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Private Solutions: The Best Hope for Cultural Renewal

R&L: In your book Transforming America from the Inside Out, you diagnose America’s social condition as “Cultural AIDS”. That has become a controversial metaphor. What do you mean by “Cultural AIDS” and why is it more accurate than the common phrase “culture wars”?

James: The concept of culture wars is that there are two, three, perhaps four cultures in America that are clashing with one another, and the strongest will ultimately survive. I believe, however, that America at its core has an identity, a culture that represents who we are as a nation. I see that culture as sick and dying. That is true because those institutions in our culture that historically provided a shield for us against the pathologies of our communities are breaking down. These pathologies–violence, pornography, child abuse, chemical addiction–have existed in world culture since the very beginning of time. But what has allowed us as a nation to fight off those particular pathologies is that we had a very strong immune system–things like strong families, strong faith, strong institutions, a moral base, a strong sense of virtue. As a result of our immune system now being broken down, we are susceptible to these viruses. So the way we need to address this problem is to build up those institutions that have made us be able to resist the pathologies.

R&L: You also suggest that government cannot restore sound moral principles to American society. Yet you have been an executive in a government bureaucracy. What is the proper role, if any, for the federal and state government in restoring America’s moral order?

James: The interesting thing about that question is that you are interviewing me on the final day of my service in government. I do believe that there is a limited role for government to play, and I don’t think that, as someone who holds that philosophy, I ought to leave government to those who believe in larger and more expansive governments. What we need is people who have a limited view of government who are willing to serve. Unfortunately, what that usually means is that those people are willing to come in for a while, serve, and leave. There are too few of us who hold these views who are willing to leave the private sector to serve in the government. I think conservatives, by the nature of who we are and our view of government’s limited role, would prefer to work in the private sector.

Something I said at the very core of Transforming America is that I really do believe that cultural change actually happens outside of the government sector. It happens more slowly, but that is where you really advance the ball for cultural change. And being an African-American conservative who holds those views, I am often in demand to come in and serve. There is a great deal of pressure for people who believe in limited government to serve in government. So I usually come in and do what I believe I can do in a limited amount of time, and then run back to the private sector as fast as I can–which is what I’m doing today!

R&L: In retrospect, what do you think was your major accomplishment as Secretary of Health and Human Services for Virginia?

James: What will be remembered publicly and historically will be Virginia’s welfare reform, and I do believe that it was a major accomplishment to develop the plan, write the legislation, get it through the general assembly, and then actually implement it in Virginia. Having said that, however, I believe that there are some things that have happened in the last two years that are probably as significant–if not more so–but they aren’t as interesting to the general public, and so they don’t get discussed as frequently.

As an example, one of the major thrusts here was to look at the government and try to figure out how to make it less intrusive. So we thoroughly reviewed the regulatory process and current regulations to see how to streamline them and get them out of peoples’ lives. One way to do that is by limiting bureaucracy, and because this administration believed in limited government, and because I had a strong commitment to doing that, I cut the bureaucracy by eleven percent in two years, which is impressive. We’ve never done that.

R&L: Usually it goes the other way.

James: Absolutely. And as a conservative, I know that if you don’t run a bureaucracy with conservative principles–if you are just neutral–it will still grow. So you really have to come in committed to limited government. A lot of people miss the fact that this is a four billion dollar agency which started out with 19,000 employees; significantly dropping that was a huge managerial challenge. So I think it is important to know that conservatives can manage well, provide services at a minimum level, protect the tax payers’ interest, and give good government. That to me was a real opportunity to take the philosophy and actually implement it hands-on. For someone who has come out of Washington or out of a think tank where you think policy and you think great thoughts, the opportunity to actually implement things was just very exciting.

R&L: Many social analysts and social thinkers speak of a permanent underclass in American society. From your experience at HHS, is it true that America has developed a permanent underclass?

James: I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a permanent underclass. I really do believe that given the opportunities this country affords, there need not be anything called a permanent underclass. We just have too many examples of individuals who accept personal responsibility for their lives, who see themselves as survivors rather than victims, and who are determined to take charge of their destiny. If you were going to be poor anywhere in the world, the best place to do it is in America. You have the opportunity to break through those class distinctions to achieve and to accomplish–and there are just too many examples of that having happened to buy into the notion that there is something called a “permanent” underclass. I do believe, however, that we today have a battered underclass.

