Features

O ye of too much faith

National | The fight is on to determine how much faith Bush's faith-based initiative will allow

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

As the school buses unload each afternoon, Hannah Hawkins-director of the Children of Mine after-school program in southeast Washington, D.C.-is in the kitchen preparing dinner for 60: today, spaghetti. As the children arrive with their backpacks, the discipline kicks in quickly. "Homework, right away," says Wanda Robinson, who has volunteered by Mrs. Hawkins's side for 15 years. The children are quickly warned if they fail to say hello as they enter. "You did not say 'Hello, Miss Wanda.' Go out and walk back in."

Within minutes, as Ms. Robinson applies dollops of love and discipline, the basement study area is a hive of academic activity. It's not fancy, but it's clean and colorful, and one entire wall is covered with six tall bookcases packed with books of all sorts, including several sets of encyclopedias. About 40 students are seated at tables, working with volunteers on math, spelling, reading, and how to tell time. The children without homework are expected to find a book from the wall of bookcases. A 15-year-old boy with a portable CD player is reading Call of the Wild as Ms. Robinson watches for stragglers. "Ebony, you didn't get a book yet. It's been two minutes."

When tutoring is done, children go upstairs to eat-in three shifts, because the small eating area has only three tables. Mrs. Hawkins insists "no talking, only eating," so everyone gets time to sit and eat. Daily devotions, Bible study, and spiritual exhortations are mixed in with the program-and the result is that, in a neighborhood viewed by outsiders as intractably poor and hopeless, these children do not seem hopeless at all in their three hours here each day. They are bright-eyed and smiling, enjoying their haven from the mean streets outside.

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This is the type of faith-based program that President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was set up to help. Office director John DiIulio, though, is facing not only the attacks expected from the left, but new criticism from the right as well. He increasingly resembles a circus performer with a foot on two horses. One horse wants faith-based help for the poor without wringing the faith out like a sponge. The other horse wants close government scrutiny of any religious program that becomes governmentally involved, with the goal of preventing or punishing any mixing of material and spiritual help.

Mr. DiIulio is communicating different messages to his two horses. He bluntly told skeptics at the National Association of Evangelicals convention on March 7 that they "should be careful not to presume to speak for any persons other than themselves and their own churches." He said their concerns "would persuade more and rankle less if they were backed by real human and financial help"-thus revealing a lack of knowledge about the extensive charitable work of many evangelical groups. He suggested that groups concerned about federal interference with their work should just "opt out."

To the horse on the left, though, Mr. DiIulio whispers. On March 13, he spoke in Washington at a conference put on by the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism, a group that has opposed the White House initiative as "woefully unwise." Here, Mr. DiIulio offered no remarks questioning this audience's commitment to the poor. When Hannah Rosenthal, a Clinton administration Health and Human Services official, read a list of her top 10 concerns with the Bush initiative, Mr. DiIulio did not refute her evident equation of proselytizing with coercion, but sweetly promised to send her answers to all 10 in writing. Ms. Rosenthal said, "If you got to make all the decisions, John, I'd vote for you to do it."

The White House is facing this dilemma: Can a faith-based assault on poverty and despair be successful when the armies of compassion are marching alongside an army of government accountants and lawyers? If religious charities worry that government help will compromise their spiritual identity, Mr. DiIulio insists they need not apply. If his interpretation of "charitable choice" legislation discriminates against some religious expression and orders charities to separate the mission from the missionaries except at designated times, what will the term "faith-based initiative" mean?

From the helm of her organization, the Capitol Hill Crisis Pregnancy Center, Barbara Johnson can't imagine serving the troubled women and girls who come through her door without the help of God. The center administers 100 pregnancy tests over an average month to its clients, 98 percent of whom are black. Half are considering or planning an abortion. That's a much higher rate than at other crisis pregnancy centers, like the one Mrs. Johnson used to run in Ithaca, New York. The District of Columbia has 256 pregnancies and 121 abortions per 1,000 adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 each year, according to Planned Parenthood's Alan Guttmacher Institute. That's nearly double the rate that pertains in any of the 50 states.

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