Fund individuals

A way to save President Bush's faith-based initiative

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

The untouchables: two words with two meanings. A TV series and a movie celebrated their American reference to FBI agents who were incorruptible, no matter how much money was waved in front of their faces. In India, however, "untouchable" refers to persons from a caste considered so lowly that upper-class folks are to avoid any contact with them.

The Bush administration may be rethinking the grant-making component of its faith-based initiative. If so, that is good news. John DiIulio, who heads the White House office designed to help religious and other community organizations, alarmed evangelicals earlier this month. He said he would not place some Christian anti-poverty programs, no matter how effective, on a level playing field with other organizations in regard to possible government grants. The reason: These Christian programs refuse to segment their activities into "religious" and "nonreligious" ones, no matter how much money is waved in front of them.

Mr. DiIulio has thus created a new class of untouchables, in both senses of the word. Ironically, the program that Governor George W. Bush went to bat for in 1995, Teen Challenge, is an untouchable. It does not just have a sermon or a Bible lesson at a designated time, so that accountants can readily segment its cost from the cost of the whole program. Teen Challenge's faith is that people stop being addicts when Christ fills the holes in their souls. It cannot separate counseling and evangelism: Evangelism is its counseling.

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Maybe an educational example can clarify the distinction. A Christ-drenched school is not just a school with a chapel service added on: It has the leaven of Christ mixed into every bit of the dough. Its history classes are filled neither with nationalist propaganda nor revisionist tales of national misdeeds. Instead, history shows man's sin and God's providential workings. Similarly, a biology class may open with prayer, but it also teaches God's intelligent design rather than macroevolution. Even a math class displays how the logic of numbers and axioms shows God's world to be orderly rather than chaotic.

Similarly, a Christ-drenched anti-poverty program sees the poor, like the rich, as both worse and better than they are generally portrayed: worse because of sin, better because of the dignity we possess by being created in God's image. Counseling deals not just with behavior but basics, especially our need for a Savior. Counselors know that the ex-convict needs to be convicted by Christ, and that the single mother needs a loving relationship with the Heavenly Father. Job trainers know that working as a bank teller or a department store clerk requires far more than a knowledge of deposit forms and receipts; it requires a servant's heart, which we should strive for because Christ came as a suffering servant.

Clearly the left would scream if an untouchable were to receive funding. But instead of pandering to the screamers, a courageous official could say about a program like Teen Challenge, "Look, I know you don't like the theology, and maybe I don't either, but don't you think that if a program is turning around the lives of alcoholics and addicts, and thus reducing crime and lots of other social ills, that it serves a public purpose? Don't we all benefit when there are fewer addicts and alcoholics? Shouldn't we see if there's a nondiscriminatory way to help such programs?"

There is such a way: Drop the discretionary grant program that builds government power, and empower individuals through vouchers. "My attitude is, you fund an individual," President Bush told The Washington Post, and if the faith-based office follows the lead of the president, the rancor of the past month will quickly dissipate. As the needed rethinking continues, other proposals can also receive consideration. President Bush could ask corporations and corporate foundations to stop blackballing effective religious poverty-fighters and start giving to them. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, and other professionals could receive tax credits for volunteering to help the poor. They and others should also receive federal tax credits for sending funds directly to organizations with track records for helping the poor through whatever methods the groups choose. (For two examples of such, see p. 27.)

The faith-based initiative now has the opportunity to get back on track. Deregulation should be stressed. A new emphasis on taxpayer and beneficiary choice-tax credits and vouchers-will differentiate it from what would have happened in a Gore administration, with favored programs receiving grants and others left out in the cold. George W. Bush's sense of this is right: The goal is to help Americans become citizens, not spectators, and to strike a blow against religious discrimination.

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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