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Callous Conservative

By Michael Gerson
Friday, January 18, 2008

After watching Fred Thompson debate his Republican rivals, I have often wondered why he is not in the top tier of candidates. He seems to have John McCain's honesty, without his razor-sharp edges, and Mitt Romney's conservatism, without his jaw-dropping inconsistencies.

This contrast between Thompson's large political talent and his poor political performance has led to persistent questions: Does he lack ambition? Energy?

This week, he added one more to the list: Does he lack moral seriousness?

At a campaign stop attended by a CBS reporter in Lady's Island, S.C., Thompson was asked if he, "as a Christian, as a conservative," supported President Bush's global AIDS initiative. "Christ didn't tell us to go to the government and pass a bill to get some of these social problems dealt with. He told us to do it," Thompson responded. "The government has its role, but we need to keep firmly in mind the role of the government, and the role of us as individuals and as Christians on the other."

Thompson went on: "I'm not going to go around the state and the country with regards to a serious problem and say that I'm going to prioritize that. With people dying of cancer, and heart disease, and children dying of leukemia still, I got to tell you -- we've got a lot of problems here. . . . " Indeed, there are a lot of problems here -- mainly of Thompson's own making.

While he is not an isolationist, he clearly is playing to isolationist sentiments. His objection, it seems, is not to government spending on public health but to spending on foreigners. But this is badly shortsighted. America is engaged in a high-stakes ideological struggle in Africa, where radicals and terrorists seek to fill the vacuum of failed and hopeless societies. Fighting disease and promoting development are important foreign policy tools in this struggle, which Thompson apparently does not appreciate or even understand.

Thompson's argument reflects an anti-government extremism, which I am sure his defenders would call a belief in limited government. In this case, Thompson is limiting government to a half-full thimble. Its duties apparently do not extend to the treatment of sick people in extreme poverty, which should be "the role of us as individuals and as Christians." One wonders, in his view, if responding to the 2004 tsunami should also have been a private responsibility. Religious groups are essential to fighting AIDS, but they cannot act on a sufficient scale.

Thompson also dives headfirst into the shallow pool of his own theological knowledge. In his interpretation, Jesus seems to be a libertarian activist who taught that compassion is an exclusively private virtue. This ignores centuries of reflection on the words of the Bible that have led to a nearly universal Christian conviction that government has obligations to help the weak and pursue social justice. Religious social reformers fought to end child labor and improve public health. It is hard to imagine they would have used the teachings of Christ to justify cutting off lifesaving drugs for tens of thousands of African children -- an argument both novel and obscene.

In the lifeboat dilemma Thompson proposes, we are asked to throw overboard either an American child with leukemia or an African child with AIDS -- and, by gum, it had better not be the American. The real issue is different: Should we increase the amount of money devoted to our generous cancer research efforts at the expense of African lives that can be saved for about $90 a year?

What of the more than 1.4 million men, women and children who have received treatment with the help of Bush's AIDS initiative? According to Thompson, they are not a priority. The 800,000 HIV-positive pregnant women who have gotten treatment to prevent transmission to their children? Not a priority. The care of nearly 3 million orphans? Not a priority.

Does Thompson actually believe this? Perhaps he was merely pandering to anti-government conservatives -- though it is difficult to imagine what collection of shriveled souls would be excited by an attack on AIDS treatment. Either way, Thompson's image as a courageous teller of hard truths -- the "adult" in the race -- is damaged. It cannot be called bravery for a millionaire actor, with a blessed life, to pick on the most vulnerable people on the planet.

Thompson's questioner got it wrong. Support for the fight against AIDS is not a matter of being a "Christian" or a "conservative" -- or a liberal or a Buddhist. It is an expression of compassion and empathy, which also reflects a serious conception of America's role in the world.

These attributes are not only admirable in a president; they should be required.

michaelgerson@cfr.org

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