R&L: What are some of the distinctive features of the battered underclass, and what, therefore, are their greatest needs?

James: What we are experiencing in America today is the unintended consequences of our misguided compassion of the last thirty years. Through government programs and policies, as well as through some very well-meaning people involved in social and charitable organizations, and with a paternalistic view toward the poor, what we have done–and this is the phrase that Secretary Sullivan used to use–is instead of blaming the victim, we have actually lamed the victims. We, through our own misguided compassion, have set up a scenario in America whereby individuals have been robbed of their personal dignity, robbed of their hope, robbed of their self-esteem–and more importantly–robbed of a strong belief that they can accomplish and achieve.

People rise or sink to their level of expectation, and I think that many who have this misguided compassion have really lowered the bar to the point that many poor people in America really don’t believe that can accomplish anything. They simply have been robbed of their initiative by people lowering the bar and not having high levels of expectations. It’s amazing when you set the bar high how people can achieve.

R&L: Your book Transforming America upset some people because of its claim that racism is still among the most significant problems facing the church and society. What does American society have to do to eliminate racism?

James: I don’t see how you could be black in America today and not deal with the reality that racism exists. I experience it on a daily basis and no one can really refute my own experience. Having said that, I really do disagree with how most people within the liberal black community would deal with racism in America. I think racism on an individual basis needs to be dealt with swiftly on an individual basis. I don’t believe in retribution or somehow holding all light-complexioned people in America accountable for individual acts of racism that have occurred in my own life or in the lives of other African-Americans.

I don’t see racism as an excuse for not accomplishing or achieving. Racism has existed in America since day one, and–in light of the fact that I am raising children and trying to motivate young African-Americans–the name of the game is trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to win this thing in spite of racism, poverty, poor schools, and a lack of economic opportunities. The real challenge is to say “Okay, if this is what exists, what is my responsibility in dealing with this real scenario?” And I accept no excuses, including racism. So I think that while I acknowledge that racism exists, I may have a very different strategy of how to deal with it.

R&L: You have argued that the loss of principled morality is at the root of America’s economic and social crisis. Is moral renewal the only remedy for this crisis?

James: I think it will take a moral revival, but it will also take good sound public policy–and the two are not mutually exclusive. Very often people somehow see a dilemma: “Should I be involved in the moral renewal of America, or is the real key changing government and public policy?” It’s not an either/or situation, it’s a both/and. I happen to be a Presbyterian and believe both that God is sovereign and that man is responsible; both things can be true at the same time. I have no problem with accepting what some people see as apparent dilemmas.

R&L: America is grasping for a common moral agenda, and as part of that moral agenda, certain virtues will be encouraged. What virtues does America most need now?

James: Perhaps the one who has captured that the best is Bill Bennett in his Book of Virtues. While we are a pluralistic society and we differ in many ways in what we believe to be moral and religious truths, there are virtues that are common to all cultures, and need to be incorporated into the fabric of America. For example, patriotism ought not be debatable or negotiable. Loyalty, a work ethic, honesty, integrity–these are the kinds of virtues that make individuals and communities strong, and that makes for a strong nation. I really don’t believe that virtue is something that you can simply read about in Bennett’s book. What makes that book so excellent is that it’s a useful tool to be used by families as they talk about virtues, identify them, live them out, point them out, and affirm them in each other’s lives. Anybody who thinks they are going to buy that book and give it to their children in the hope that they “catch” those virtues is confused.

R&L: What do you think it will take in this nation for that kind of moral and religious revival?

James: As I go to communities and talk to people who are struggling at a subsistence level everyday, what I find is that they don’t want a sort of feel-good religion. They don’t want pat answers and Bible verses with smiley faces that tell them that everything is okay. What they want is real, gutsy truth; they want to know that theology is practical and real and can have an impact on their lives. They need to know that the God of the universe is a very personal God who cares about the details of their lives.

If God doesn’t have real answers for pregnant teenage fourteen-year old girls, if there are not real answers for a father for who is struggling with chemical addiction and wants to change but feels powerless to do that, if there aren’t real answers within our sphere of faith for these people, then they reject it. And very often we want to go in and scratch the surface, and not deal with the real, strong, life-changing faith that has relevance to the lives of the people we are trying to touch.