Of Many Things

‘George Bush’s Message to Michael,” I recall, was the headline that blared across two whole pages of The Boston Herald on Aug. 19, 1988. The Herald had chosen to print in its entirety the speech that Vice President George Bush had delivered the night before in New Orleans, accepting the Republican nomination for president. In Massachusetts in 1988, no one was in doubt about who Michael was: the Bay State’s own Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee.

Mr. Bush’s speech, expertly crafted by the veteran speechwriters Peggy Noonan and Craig Smith, is best remembered for “Read my lips: no new taxes,” a promise President Bush would later break in order to balance the federal budget. But first-runner up for best-remembered phrase lies in his remarks on the importance of civil society: “This is America,” he said. “The Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah, the Disabled American Veterans, the Order of Ahepa, the Business and Professional Women of America, the union hall, the Bible study group, LULAC, ‘Holy Name’—a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”

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That phrase, “a thousand points of light,” was much satirized and derided by critics. But unfairly so. Mr. Bush was onto something: While government has a role to play in the pursuit of the common good, our charitable and voluntary associations are similarly indispensable, and those who have a religious worldview have historically led the way. In this, Vice President Bush was aligned with the thinking of John Courtney Murray, S.J., who viewed civil society as an ascending world of social organizations that, along with government, form a coherent, cohesive whole.

But in the contemporary United States, it would be more accurate to say that such an arrangement was America. As William T. Cavanaugh has observed, Father Murray’s vision of civil society has been inverted. “The rise of the state,” says Cavanaugh, “is the history of the atrophying of such [intermediate] associations.” In an important sense, American political history is not a tale of the triumph of individual autonomy over the authoritarian state; it is rather a tale of the triumph of the state over the individual, through the progressive absorption of the intermediate associations of civil society. Cavanaugh’s evidence includes “the exponential and continuous growth of the state” in the postwar period, “in the progressive enervation of intermediate associations,” as documented by Robert Bella, Robert Putnam and others; and “the symbiosis of the state and the corporation that signals the collapse of the separation between politics and economics.”

Yet politicians on both sides of the aisle have started to acknowledge the importance of those intermediate associations and are attempting to reverse the trend. Mr. Bush’s son, George W., during his tenure as president, created the first White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. President Obama has a similarly styled initiative, and in this issue of America, the first to feature a cover story by a sitting secretary of state, John Kerry writes about the new Office of Religion and Global Affairs, a testament to Mr. Kerry’s belief in the power of religion to effect meaningful, positive change, sometimes in partnership with government agencies but more often on its own.

Perhaps we can say that a revival of sorts is in the works, or a least a growing recognition of the importance of the third sector and its religious actors in providing for the common good. Perhaps we are a step closer to retrieving what Mr. Bush called in his acceptance speech “a better America…an endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light.”

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Deirdre Pierson
2 years 3 months ago
The premise that an over-reaching state inevitably shrinks charitable activity by third-party actors (like churches) poses a false dilemma. Poverty has never been eliminated in this country, or even touched in too many places, urban and rural. The idea that there was/is nothing left for the charitable impulse to expend itself on seems spiritually bankrupt - there is so much to be done in this country and if those needs are not pressing enough, a whole world of need is beamed into our lives through 24-hour news, electronic communications, as well as magazines like America. While it may be handy for churches to complain that the government is undercutting them, the complaint is bogus, much like the assertion that a loss of government subsidy impinges on "religious freedom". Both complaints ignore the fact that religious providers - in most cases - can continue to provide their services, they just won't be reimbursed by the government. It seems somewhat duplicitous to pretend that we (the Church, in particular) are restrained from doing the good we want, when in fact we are perfectly free to do so and pay for it ourselves. Jesus never asked that we fight for government tax exemptions or favored status. We are called to pick up our crosses and follow him. Is it a denial of religious freedom that we be asked to put our money where our mouths are? The suggestion that there is nothing left to do by the "third sector" cannot be taken seriously by anyone who works even tangentially with the many in this country untouched by the "triumph of the state over the individual".
Richard Booth
2 years 3 months ago
"A thousand points of light" also reflects an ancient Asian philosophical sentiment, although I'm not certain that President Bush knew that. On another matter, some of the intermediate remedies you speak of are as linked with economics as is the State. Every charity knows that.
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 3 months ago
In the US Catholic Charities is in fact an arm of the Federal government receiving approximately 60% of its annual income from the government. "In 2010, Catholic Charities had revenues of $4.7 billion, $2.9 billion of which came from the US government. Only about $140 million came from donations from diocesan churches, the remainder coming from in-kind contributions, investments, program fees, and community donations. Catholic Charities is listed as an Accredited Charity by the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance." Socialism is already a major factor in the use of religious organizations to deliver the services posing as charity. "The truth of the matter is that the Obama administration has actually increased funding for Catholic nonprofit organizations and programs. In fact, more than $1.5 billion went to Catholic organizations over the past two years. Funding increases for Catholic organizations in recent years include the following: An increase from $12.45 million (2008) to $57.89 million (2011) in USDA food assistance to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) An increase from just over $440 million (2008) to more than $554 million (2010) to Catholic Charities USA Increases in Dept. of Labor grants to Catholic organizations such as Catholic Charities of Kansas for ex-offender reintegration and other programs from $300,000 (2009) to more than $5 million (2011) An increase of HHS funding for Catholic Medical Mission Board global health activities from $500,000 (2008) to $7 million (2011). These are just a few examples of the many types of support received by Catholic organizations from the Federal government.
Richard Booth
2 years 3 months ago
To me, what you say in your response is very interesting. It also raises the question about whether Catholic Charities is actually a movement of love stemming from the Church, or an extension of secular social programming. Even the Red Cross receives NO governmental money.

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