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Jewish World Review Feb. 5, 2001 / 12 Shevat 5761

Philip Terzian

Terzian
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http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- I LEAVE IT to the historians of language to determine when the word "religious" was replaced by "faith-based." But no matter how it is expressed, President Bush's proposal to offer federal funds to "faith-based" charities and institutions that offer social services is a sensible one. Within appropriate guidelines, it may very well serve Mr. Bush's determination to help those Americans whom prosperity has left behind, and help them in ways no one now suspects.

As a political matter, there are three signs in its favor. The first, of course, is the automatic opposition of the American Civil Liberties Union, which for reasons having little to do with civil liberties, seems determined to eradicate religious institutions from civil life.

Second is the equally emphatic opposition of the Rev. Barry Lynn and his organization, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The Reverend Lynn is now treated in the media as a thoughtful watchdog on church-state relations, and trenchant critic of the Religious Right. But in fact, the Reverend Lynn and his organization began as virulent critics of the prospect of federal aid to parochial (that is to say, Roman Catholic) schools; and in its earlier incarnation, Americans United was always detecting the Pope's nefarious influence in American life. Seldom has bigotry moved so effortlessly into the mainstream.

The third sign in Mr. Bush's favor is the sentiment of Americans. A recent poll, conducted by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, asked respondents to rate those institutions they consider best suited to solve social problems in their communities. Out of 15 possible candidates, the federal government ranked 14th -- the choice of 28 percent of respondents-- just ahead of unions (21 percent) and behind state governments (33 percent). First in line were the cops (58 percent), but second was "local churches, synagogues or mosques" (56 percent), followed by "non-profit organizations such as the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries and Habitat for Humanity" (53 percent).

One of the discouraging aspects of Al Gore's recent presidential campaign was his seeming determination to revive all the old, discredited Great Society programs that, well-intentioned or not, gravely aggravated America's burgeoning social problems during the past three decades. The Pew survey reveals the deep skepticism of Americans about government's ability to alleviate despair, and their corresponding trust in "faith-based" institutions.

Whether that trust is justified is a matter of opinion, at this juncture; but Mr. Bush is to be commended for giving it a try, and putting his proposal in the hands of John DiIulio, an academic with a long history of commitment to social service. There is a notion that Americans are largely indifferent to social problems in their communities, and the Pew survey reveals that this is not only untrue, but contradicted by the fact that Americans have strongly-held views about what works and what doesn't.

Still, you don't have to share the hostility of the ACLU to all this in order to feel a certain unease about the subject. I don't mean the question of religious proselytizing, which seems to have the usual suspects agitated, and strikes me as irrelevant. I mean the question of connecting religious charities to the government. As any university administrator can attest, the federal government may do a limited number of things well, but one of those things is handing out money. And as surely as the cash arrives from Washington, it is followed by mandates, requirements and stipulations. And pretty soon the relationship evolves from philanthropy to coercion.

Religious organizations will be sorely tempted to solicit federal funds for theirgood works, and Congress and the federal government will be equally tempted to attach all manner of conditions to the cash. It happens everywhere else; why not here? The lure of federal funds is not to be overestimated: There are billions of dollars available out there, and the tiniest fraction could transform any number of struggling, successful programs. But it could transform them in other ways as well: By making them dependent on federal grants, and changing them from charitable institutions into lobbying organizations trading money for votes.

George W. Bush is not going to be president forever. The next administration might well cut off funds to programs that work, and happily endow their political allies, whose primary charitable beneficiaries are themselves. It's a terrible thing to say, but good laws are often administered by bad men, and even "faith-based" institutions are vulnerable to corruption. This isn't destined to happen, but it's a danger Messrs. Bush and DiIulio should perceive.



JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.

Up

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© 2001, The Providence Journal