By Leaming, Jeremy
Church & State , Vol. 61, No. 3
President George W. Bush doesn't have much use for the separation of church and state. In fact, he seems to see that venerable constitutional principle as an obstacle to his goals.
Speaking at a "faith-based" prisoner reentry program in Baltimore, Md., Jan. 29, Bush said, "When I came into office, the nation's traditions of religious freedom and equal opportunity were facing unnecessary obstacles. Throughout America, religious and community groups were providing effective assistance to people in need, but there was a great reluctance on the part of the federal government to help them.
"There was the notion," Bush said, "that somehow that there needed to be a clear separation of church and state, and therefore, we shouldn't be using taxpayers' money to help programs that were helping to meet national needs."
So Bush said he created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to clear away the obstacles.
Now, seven years later, Bush is reinvigorating his controversial "faith-based" initiative to fund churches and church schools. In his State of the Union message Jan. 28, he announced a new national drive to make his faith-based agenda a permanent part of the federal government and to enact a new national voucher scheme to subsidize religious and other private schools.
"Faith-based groups are bringing hope to pockets of despair with newfound support from the federal government," Bush claimed. "And, to help guarantee equal treatment of faith-based organizations when they compete for federal funds, I ask you to permanently extend Charitable Choice." ("Charitable Choice" is the euphemistic term supporters used to describe provisions in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that were aimed at diverting federal dollars to religious groups.)
The day after delivering his eigthth State of the Union, Bush sought to capitalize on what would likely be a short window of media attention. The 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, with 22 states voting on Feb. 5, were sucking up loads of media coverage.
At the "Jericho" prison reentry program in Maryland, the president addressed ex-offenders and staff and board members of Episcopal Community Services, which runs the program. Bush used the appearance at the East Baltimore row house to pump his faith-based agenda and again urge Congress to support it.
"If a program was effective because they were willing to recognize a higher power, if a program was effective because people responded because they felt a call from a higher power, then to deny the higher power really reduced the effectiveness of the program," Bush said.
The Jericho program receives $660,000 each year from the U.S. Department of Labor to help non-violent offenders transition back into the workforce and community life. For about an hour, the Baltimore Sun reported, Bush met with Jericho administrators and participants and focused largely on lauding the program's religious component.
Observed Bush, "One of the great things about a faith-based program, one of the great aspects of a faith-based program, is there's a lot of people in our society who hear the call to love a neighbor. That's, after all, one of the key tenets of faith: Love a neighbor like you'd like to be loved yourself.
"Our government should not fear the influence of faith in our society," he added. "Our government ought to welcome results. We ought to say, thank God there are people such as this in our neighborhoods and societies helping these good men."
Bush's stop at the Baltimore faith-based operation garnered significant press coverage, but it largely focused on his comments regarding his own struggle with drinking and how becoming an evangelical Christian apparently helped him overcome that problem.
"As you might remember, I drank too much at one time in my life," Bush told the ex-offenders. …