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Faith-based surrender

Wine into water: White house-congressional deal excludes most effective anti-poverty groups

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"Be strong and courageous," Joshua told the Israelites. The word from Washington last week, as President Bush's already-weakened faith-based initiative became even weaker, was "Be timid and quaking."

Under conservative pressure, administration officials on April 10 had agreed that church-related groups applying for governmental grants would not have to segment their "religious" activities from their "non-religious" ones (see World, April 21). Last week, though, the administration bowed to liberal pressure and reversed its April position.

It now appears that the bill to be voted on by the House of Representatives this summer will declare groups engaged in "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization" ineligible for federal grants. This new dispensation, worked out with House Republican leaders, may make the world safer for theological liberals, but it tells theological conservatives, "Get lost."

If the reconfigured bill were to pass both the House and the Senate, anti-poverty groups could make worship services or religious instruction an option for program participants, but those activities could not be incorporated into government-funded programs. The deal ignores the way numerous evangelical groups incorporate biblical teaching into all of their instructional and counseling activities.

The deal apparently stipulates that religious charities would be allowed to "consider" religion when they hire staff members, but they would not be allowed to require that a new hire's "religious practices" conform to theirs. Without such legal protection, religious groups that consider it important to hire co-religionists would be foolish to entangle themselves in government programs.

Andrew Card, White House chief of staff, reportedly pushed for such an agreement, even though it would leave groups such as Teen Challenge out in the cold. Ironically, it was Teen Challenge's battle with a Texas regulatory agency in 1995 that first led then-Governor Bush to embrace a compassionate conservative agenda.

That the White House would feel driven to such a surrender shows the failure of the strategy of winning Democratic support promoted by John DiIulio, head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

Instead of getting grassroots faith-based groups excited about the initiative so they would push their legislators to support it, the administration's proposals have been so watered down that most of the front-line poverty-fighters surveyed by WORLD (see our June 23 cover story) weren't impressed at all. Meanwhile, the inside-the-beltway strategy failed in its attempt to placate liberals, who intensified their assault when Mr. DiIulio seemed eager to appease them.

What can be salvaged at this point from an initiative that so far has been badly mishandled? The Bush administration can do much good by removing through executive order some of the regulatory barriers that religious poverty-fighters face. Congress may still support income tax deductions for non-itemizers. The administration still has time to drop its emphasis on grant-making and support proposals for tax credits for poverty-fighting work.

What's needed above all is for President Bush to make the case for compassionate conservatism by showing America what groups like Teen Challenge do and why it's unfair and unwise to discriminate against them. During last year's presidential campaign he visited faith-based groups in many cities. He should spend the next year educating the American public by visiting pervasively religious anti-poverty efforts and throwing a spotlight on the heroism that animates the best of them. That way, more people will demand legislation that does not bite the hands of those who offer spiritual as well as material food.


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