- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2001

It never ceases to amaze me how God is the most controversial figure in America. Congress has two chaplains and opens each day with a prayer to Him, but He is not allowed in public schools. He is misinterpreted by liberals, who believe Jesus was a neo-socialist. And He is exploited by those who preach hate, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Religion can be used for better or for worse, but charitable missions by religious organizations should not fall under the parameters of the perpetual, standard debate on God vs. the founding fathers.

Along with Rep. Tony Hall and Speaker Dennis Hastert, I recently introduced legislation on faith-based charities and charitable giving, including a measure to allow religious groups to compete for federal grants. This has been an issue that I have been working on for a long time, and a hallmark of President Bush´s domestic agenda. But criticism coming from both the left and the right threatens to undermine this bipartisan initiative that seeks to do nothing more than help the poor and others in need.

What my bill will do is put groups who are faith-based on a level playing field with other organizations in the quest for government grants on everything from shelters to reading programs. Legislation I wrote during the last Congress, that was signed into law by President Clinton, broke the ice for this concept, as federal money can now flow to faith-based groups for drug and alcohol rehabilitation as a part of my community renewal package. And the federal government has been giving money to faith-based groups overseas for years in order to do everything from assist with earthquake relief to feed the poor. Helping to fight poverty domestically using this same model is a natural extension of what already works well.

My question, though, to the anti-faith-based aid forces is whether or not they agree with the federal government giving money to hospitals and universities run by religious organizations. Why is it ok to give money to colleges and hospitals run by faith-based organizations, but the poor are deprived of the charitable work faith-based groups perform day in and day out?

Cries coming from the left on the separation of church and state and the Establishment Clause are simply unfounded. Mr. Bush, a Protestant, picked University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio, a Catholic Democrat, to head up the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Jewish former mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith, was named to the Corporation for National Service, which advises the White House on the federal grants to faith-based organizations. If there is a sectarian conspiracy going on, I am not sure which sect is conspiring.

The government should not have a monopoly on compassion. Local, faith-based groups know the ills and problems of a community far better than any government agency in Washington.

Compassionate intentions are not enough when dealing with children and the downtrodden. Our goal ought to be compassionate results.

The president has rallied the "armies of compassion" in order to curb crime, conquer addiction, strengthen families and overcome poverty. While it is difficult to argue against any of these objectives, special-interest groups have begun an assault on an otherwise laudable mission of helping the needy. The premise of their arguments is that religion has no place in or near society.

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamic poll conducted in late January revealed that only 10 percent of Americans believe religion has too large a role in our country. Sixty-eight percent of Americans believe the role of religion is too small.

Even with this religious argument on the table, it should be noted that the federal money to be given to faith-based organizations would not be for the religious end of their work. Rather, it is earmarked for the task of charity. It is a partnership most Americans are embracing. A Pew Research poll released this month showed 75 percent of the country favors our faith-based initiative.

Some individuals on the conservative end of the political spectrum are concerned that the federal money would undermine a faith-based organization´s core beliefs. Let me say the government is not going to water down a church´s teachings. I think this is a weak argument. It´s the typical rhetoric from people who are opposed to something, but do not have a plan of their own.

I think conservatives who criticize our faith-based initiative ought to be a lot more careful and not repeat the same errors they made in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then most of the faith community was silent on racial equality and civil rights. Today, conservatives still suffer from the lack of credibility in these communities because the left stepped up to the plate with a plan. It was a dysfunctional plan nevertheless, it was a plan. To be against the faith-based initiative without coming up with solutions to the problems that face our society today is the wrong approach for the conservative movement. These communities need help. If conservatives are not willing to step up to the plate, then they should at least get out of the way.

Putting one´s 10 percent tithe in the collection plate is only the beginning of charity. Our faith also should require us to walk into places others do not want to walk into, see things other do not want to see and hear things others do not want to hear. Faith-based charities using this approach get results.

I have seen firsthand the awesome work faith-based organizations do to help those who cannot help themselves. Their actions stem from the writing of St. Paul, when he said "And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity."

Charity is a virtue that ought to be promoted everywhere including from the federal government. There is a great need and we should encourage public and private resources to help all who truly need assistance.

Creating a partnership with faith-based organizations is a new and innovative approach to an old problem: fighting poverty. If we give the president a chance and avoid political partisanship when dealing with the poor we can move toward the ultimate goal of leaving no child behind.

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. is the chairman of the House Republican Conference.

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