- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

Last month, President Bush, speaking before a small faith-based program that serves the hungry and the homeless in Washington, once again called for welcoming "the good work of faith in our society." Three weeks ago, he sent Senate leaders a letter urging them to pass this year an "Armies of Compassion" bill that features:

• Tax incentives including charitable deductions for contributions of food and measures to help low-income families save money.

• Streamlined procedures to enable grass-roots groups to become 501(c)(3) organizations.

• New procurement rules that prohibit automatically awarding bonus points in the grant application process to organizations that have received government money before.

• A $100 million Compassion Capital Fund (CCF) to help community-serving groups, both sacred and secular, with accessing federal social service funds.

• Deploying the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to provide immediate training and technical assistance to these groups.

• Targeting human and financial help on the hardest problems, including, as Mr. Bush eloquently described it last week, a $67 million "national mentoring program where somebody whose dad or mother is in prison will have somebody put their arm around them and say, 'I love you' somebody loves you in our society."

The bill reflects a consensus reached between the White House and key members of Congress. It harmonizes the president's compassionate conservative vision with the faith-friendly ideas long-championed by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and builds on the most strongly bipartisan provisions of the "faith initiatives" bill passed by the House in July. It comes not a moment too soon.

Economic uncertainty is draining the coffers of community-serving groups that daily find more needy and neglected neighbors at their doors. This problem is compounded by the more than $1 billion in post-September 11 "disaster" or "victim relief" donations that have poured into new special-purpose funds, old mega-charities such as the American Red Cross, or deposited with other national non-profits, both religious and secular, any one of which already receives more corporate, philanthropic and government support than any 50 local community-serving congregations or other grass-roots groups combined.

Washington should do more now to help street-level Samaritans who mobilize like-hearted volunteers, mentor at-risk children, sponsor preschools, run homeless shelters, lead housing rehabilitation projects, offer drug treatment, help ex-prisoners find jobs, shelter battered women, administer youth sports leagues, and perform scores of other civic good works without which rates of chronic poverty, lifelong illiteracy, street violence, and other social ills would be far higher.

Congress should not delay another day before taking up and passing the bill.

Will it happen? As Founding Father James Madison counseled, "Experience is the oracle of truth." During the nearly eight months that I served as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, hardly a week passed without heated controversies or stories declaring the effort dead. The partisan and ideological arrows flew from all directions. Nonetheless, thanks to the president's morally resolute leadership, we managed to get a bunch of things done:

• As noted, in July, the House passed the Community Solutions Act, key parts of which the new proposal builds upon.

• The five Cabinet centers associated with my former office completed their first annual performance audits, documenting barriers to the full and fair participation of qualified grass-roots groups in federal social service delivery programs. The main findings were summarized in a White House report, "Unlevel Playing Field," released in mid-August.

• The former mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith, now CNCS board chairman, worked closely with me from Day 1 in identifying ways to increase technical assistance for community-serving, volunteer-based organizations, both sacred and secular.

• Hundreds of independent sector leaders, representing virtually every race, ethnic group, religion,and region, endorsed the president's call for more public-private partnerships to benefit the needy and neglected, as did organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

• The faith-initiatives debate raged among the policy elite, in the press and in Washington, but awareness of and support for providing more public help to sacred places serving civic purposes exploded in communities from coast to coast. One indicator: Our early town meetings on the issue in cities across the country drew crowds of a few hundred, but by July, during my last town meeting at a church in Brooklyn, N.Y., nearly 3,000 came.

Thus, experience suggests that much common ground already exists. The civic significance of religious congregations and community-serving ministries seems far more widely recognized and respected today than it was before September 11, and possibly more so than at any other time since the end of World War II.

But, as Madison might also counsel, timely legislative action here must depend on whether our most "enlightened statesmen" at each end of Pennsylvania Avenue can overcome the "factions" that, even after September 11, beset their respective parties when it comes to anything having to do with religion in the public square, especially religion in relation to social programs funded in whole or in part by government.

In Federalist Paper No. 10, Madison defines a "faction" as any group of citizens, whether it encompasses a vast majority or a tiny minority, that attempts to advance its ideas or interests at the expense of other citizens' rights and well-being, and that does so in ways that conflict with "the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" or "public good." The "causes of faction" are "sown" into human nature, and include "a zeal for different opinions concerning religion." Wise and public-spirited leaders, Madison says, must "adjust these clashing interests and render them all subservient to the public good."

On faith-based organizations, Washington politics are beset by at least two species of minority factions that, for lack of better appellations, may be termed orthodox secularists and orthodox sectarians. Orthodox secularists, while often paying lip service to the good works done by faith-based organizations and the rights of religious people to participate fully in civic life, insist that government may foster or fund faith-based programs only if they are just nominally religious or thoroughly secularized. Orthodox sectarians insist that public funds for social services be used for worship services and proselytization, and that the particular religious programs they favor are far more efficacious than less pervasively sectarian or strictly secular alternatives. They dismiss most constitutional and empirical arguments to the contrary as antireligious.

These minority factions are magnets for other factious individuals and groups that threaten to turn every healthy debate over how best to support sacred places in advancing civic purposes into a bloody battleground over other issues; for example, supporting or opposing homosexual rights and state and local laws governing the same. Each minority faction, it seems, issues weekly or monthly political ultimatums. The best way for our enlightened statesmen and the rest of us to respond is to follow what Mr. Bush has repeatedly referred to as his own guiding principles on the issue: even-handedness, neutrality, nondiscrimination, a desire for better civic results and a respect for pluralism.

To me at least, the essential Christian social teaching is that there are no strangers, only brothers and sisters to whom we have yet to witness our brotherly love. The Gospels (as in I John 18) call followers of Christ to love, "not in word or speech, but in truth and action." But neither Christians in general, nor any particular denomination or persuasion of Christians, has any monopoly on faith-centered civic good works. Most ministries, both Christian and non-Christian, that really do serve the least, the last and the lost of our society do so in ecumenical, interfaith, religious/secular and, increasingly, public/private partnerships.

Thus, Methodists, Muslims, Mormons and good citizens of no particular religious faith should all join the president in seeking compassion in truth and action and urging Congress to act. If we stand united, then the mischief wrought by minority factions will cease to bedevil the bipartisan push to enlist government more squarely in the support of America's diverse community helpers and healers. On July 4, the president preached this message in Philadelphia. "America's founding documents," he proclaimed, "give us religious liberty in principle," but this "liberty is more than the right to believe in God's love; it is the right to be an instrument of God's love."

Amen, Mr. President.

John J. DiIulio Jr. is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

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