WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 10, 2001 (Zenit.org).- One of the first acts of the newly inaugurated President George W. Bush was to announce he would loosen restrictions on the involvement of churches in the area of welfare.
The plan would allow religious organizations to compete for government grants, and it also provide for more tax breaks to encourage charitable giving, the Associated Press reported Jan. 30. Until now, churches´ involvement has been limited to poverty, drug and community development programs. Under the proposal, which has still to be debated by Congress, all federal grant programs would be open to bidding by religious groups.
Bush acknowledged, “Government will never be replaced by charities and community groups.” But he added, “When we see social needs in America, my administration will look first at faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives.”
Bush also signed executive orders creating a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and counterpart offices in five Cabinet-level departments. The Republican president named John J. DiIulio Jr., a University of Pennsylvania political science professor who is a Catholic and a Democrat, to head the White House office. A fellow at both the Manhattan Institute and the Brookings Institute, DiIulio has done extensive work with black pastors in urban areas, the New York Times noted Jan. 29. At Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania he was known for his work on criminal justice issues.
Another central figure in the initiative is Stephen Goldsmith, chief domestic policy adviser for Bush´s presidential campaign. Goldsmith, who is Jewish, will be the chairman of a new national advisory board whose work will complement that of the new federal office. He will also serve as an official adviser to Bush on the issue.
Goldsmith, a former prosecutor and two-term mayor of Indianapolis, Indiana, was interested in revitalizing long-neglected inner-city neighborhoods. Late in his second term, he started the Front Porch Alliance, a group that acted as a liaison between religious congregations, mostly urban black churches, and government.
For his new initiatives Bush has also sought involvement and dialogue with various religious communities. On Jan. 31, just 10 days into his term, Bush, joined by Goldsmith, DiIulio and other officials, met with leading Catholics from around the country.
Frank Hanna of Solidarity Schools, who was at that meeting, noted the cordiality with which Bush, a Methodist, greeted and spoke with various Catholic Church leaders.
“Bush seemed genuinely interested in promoting the culture of life, certainly as regards abortion, but also in its more far-reaching manifestations,” Hanna said. “I do not believe it is accidental that he has used the phrase ´culture of life´ with increasing frequency. Obviously, he is a politician who must accomplish his goals in a political environment, and so it remains to be seen what types of policies will actually materialize.
“Nevertheless, the initiatives he has taken and the language he has used regarding the role of faith in our society, and the need for religion in our lives, are very encouraging signs.”
Debate over the proposals
The idea of involving churches to a greater degree in government programs immediately sparked a debate over church-state relations.
Even before the details of the plan were announced, criticism came from Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “George Bush does not understand the nature of either the church or the Constitution,” Lynn was quoted as saying in the Jan. 26 New York Times.
The Washington Post observed Jan. 31 that Bush´s plan requires that a secular alternative also be available in the neighborhood where a faith-based program is funded by the government. Yet that didn´t appease all critics.
A New York Times editorial Jan. 30 inveighed against the initiative affirming that the “proposal to channel federal funds to ´faith-based´ groups to serve social needs is a potentially dangerous erosion of the constitutionally shielded boundary between church and state.” Using public funds to help religion improve lives, it warned, “could end up trampling the rights of all Americans and hurting even those groups it intends to help.”
A Jan. 30 commentary in The Washington Post by E.J. Dionne was more favorable. Dionne admitted “that government alone cannot expect to solve every social problem” and therefore the help of private groups and churches is necessary. The article also pointed out that religious organizations are part of a broad network of voluntary associations and as such deserve to be supported by government.
In the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 30, Goldsmith defended the funding for religious groups noting that the government dollars will not subsidize religion or evangelizing, given that the “separation of Church and State dictates that public money should never fund proselytizing.” However this division should not impede government support that can be targeted to nonreligious purposes, said Goldsmith.
In the New York Times on Jan. 31, David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University and self-described “card-carrying liberal,” expressed the hope that faith-based programs for criminals could be a welcome alternative to simply locking up in prison ever-greater numbers of offenders.
Because redemption plays a central role in many faith-based programs, the initiative offers hope that rehabilitation may be restored as a politically acceptable response to crime, observed Cole. He also affirmed that there is reason to believe that faith-based responses to crime may be effective especially when they address the drug and alcohol dependency at the root of much criminal behavior.
Conservative circles have shown reluctance toward the proposals too. Some conservatives fear that churches will be contaminated by submitting to federal bureaucracy. In the Feb. 19 issue of National Review, Kate O´Beirne remarked that experience in Texas showed how the government would attempt to throttle the faith-based programs with regulations. She also noted that it will not be easy to find spiritually motivated welfare programs, given that the government spends over $400 billion on anti-poverty programs, while the private sector contributes about $20 billion to helping the needy.
George Will, writing in The Washington Post on Feb. 4, argued that Catholic Charities, which receives 65% of its $2.3 billion budget from government, has been the victim of a creeping secularization and politicization. He cited an example of a priest, who upon applying for an internship at the organization, was rejected because in hypothetical counseling situations he advised against abortion and would not endorse homosexual unions. Allegedly the priest´s supervisor, who failed him, said, “We get government funds, so we are not Catholic.”
Avoiding the pitfalls that lie ahead by involving churches in government programs to a greater degree will not be easy, but the loss of moral values in modern life has already had catastrophic social consequences. As Aristotle observed in the “Politics,” “any city which is truly so called … must devote itself to the end of encouraging goodness. … Otherwise, too, law becomes a mere covenant, or a guarantor of just claims, but lacks the capacity to make citizens good and just.”