on Olasky and Compassion

The Tragedy of American Compassion – Marvin Olasky (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1992), 233 pp.

A book review by Donald C S Johnson, pastor, Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC.

Olasky sets out to do two things in this book. The first is to provide a survey of methods and means of distributing charitable care to the poorest of society throughout American history. The second is to argue for a return to methods of care long since abandoned in the welfare state. Olasky optimistically states ” The good news is that the impasse can be resolved. Many lives can be saved if we recapture the vision that changed lives up to a century ago, when our concept of compassion was not so corrupt.” [p.5]. The first goal appears to be reasonably well met and readers will find Olasky a helpful resource to understanding what has been done. Olasky certainly argues vigorously for the second goal, but whether he achieves his end or not is not entirely clear. It is not that he failed to convince this reader of the failure of universal governmental welfare statism, but whether his alternative is likely to succeed in the current climate is still open to question.

The history of social work in America begins at the local level, when America was a nation of townspeople and country folk where the poor were your neighbours and you knew their names. Those who were poor due to their own indigence were subject to local censure and shaming, those who were poor through calamity or hard times were given opportunities to get back on their feet and rejoin the productive majority. The philosophy of the times is a result of the biblical view of man as depraved, needing discipline and compassion. Olasky calls this approach the approach of ‘Social Calvinists’ [p. 10]. The poor person sat on a three legged stool of family, church, and neighborhood. As long as America was a nation of towns, the three legged stool remained steady.

As America grew into a nation of cities, managing the problems of the poor became more complex. Cities provide economic opportunity and anonymity. Vice increases in concert with anonymity. Charitable efforts are complicated by the increasing distance between those who give charity and those who receive it. In the early 1800s, the increasing complexity of city life led charitable institutions and organizations to call for many volunteers – amateur social workers – whose responsibility was to be involved in the lives of those being helped to discern need and ability for self-help. The charities learned that giving out gifts in kind (wood for heat, groceries, etc.) rather than simply dispensing cash was much more successful. One evaluation of government charity from that day evaluated the work of the city of Philadelphia: ” The Philadelphia committee worried that the City of Brotherly Love’s willingness (very unusual for the time) to support women with illegitimate children was ‘an encouragement to vice, and offers a premium for prostitution.'” [p. 46]. You get what you pay for, apparently.

In the 1840s a shift towards government involvement and an abandonment of means testing was championed by Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune (and author of the famous quote, “Go west, young man.”). Greeley was a Universalist who not surprisingly did not subscribe to the biblical notion of human depravity. His efforts championed a change in social work pre-Civil War toward more government involvement and more universalism in support, with no concern for ability of the poor to work or not. As a political conservative would expect, such governmental interference met with only in increased demand for charitable support rather than a reduction in poverty.

The Civil War abruptly changed the national focus and post war programs for the poor diverged in two directions. The largesse of universalism was discredited to be replaced with views of ‘Social Darwinism’ which essentially suggested that only the fittest should survive. Some advocates of these views expressed not compassion or aid, but eugenics. On the other hand, churches and Christian organizations emphasized the need for total personal reformation – reforming the whole man, not just filling the empty hole in his stomach.

“Christians observed that Jesus neither abandoned the needy nor fed them immediately — instead He taught them. (In Matthew 15, Jesus feeds thousands after they have listened to Him for three days. In Mark 6, Jesus first teaches — ‘He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd’ — and only late in the day multiplies five loaves and two fish, so all eat and are satisfied.)” [p. 71]

In the era between the Civil War and the Great Depression, poverty relief largely was the domain of religious organizations, both church based and broader efforts supported by multiple churches and individuals. These institutions insisted on seven principles of charity, or The Seven Marks of Compassion, as Olasky calls them:

  • Affiliation: restoring/repairing/rebuilding family ties [perhaps making dysfunctional families functional], or creating new social groups such as a ‘church family’
  • Bonding: for those truly alone, bonding with a new group – the charitable volunteers, or a church family
  • Categorizing: those asking for help must be evaluated, not everyone treated equally. Help differs depending on able-bodied or not, mentally competent or not, etc. Key: work tests – will he chop wood for an hour? etc.
  • Discernment: ‘benign suspicion’ from a theology of the depravity of man
  • Employment: the goal of charitable work is to enable long-term employment of the able-bodied; stresses the importance of work
  • Freedom: not ‘the opportunity to do anything with anyone at any time, but as the opportunity to work and worship without governmental restriction’ [p. 111] — i.e., you don’t have to bribe someone to get a job, or to start your own job
  • God: philanthropy must meet spiritual as well as physical needs – teach people to love God and godliness; hard work, frugality, self-restraint

The Great Depression changed everything. The need was so immense, private charities alone were soon outstripped in their ability to help. Franklin D. Roosevelt brought in major change to government involvement with his New Deal programs.

