Cover Story

In from the cold

From emotional high to high-wire act in 48 hours: That was the pilgrim's progress last week of President Bush's proposals to bury an official secularism imposed during the 1960s and restore earlier understandings of church-state relations

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

in Washington- The mood was similar but the decor different. The White House meeting of President Bush and 30 leaders from faith-based organizations on Jan. 29 was like the one he had at the First Baptist Church in Austin just before Christmas. At that one, though, the president-elect and participants sat on plastic chairs. At this one, leather chairs and dark paneling set the tone: What was hope and vision now has some authority. The meeting, one day after the Baltimore Ravens became pro football champions, was the kickoff to a political Super Bowl: The new contest, as former Indianapolis mayor Steve Goldsmith put it, is "about removing government's hostility to religion." Mr. Goldsmith, along with University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio, will be quarterbacking the effort of Mr. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to remove the preference for nonreligious groups that has been institutionalized in Washington for nearly four decades. On a dreary D.C. Monday invitees gathered at the northwest corner of the White House grounds to receive their badges, go through security, and be escorted in from the cold to the leather chairs and dark paneling. A nun from New York, an imam from a Detroit mosque, a long-bearded rabbi, and others were literally given seats at the table. Invitee Chuck Colson was off-table but close to where the president would sit. At 10:21 key Bush advisers Karl Rove and Karen Hughes arrived, and a minute later all rose, as in a court of law, when President Bush strode in-except, in non-judicial fashion, almost all applauded. But even those who waited and watched seemed to be (judging by post-meeting conversations) won over by presidential enthusiasm. Mr. Bush talked about how to "change lives by changing hearts," and then emphasized a way of promoting the general welfare: "The role of government is to help social entrepreneurs." He acknowledged that his initiatives in removing the bias against religious groups will "come under withering fire by some," but he said to those in the room, "I promise you I will stand up for what I believe ... an initiative and a vision that will fundamentally change our country." Some who have spent much of their lives out in the cold asked hard questions. Bob Woodson, midwife for many small but successful anti-poverty efforts, emphasized the suspicion toward government that many religious groups rightfully have, based on a generation of sad experience. Steve Burger, head of an association of inner-city gospel missions, noted the bureaucratic tendency to prefer "people in stainless steel buildings with Ph.D.s" to Mother Teresas in leaky-pipe places. Mr. Bush's reply to such questioners showed that he felt their pain, but was ready to move from sympathy to action: "I fully understand the fears of people of faith," he said, and vowed to "change the bureaucracy" from infatuation with process to an emphasis on results. He said he was aware that permanent officials have a way of waiting out presidents: "Many people in the bureaucracy are saying, 'He too shall pass.'" But Mr. Bush also has a sense of history: "This was the core of America," he said, speaking of person-to-person compassion. "Then government stepped in, and everyone said government could do it." He called religious leaders "agents of change" and offered his personal understanding of how change occurs: "I was lost and then I was found." He emphasized the importance of Judaism, Islam, and other religions, and stated that "I hope this country is on the verge of a religious revival of all faiths." Summarized that way, the White House meeting sounded like a revival itself, but it was filled with jokes about apparent incongruities. Faith-based office leader DiIulio is a Democrat. Many of the clergy in the room have preached right but leaned left. But this was ecclesiastical bipartisanship, with Mr. Bush joking to the group, "Had I a political litmus test as to whether we could work together, the room might be empty." Laughter came readily during an hour of good feeling that could signal the start of a new era. James Monroe's administration enjoyed the original era of good feeling almost two centuries ago, but these days an era lasts no more than a day. Mr. Bush predicted a legal battle with those who demand that religion be banned from government premises-"and we'll win it," he insisted. He then said, "The first fight will be with the press corps ... but I'm not the least bit concerned. This is the right thing to do." After the meeting, with religious leaders and journalists watching, Mr. Bush signed executive orders creating the new White House office. Then it was out into the cold for those who had been invited to the leather chairs, and time for reporters' interviews on the White House driveway. Questioners often seemed to suggest that churches would drive away with the executive mansion unless Mr. Bush topped the current church-state "wall of separation" with razor wire: "How many hundreds of billions will these programs cost?" In reality, what President Bush proposed will be a minor item in government budgets, but it could lead to a great increase in the budgets of religious poverty-fighting groups. Mr. Bush will send to Congress proposals to establish a $500 per person charity tax credit and a charitable deduction for those who do not itemize on their tax returns. The total annual loss of federal revenues (and gain for charities) is expected to be several billion dollars. Mr. Bush also plans to expand the "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 welfare law. That provision is designed to allow religious groups to receive government funds for social services without compromising their faith. Much of the initial focus of the White House office will be on regulatory discrimination, with TeamBush trying to root out government policies that impose burdens on religious anti-poverty programs. (See, for example, the Sept. 30 WORLD cover story on the ending of government surplus food deliveries to the Memphis Union Mission.) The next step will be the tax-code changes, which will be more controversial. Liberal lobbyists will try to expand the definition of charity to include pressure groups such as the Children's Defense Fund. Most defenders of religious liberty will support tax reforms that put more giving power in the hands of individuals rather than government officials. The going will get really rough, though, when discussion turns to direct grants. That became clear during a Tuesday, Jan. 30, morning/afternoon journalistic doubleheader at the National Press Club, a short walk from the White House but a world of skepticism away. Home team for the morning game was Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the lineup of speakers included leaders from the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. All of these leaders predicted an all-out battle, and the six cameras and the dozens of scribblers who can make it one avidly took down the remarks. Speakers argued accurately that the Bush program pokes holes in the church-state wall of separation, and ended an open letter to the president with sweet words-"We look forward to working with you to remedy these constitutional and policy defects"-last heard before a prisoner was put on the rack, then drawn and quartered. The afternoon game, put on by the Pew Foundation, had a mixture of runs, hits, and errors. Some panelists and questioners attacked the idea of the government funding any group that engages in "proselytization" (evangelism), even if that group uses private money for such activities. Others, however, noted that the primary purpose of people volunteering at some of the most effective faith-based anti-poverty programs is to tell others about their faith, and that redlining that activity means losing their involvement. That's why this is a high-wire act. Promises to restrict the evangelism of program participants may gain the Bush initiatives some media and congressional support, but at the high cost of alienating many of the most gung-ho platoons of compassion. And yet, barring government regulation in this area will infuriate folks on the other side. By Wednesday, Jan. 31, the sides were settling in for a long battle. Lobbyists for some of the big nonprofits that have had cozy relationships with government were vigorously making their case for maintenance of the status quo. Some press accounts assured readers that TeamBush would come to its senses and guarantee a "don't worry, no evangelism on our watch" message. The danger is that, so far, much of the public noise in Washington has come from those who want atheism to be the government-preferred worldview. What if TeamBush feels only pressure from that side, and from the big nonprofit lobbyists, and from congressmen who care more about photo-ops than the opportunity to change lives? In that event, it will be hard to avoid being pushed into a fatal compromise in which money flows but religious liberty goes. It does not have to be that way, though. TeamBush wants to do things right, and if it receives friendly pressure that will help it stand up to the slings and arrows of an outraged theological and political left, religion and liberty could both be protected.

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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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