Faith-based Fab Four

President Bush's new appointees face big challenges

Issue: "Walking the tightrope," Feb. 10, 2001

The new White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that President Bush established last week (see our cover story) will be small, with his Texas aide Don Willett and "civil society" theorist Don Eberly, both Protestants, joining Steve Goldsmith (who is Jewish) and John DiIulio (who is Catholic). The Faith Fab Four, though, will have a large political task: to gain congressional and popular support for a program that tries to reverse a generation-long trend to establish secularism-more bluntly, atheism-as government's preferred belief system.

I know all four and think highly of them. Steve Goldsmith, bright and witty, set up as mayor of Indianapolis during the 1990s the Front Porch Alliance, a commando unit within government that helped small religious groups slash through the unblessed, bureaucratic ties that bind. John DiIulio is Mr. Statistics, adept at measuring whether programs produce what their sales pitches promise. I went to Don Willett's wedding last October and know from Texas experience that he is a straight shooter. The other Don, Eberly, precise in manner, would fit in well at Oxford or anywhere else where thoughtful approaches are essential.

All four, good men, will face a tough temptation. The temptation will be to win congressional support by forbidding "proselytization"-why won't Washington hands just say "evangelism"?-in any programs that receive government funds. Principled and pragmatic reasons suggest the need to fight vigorously against such an easy way out.

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The reasons of principle emerge from the 16 words that make up the section on religion of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." The first clause, in the language of two centuries ago, means that Congress shall not establish-give preference to-a religion. The founders had lived through the British establishment of Anglicanism as the preferred religion and sole religious recipient of tax revenues, taken from Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike. They wanted to avoid such preferences in the future.

From the 1960s through 1995, in our zeal to avoid any preferences, we established atheism. Programs that excluded worship, prayer, or evangelism from their official activities were eligible for government funds. Those that recognized the existence of a Creator and our responsibilities before Him were not. The result, in Richard John Neuhaus's memorable phrase, was "the naked public square." That understanding is important: not neutral, but naked. If two people stand before us, one wearing clothes and the other naked, we are unlikely to think of the naked person as having a neutral position in regard to clothing. Government programs are the same way.

The "charitable choice" provision of 1996 welfare reform created an ambiguous situation: Taxpayer funds are not to be used for religious purposes, but does that mandate the redlining of any organization that emphasizes worship and evangelism? My understanding, shared with those who drafted the provision, is that such organizations are eligible, as long as they use their own funds specifically for preaching and teaching. Others disagree, contending that one religious apple spoils the whole barrel. The Bush administration and Congress need to clarify this by stressing, in line with the original intent of the First Amendment, that no religion, nonreligion, or anti-religion should receive government preference.

Pragmatic reasons also suggest the need to avoid establishing Bible-followers as second-class citizens when it comes to federal programs. People of all faiths or non-faiths may pass out food once a year, but for the most part, those who volunteer for the time-intensive, week-in-week-out, one-to-one mentoring of needy individuals (that is the truest and most effective form of compassion) do so because of faith in God. Typically, they believe that God wants them to persevere in such self-sacrificial loving of their neighbors as themselves. Typically, they also believe that their faith in God has changed them, and that the greatest gift they can offer to those they are helping is to convey that understanding of how God changes lives.

If government officials tell volunteers that any kind of federal program funding means they cannot speak about what is most important to them and to the future of their clients, those volunteers will stay home. Alternatively, the leaders of many effective programs will turn down government funds, and their programs will not grow and provide more help to those in need. Either way, the compassionate conservative endeavor, which relies on the willingness of Americans to be citizens rather than spectators, and to give of their time to help those in need, will fail.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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