‘The great depression of the 1930s revolutionized social work,’ Frank Bruno wrote. ‘Instead of being the Cinderella that must be satisfied with the leavings, social work was placed by the depression among the primary functions of government.’ [Frank Bruno, Trends in Social Work, 1874-1956 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), p. 300, quoted in Olasky, p. 155].

The New Deal programs still emphasized working in return for aid, but the heavy involvement of government in the field of social work was here to stay. Social work increasingly became the province of professionals, volunteers and private charitable organizations were de-emphasized as time went on. By the 1960s and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the triumph of socialism ‘cornered the market’ for the government in social work, so to speak.

“Until the 1960s, the public dole was humiliation, but thereafter young men were told that shining shoes was demeaning, and that accepting government subsidy meant a person ‘could at least keep his dignity.’ This, then, was the key change of the 1960s — not so much benefit programs as a change in consciousness concerning established ones, with government officials approving and even advocating not only larger payouts but a war on shame. Underlying the change were the theologically liberal tendencies within social work (and related fields) that had been criticized by Niebuhr a generation earlier, and which were becoming more evident than ever.” [pp. 168-169]

Olasky’s survey brings us up to about 1990, sixteen years ago now. Recent trends in compassion are not discussed and a revision of the book discussing some of the current efforts like George W. Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiatives” would make the discussion current.

To sum up, there are three main views discussed in the book: the evangelical view of the depravity of man coupled with the Christian call for meaningful and productive compassion; the liberal/secular view of the essential goodness of man and the call for universal rights and wealth redistribution; and the hard-hearted social Darwinist view that argues for letting the poor weed themselves out of the system. It seems to me that there might also be a fourth view from a laissez-faire economists point of view that could resemble the social Darwinist in some ways, but also emphasize the value of work and insist on discipline and effort from each individual, without a real Christian ethos. Olasky doesn’t discuss this view, perhaps because it has never held significant sway in American history.

Olasky’s discussion provides some excellent insights, the chapter on the Seven Marks of Compassion is especially helpful and could provide some principles for guiding Christians and Christian churches in their social efforts.

Where Olasky’s book fails, in my view, is to come to grips with the massive problem facing modern welfare states. There is a tremendous amount of inertia created by fifty years of the dole and the dependency that it has created. Politically, a dramatic shift in policy seems impossible, and a shift in policy by incrementalism requires long term effort, dedication, and a wholesale change in government philosophy by the citizens. Incrementalism will likely prove to be too slow and is subject to reverse incrementalism as shifts in political fortunes favor one side or another. In addition, although I agree in the main with Olasky’s view of the general principles which compassionate work should follow, I don’t see how Olasky or anyone he cites has really grappled with the problem of mega-cities and the masses of people who are dependent on some kind of government subsidy. Surely there is a solution to these problems, but merely re-energizing faith-based organizations seems insufficient to me. How can these initiatives really compete with the government? As one director of a New York street mission complained,

“rescue missions are seen as just another welfare program. … The men who come to us confuse us with the welfare department. A man feels the mission … is not really doing its job unless he gets what he thinks he is supposed to get. Now this is the attitude of the ‘client’ and not the attitude of a man seeking love and friendship and spiritual help. The early mission did not have this to contend with — this feeling that ‘the world owes me a living.'” [Earl Vautin of the McAuley Mission, quoted in Arthur Bonner, Jerry McAuley and His Mission, (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1967), p. 110, quoted in Olasky, p. 185]

The current climate seems not tremendously different from the climate of the sixties in which Vautin was making his comments.

Finally, some guidance for Christians in how to effectively give others a hand up rather than a hand out are outlined in this book. It is worth reading as a reference to what has gone before and for ideas on how to be effective in helping individuals today. The book does not argue from Scripture specifically, though it does allude to scriptural principles. The scriptural mandate for Christian involvement in charitable work must come elsewhere. This book provides some practical insights to guide whatever Christian involvement might result.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Kent Brandenburg says:

    I’m convinced that the Rescue Mission has done more damage than good in the inner cities. They needed churches, not missions.

  2. Kent, you may well be right in that observation. It hadn’t occurred to me. We sort of take these things for granted.

    Inner city churches are very challenging ministries, however. They would almost have to be mission works in most cases, wouldn’t they? Who could afford the cost of property in an inner city location? Certainly inner city members would not be soon able to do so. (Of course, this is not a reason against, just a likely reality for any such work. God is able!)

    I do know of some who are attempting such works. I have a friend in the Bronx and another in Brooklyn who are labouring away at building churches in the inner city.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3