- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2008

Popular presidential history prefers sound bites to epic narratives. FDR brought us the New Deal; Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society; while Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both helped usher in the end of the Cold War - all remarkable accomplishments. Yet their real stories include many more chapters.

These presidents changed more than history’s top headlines. And the current occupant of the White House is no exception. Prosecuting the global war on terror - including the response to the September 11 terrorist attacks - will no doubt fill many pages of President George W. Bush‘s narrative. But for the next two days, the White House is hosting an event that should better frame an underreported part of President Bush’s legacy, his Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program. The conference features cabinet members, academic experts, practitioners and the president himself, discussing and evaluating ways to solve some of society’s toughest social ills.

Political debate surrounding these issues usually misses the point. Civil libertarians trot on their hobbyhorses shouting the initiative tramples barriers separating church and state. How dare you insert God where only government should tread? Or they portray this as some secret plot by the conservative Christian backers of the White House to proselytize a nation drifting somewhere East of Eden.

These smokescreens obscure the real debate and the true contribution of President Bush in this area. The heart of the controversy is about “means,” not “ends.” The Faith-Based Initiative asks fundamental questions that makes some traditional liberals extremely uncomfortable: Is there a better way to address the needs of the underprivileged? Does the federal government have a monopoly on compassion? Can we stop debating “if,” when we need to extend a helping and start discussing “how?”

Simple, but profound, questions like these shake status-quo, liberal interest groups to their very core. That’s the real reason they fight so hard against the kind of change President Bush proposes. And it’s the reason that White House efforts today and tomorrow - as well as over the past seven years - deserve a lot more attention in this context. While the press loves to cover fights between godless liberals and conservative crusaders, they miss a bigger, more important debate.

President Bush has created a new archetype of compassion and a more effective way for the federal government to help people solve problems. Many of the successes are already outlined in an impressive White House report issued last January titled “The Quiet Revolution.”

The report highlights how President Bush has transformed thinking about helping the poor and distressed communities. It rejects “the failed formula of towering distant bureaucracies.” Instead, as candidate Bush said in 1999, “[I]n every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, to charities, and to community groups.”

This “quiet revolution” has indeed transformed government and social-service delivery at a variety of levels and should become a part of this president’s legacy. Mr. Bush recognizes that mobilizing “armies of compassion” and creating a more welcoming environment for faith-based organizations requires pushing these ideas beyond an office in the White House. Eleven major federal departments or agencies now have faith-based centers looking for ways to remove barriers, train and encourage community activists and re-orient the way the federal government addresses social problems.

And by focusing on providing flexibility and more numerous, smaller grants, the Faith-Based Initiative has helped deliver training to more than 100,000 social entrepreneurs for populations such as at-risk youth, disaster victims, recovering addicts, returning prisoners, individuals with HIV/AIDS and the homeless.

States have also responded to the president’s call. Thirty-five governors from both political parties now operate offices dedicated to working more cooperatively with faith-based and community organizations.

Moreover, “the measure of compassion is more than good intentions, it is good results,” Mr. Bush said in 2002. This week’s conference will also focus on accountability - what works and what doesn’t - in allocating scarce federal resources to these community organizations.

The president’s new approach is all about a better way to solve problems through more intentional involvement of faith-based and community groups. No American president has done more to retool the federal government’s approach. History writers should not overlook this effective alternative to the traditional welfare state and Mr. Bush’s contribution to building a new paradigm of hope.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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