- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

George W. Bush has faith in his faith-based initiative, and a good thing, too. Some surprising folks are shooting at it.

The president sprang to the defense of the concept, if not every as-yet uncrossed "t" and undotted "i" in the program, in the wake of an aide's having been quoted he says inaccurately in The Washington Post suggesting that Mr. Bush is looking for a way to back away from his idea.

By the Post's account, Don Eberly, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the president had postponed sending the legislation to Capitol Hill: "We're not ready to send our bill up."

Not necessarily so, the White House said yesterday. Mr. Eberly was not available, but Ari Fleischer, the president's press agent, said Mr. Eberly does not think the dispatch in The Post was "an accurate reflection" of what he had said. "I found that whole story puzzling."

But not so puzzling to longtime Post readers, who are accustomed to hostility to everything that smacks of faith, belief and religious conviction. The usual suspects are aligned against the initiative, as if addiction to crack cocaine, while not necessarily good, is still better than addiction to belief in God. Richard Cohen, writing in The Post, rebukes the Taleban for pulling down that enormous statue of Buddha in Afghanistan ("Afghanistan, you see, has a faith-based government"), and adds: "I can see no more reason to argue with them than with the Talibanic Pat Robertson, who warned the city of Orlando, Fla., that it would suffer some sort of natural catastrophe if it allowed a celebration of gay pride." His analogy is curious, since Pat Robertson did not go to Orlando to pull down the pants of a single gay marcher, but Mr. Cohen was on a roll, next mocking the mother of William F. Buckley Jr. for having once asked her children to pray for her as she approached childbirth. "She had been warned, but had proceeded with her pregnancy, anyway. It was her 11th. Such is faith." Religious faith is bad in the Cohen Catechism unless it's faith in the lavender ribbon and the abortionist's suction pump.

The president himself, basking in applause yesterday in Florida, does not sound like a man backing away from anything. "There's a lot of bipartisan support on the Hill. I'm proud of our faith-based initiative. We're moving forward. It's the right thing to do."

Nevertheless, some of the president's own friends Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention are having second thoughts about how the faith-based initiative should be structured to make it worth keeping. Their First Amendment concerns are real, not the usual knee jerks of ACLU lawyers, professional apple-knockers and others who would if they could cheerfully set the lions on Christians again.

Many Christians worry lest the faith-based initiative cross the line drawn by the Constitution between church and state; others that faith-based groups, forced to satisfy hostile secular auditors, would surrender their identity in pursuit of federal booty. The lesson of federal aid to education is a bitter one. Not so long ago the nation's public schools were independent of all outsiders; four decades on, local school officials can't sharpen an Eberhard Faber No. 2 without an OK from a pinhead bureaucrat in Washington.

Mr. Robertson, reflecting traditional Baptist belief Baptists invented separation of church and state argues in the Wall Street Journal that the Bush proposal is inherently flawed from a faith-based perspective: "If government provides funding to the thousands of faith-based institutions but, under a tortured definition of separation of church and state, demands in return that those institutions give up their unique religious activities, then not only the effectiveness of these institutions but possibly their very raison d'etre may be lost." He further argues that if orthodox Catholic, Protestant and Jewish organizations tap the public treasury it won't be possible to obstruct unpopular denominations even though some of the orthodox denominations will no doubt want to.

Parts of the Bush plan are not controversial, such as expanding the charitable tax deduction to those who don't itemize federal tax deductions, or allowing states to use surplus welfare funds to promote a new tax credit for charitable donations. These could be enacted at once.

So might a system of vouchers, issued to individuals to use in whatever program that works, whether faith-based and driven by disbelief (if anyone could find such a program). "I want the Bush faith-based plan to succeed," writes the prophetic but not-so-Talebanic Pat Robertson. "With slight modification, it will. Otherwise, I see trouble down the road."

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