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Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2001 / 8 Shevat, 5761

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports

Faith works -- WANT TO drive liberals crazy? Try suggesting that tax dollars go to faith-based organizations to help the poor, treat drug addicts, or reform criminals. It certainly worked for President Bush. Within hours of the president's announcement this week that he was creating a White House office to distribute billions of dollars to religious and other faith-based organizations to provide social services, he had nearly every liberal interest group in the country foaming at the mouth.

The American Civil Liberties Union warned ominously that allowing government to dispense social services through faith-based groups is a "prescription for discrimination." Americans United for Separation of Church and State denounced the initiative as a "radical assault on America's tradition of church-state separation," outlining their objections in an 8-page paper. One of the few left-wing groups not to go on the immediate attack was People for the American Way. But that's probably because PAW was too busy trying to kill attorney general designate John Ashcroft's nomination by accusing him of being a liar. Character assassination is a full-time job.

So what exactly has the president proposed that worked these groups into such a lather? Most of the groups attacking the Bush proposal claimed that the program violates the First Amendment. But since none of the money will go for religious proselytizing, it's unlikely the program will run afoul of the Constitution. And besides, religious organizations like Catholic Charities and the Council of Jewish Federations have been getting government money for decades to help resettle refugees, shelter the homeless and treat AIDS victims.

No, the First Amendment argument is a red herring. Liberals are unhappy with the Bush proposal because it undercuts their basic belief that powerful social forces are to blame for everything from poverty to criminality. Liberals dismiss as "blaming the victim" any suggestion that bad decisions -- such as having a child out of wedlock, or getting high or breaking into someone else's house to steal a television -- create and perpetuate poverty, addiction and crime. Since individuals aren't to blame for their own predicament, there's no point in trying to change individual behavior. Instead, liberals favor treating social problems in the most anonymous, least judgmental fashion.

A few years ago, the state of Maryland decided to disburse welfare through automatic teller machines, for example. Advocates for the program argued that not only would it cut down on the theft of welfare checks common in many poor communities, it also would eliminate any stigma attached to receiving welfare. Recipients could take their money out of an ATM just like everyone who worked, making them feel less like charity cases -- and far less likely ever to give up their welfare entitlement.

But if you believe that individuals should be held responsible for their own actions, as most conservatives do, then helping people often entails getting them to change their behavior.

Government bureaucracies are lousy at persuading people to change destructive behavior, however. Welfare offices may be good at dispensing checks, but they're usually terrible at getting their clients off the dole and into jobs. Drug clinics can substitute a prescribed drug, methadone, for an illicit one, heroin, but their track record in getting addicts to abandon drugs altogether is pathetic. Prisons can keep criminals off the street -- temporarily -- but they're notoriously bad when it comes to reforming those behind bars so that they won't commit more crimes when they eventually go free.

Faith-based groups, on the other hand, minister to the individual, not the social problem. And that usually means trying to get individuals to change their conduct, especially if it contributes to their plight.

President Bush doesn't expect miracles from his new, faith-based initiative, and neither should we. But allowing religious organizations to compete for some of the billions of dollars the government will spend in the next decade to treat drug addicts, or rehabilitate convicts or help poor people seems worth at least a small leap of faith -- even by liberals.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate