Bush's Faith-Based Initiative Sparks Debate, Soul-Searching

Article excerpt

Without being enacted into law, President Bush's faith-based initiative has already had a socially and even morally useful effect. It has unleashed intense argument and soul-searching among those who were presumed to be its prime supporters and beneficiaries--Christian activists and active Christians, overlapping but distinct groups. And it has put poor people closer to the center of the political debate.

It's not surprising that all who believe the First Amendment requires a hard separation of church and state are critical of Bush's proposal to expand government support for religiously based charities and social services.

But it turns out that many Christian conservatives seem prepared to look a gift horse in the mouth--because they're not sure it's a gift. Among African-American pastors, the divide is between those who welcome support for their programs to help the poor and those who suspect Bush of trying to dilute the political power and Democratic loyalties of African-Americans. These critics fear the prophetic voice of the black church could be stilled.

Despite their political differences, the two groups of skeptics say much the same thing: with Caesar's coin comes the obligation to submit to Caesar's rules. Conservatives worry that if the government funds their charitable efforts, it won't allow the programs to be religious enough. Progressives worry the government won't let the churches be progressive enough.

In truth, the government has long helped finance programs through religious organizations without stopping them from being religious or, for that matter, politically outspoken.

Catholic Charities, for example, has an extensive history of running programs cooperatively with the government. That has not made the Roman Catholic Church, to use the conventional terms, any less "liberal" in its strong advocacy of programs for the poor or "conservative" in its firm opposition to abortion. Other religious organizations--among them Lutheran Services and many large African-American churches--have also kept their bearings while joining in partnerships with government.

It's at least possible, in other words, for government and religious institutions to work together in achieving common public purposes without unduly compromising either partner in the bargain. But on this matter, God will truly be in the details--and, probably, in the litigation.

Even more productive is the way the Bush initiative has forced us to confront how little most of us, religious or not, actually do to help the poor. …