low-income communities. The liberal approach to such a question is to channel taxpayer money to such organizations. Conservatives can help them garner publicity for efforts to raise private money, bringing private donors or TV crews along when they visit effective community groups. They can hold private fund-raisers. They can even hold congressional hearings at the sites of effective community organizations.
Congress itself could hold national awards ceremonies to salute the work done by individual members of civic institutions. President Bush honored more than 1,000 "Points of Light," one every day, and in many cases he or a cabinet member visited the institutions honored. He also invited winners to White House luncheons. In such ways, President Bush helped stimulate media attention and generate financial rewards for good works, but his strategy also encouraged winners to learn from each other.
The Points of Light initiative would have advanced conservatism better had it been carefully integrated into a political strategy for providing a conservative alternative to the welfare state. Bush used his daily Points of Light to emphasize the importance of community service and buttress his campaign to reform liability laws. But he made clear that he did not want his celebration of successful private programs to be used as an excuse for government not to fund activities in the same areas. By contrast, the 105th Congress could use awards ceremonies to credential a new set of experts: grass-roots problem-solvers with practical experience. This seems to be the spirit of the "Freedom Works" awards begun in 1997 by House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
It is also important to conduct research on and publicize faith-based, business-based, and other private organizations that achieve better results at lower costs than government social programs. Existing research shows clearly that religious schools teach inner-city children more effectively at less than half the cost of public schools. Congress can hold hearings to investigate why. Similarly, legislators can commission analyses of programs such as Prison Fellowship that seek to rehabilitate prisoners through religious conversion, asking how recidivism rates of prisoners in such programs compare with rates for control groups.
Meanwhile it is important for conservative policymakers to engage leading charitable organizations in friendly debate. Conservatives face a troubling dilemma in the politics of devolution. They want to return responsibility for helping the poor from Washington to where it historically belongs-state and local governments and private charity-but many of the country's leading charities insist that the federal government should keep the leading role. For example, during the debate over welfare reform, organizations such as Catholic Charities USA, the Salvation Army, the Young Women's Christian Association, and the Lutheran Social Ministry strongly opposed the welfare reform passed by Congress in 1996.
Many leading charities receive as much as two-thirds of their income from federal, state, and local government funding. Not only do they resist efforts to reduce federal spending on programs from which they immediately benefit, but many think of themselves as part of a political coalition for a larger federal government and therefore will defend programs that benefit their partners in this coalition. For example, leading charities and philanthropies will resist voucher programs that are opposed by teachers unions and other public-sector unions.
The professional staffs of many leading charities and philanthropic foundations have been strongly influenced by left-liberal ideas such as the bean-counting obsession with "diversity"; a reluctance to severely punish criminals; a belief that poverty is unrelated to personal behavior, and results primarily from discrimination and an absence of economic opportunity; and an unwillingness to label such behaviors as unwed motherhood, sexual promiscuity, and drug abuse as morally wrong. Indeed, most private charities in America today are dominated by the same permissive, value-free philosophy that motivates most public-sector welfare bureaucracies. If private-sector philanthropies are to play a positive role in America's future, the ethos of these institutions must be utterly transformed.
Conservatives also must articulate a principled case against the seductive lure of government money for social-service organizations. Initially, this money can prompt a burst of new energy through larger staffs and more volunteers. But over time, it becomes addictive. Charities become less responsive to their clients and more responsive to bureaucrats and the staff of key congressional subcommittees. They pay less attention to their mission and more attention to strengthening the political coalitions that ensure the preservation of their contracts. And with contracts come regulations that sap their spirit. Congressional hearings could reinforce this argument by asking the officials of charities that do not accept government money to explain their reluctance to do so.
Not all charities that take government contracts abandon their missions, but many do. If a charity must take government money, it is best to keep it to a minimum. It is even better to funnel public funding to charities through individual vouchers rather than through direct contracts. Vouchers empower the people helped by the organization's services; more important, an agency that does not serve its clients well will soon be out of business.
One of the primary challenges for conservatives seeking a revival of marriage, religion, and civil society is to win the united support of the conservative movement. Many, perhaps most, conservatives are nervous about the language and objectives of cultural conservatism. Cultural conservatives can overcome these fears and help build a broader coalition, in the following ways:
Show that the vocabulary of citizenship is an essential complement to tax reduction and simplification and other reform objectives of economic conservatives.
We can neither cut taxes nor reduce the deficit unless we return certain responsibilities now handled by the federal government to families, businesses, and community institutions across America. To make the political case for this reform effort, conservatives must tend to the rebuilding of families and civil society so that these institutions will be strong enough-and are perceived by voters as strong enough-to act on their rightful responsibilities.
Use the vocabulary of cultural conservatism and self-government in talking about racial justice.
Any strategy for eliminating mandated affirmative action has to be combined with a strategy for solving the problems that affect black America disproportionately. The evidence is mounting that religious and community institutions in black America are leading the way in solving such problems as family breakdown, crime, and educational collapse.
Take care not to be too treacly or sentimental, or to put too much emphasis on increasing charity and volunteer efforts.
There should be more talk of personal responsibility, less talk of "compassion." The conservative heart reaches out to others in need, but the emphasis is always on building character and helping others so they can help themselves. And cultural conservatives seeking to revive civil society must make clear that they don't expect everyone to join a Rotary Club or volunteer at soup kitchens to solve society's problems. Self-government, in the conservative view, begins within the family-taking care of one's own children, one's own spouse, and one's own aging parents. Good citizens can responsibly own a business, create wealth, and produce goods and services that their customers value. The volunteer at the soup kitchen may in fact do less for the poor than the fast-food franchise owner who offers job opportunities and low-cost food so the poor don't have to rely on charity.
Speak the language of freedom.
The Founding Fathers gave us a republic where American citizens had the freedom to make the most important decisions about how to govern their lives. As conservatives seek to lead America from the era of Big Government to a new era of self-government, freedom must be at the core of our vision.