- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2001

Seeking to translate some of his most soaring political rhetoric into elevating social action, President George W. Bush this week took his first steps to enlist what he likes to call the "armies of compassion" religious and private groups across the country in the federal government's efforts to assist the nation's needy. Announcing the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Mr. Bush returned to one of the salient themes of his political philosophy: "As I said in my Inaugural Address, compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government. It is more than the calling of politicians, it is the calling of citizens. It is citizens who turn mean streets into good neighborhoods. It is citizens who turn cold cities into real communities."
And, to extend Mr. Bush's argument, it is citizens not government bureaucracies who stand to reap the benefits of his laudable efforts to broaden and recast the ways in which the federal government provides social services to the homeless, the addicted, the abused and the bereft. Of course, as a more traditional conservative (cranky conservative?) might note, Mr. Bush is saddling up the federal government for another skirmish in the war on human suffering. William F. Buckley, who is never cranky, pointed this out recently, urging conservatives to accept the fact that certain causes, such as the fight against the federalization of a range of social programs, are lost ones. "Which means," he wrote, "that we need to make prudent accommodations." In this case, that means harnessing "the apparatus of government" to stress the independent aspects of both the services provided and those who provide them.
Which is certainly in large part what Mr. Bush's program promises to do. "Government will never be replaced by charities and community groups," the new president said in announcing a series of reforms that would allow faith-based groups to compete for federal funding and contracts alongside non-religious organizations. But, he continued, "as long as there are secular alternatives, faith-based charities should be able to compete for funding on an equal basis and in a manner that does not require them to sacrifice their mission." With any measure of success, this initiative, which will be guided and overseen by the highly respected team of writer and academic John DiIulio and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, would seem to promise to attenuate the proprietary role of the federal government in delivering charitable services.
But more important, the Bush program holds out the promise of encouraging more, and even dare we say it? more compassionate charitable services. Of course, because Mr. Bush is actually attempting to foster a working relationship between a plurality of religious groups and the federal government, the true-believing secularists have declared non-holy war. "This is going to be an all-out battle," a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State told the New York Times. The group's Barry Lynn told Bryant Gumbel that Mr. Bush's program "will, in fact, fund religious bigotry." An ACLU official called it, "Federal funding for religion run amok."
Is it just us, or is there a tired, tinny quality to this automatic and overblown scare-talk? Maybe we'll give Sen. Joe Lieberman what amounts to the last word: "I am optimistic that we can strike the right balance of inclusion, and harness the best forces of faith in our public life without infringing on the First Amendment and without excluding those of different beliefs." To be sure, it's a worthy effort.

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