Classic Book of the Month – The Tragedy of American Compassion


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Tuesday, January 7th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, here we are in the year 2020 and that means another year of great books to read! 

And for that our WORLD book reviewer Emily Whitten takes us by the hand and walks us through the Classic Book of the Month every month. 

Emily, happy new year!

WHITTEN: And happy new year to you, too! 

REICHARD: Well, did you get any good books for Christmas?

WHITTEN: A couple. I actually got the one I’m talking about today, but I did order it for myself—so I’m not sure if that counts.

REICHARD: Ha. Sometimes those are the best presents!

WHITTEN: Well, I gave away my first copy several years ago. I finally got around to replacing it. 

REICHARD:  At least you gave it away in lieu of lending it and then never getting it back! What’s the title?

WHITTEN: I brought an audio clip to introduce the book. This comes from Newt Gingrich’s inaugural address as Speaker of the House back in 1995:

GINGRICH: I commend to all of you Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion. Olasky goes back for 300 years and looks at what has worked in America. How we have helped people rise beyond poverty. How we have reached out to save people. And he may not have the answers but he has the right sense of where we have to go as Americans.

That’s Gingrich recommending The Tragedy of American Compassion. Audio courtesy of CSPAN. Not only did Gingrich recommend it, he gave a copy to members of the House! 

REICHARD:  Yes, that was quite a moment. And let’s note here that Marvin Olasky is our editor in chief.

WHITTEN: Yes. To be totally upfront, he oversees my book reviews. That said, my analysis today is my own. I asked to review The Tragedy of American Compassion because it’s a classic I wish more Christians knew about. That’s why I gave my old copy away!

REICHARD: That begs the question, why do you want more Christians to know about it?

WHITTEN: Olasky’s ideas continued to impact American politics over the next decades. You might remember George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” back in the early 2000s. Olasky contributed to that movement in several ways. If you’d like to know more about that, check out the Book TV interview with Olasky on Youtube. I’ll have a link on my Twitter feed today, @emilyawhitten

REICHARD: That’s helpful. And what else makes this a classic read to your mind? 

WHITTEN: For one thing, the book helps Christians recover our history. President Lyndon Johnson began his War on Poverty in the 1960s. Olasky says, from the 17th century through the early 20th century, religious Americans waged a far more successful war on poverty. And they did so without any help from the federal government. Olasky talks about Christian heroes like Charles Brace from the 19th century. Here he is speaking in 2007 to the Young American Foundation:

OLASKY: He was a minister and then he realized if he really wanted to change lives, he had to deal with material conditions as well as a spiritual conditions. He spent a lot of time walking the streets of New York City to gain a personal understanding of the problems. And then over a 40 year period, he built lodging homes in New York City that provided shelter for several thousand abandoned children. His agency placed 91,000 of them in adoptive homes all through the East and the Midwest.

Olasky says Charles Brace was just one of many forgotten heroes, a lot of them Christians, who successfully fought poverty in early America. It’s a heritage we do well to remember.

REICHARD: 91,000 orphans placed in homes—that’s quite a legacy.

WHITTEN: For sure. 

REICHARD: What else should we know about the book, Emily? 

WHITTEN: Olasky clearly shows the impact of theology. In the Bible, we see Jesus personally suffer and die for sinners. That’s the epitome of Biblical compassion. This contrasts with some non-Biblical theology that sees people as naturally good and easily saved. Pass a law, give some money…that’s all it takes to help people. In 20-12, a YouTube user with the rather odd handle of “length-youn-arthur” summarized Olasky’s idea of compassion this way:

AUDIO: I guess the Latin root of that is to suffer with somebody. If you’re walking down the street and there’s a beggar or somebody in the gutter, and you give them some money, that’s not compassion. Compassion would be to sit in the gutter with them and raise them up. The book actually challenged me in that way.

Olasky wouldn’t say we never need to pass better laws or give money. But when we look at Christ’s life, we see that’s just the beginning of what people really need.

REICHARD: That’s certainly a high calling. It makes me wonder, how does Olasky suggest we be more Christ-like in helping others?

WHITTEN: The book uses the A-B-Cs of compassion to describe good poverty-fighting. Olasky summarizes those in WORLD’s upcoming Effective Compassion podcast. First, he says, help should be challenging. Whenever possible, we want to gently and wisely push people to reach their God-created potential. Second, help should be personal. God made us to reach out and care for one another as individuals. Third, help should be spiritual. Our greatest need is a restored relationship with God. Here’s a clip from the podcast:

OLASKY: When we treat people as human beings made in God’s image and not just animals to be fed and watered and patted down, then that’s helping people get some of that sense of Biblical hope. And that’s the goal of    poverty fighting today: challenging, personal, and spiritual. 

So, Mary, I hope people will check out The Tragedy of American Compassion. My favorite part of the book isn’t a particular chapter or argument. It’s the tone. Warm hearted but tough-minded. We need that today, just as much as we did 30 years ago.

REICHARD: This book sounds like a good way to help set our priorities in the new year. 

And for folks interested in hearing more about compassion that isn’t tragic, check out our new Effective Compassion podcast. You can listen to it wherever you get your podcasts. Emily, thanks so much. 

WHITTEN: Glad to help, Mary. Happy reading! 

REICHARD: Today, Emily recommended Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion. Find other classic book recommendations at worldandeverything.org. Just search for Classic Book of the Month.


(Photo/Marvin Olasky, Author)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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2 comments on Classic Book of the Month – The Tragedy of American Compassion

  1. Keira Vestal says:

    Sent a link to my son – keep suggestions coming – there are hungry college students who are starving for reason and logic 🙂

  2. Emily says:

    Thanks, Keira! Will try!

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