Everything's faith-based

John DiIulio could help his cause by saying so

Issue: "Showing the alternative," April 21, 2001

Skeptics of President Bush's proposed support for "faith-based organizations" point to at least four basic reasons his idea can't possibly work:

One worry is that public dollars might fall into the questionable hands of folks with wacky religious beliefs. People like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have raised this concern on several occasions in recent weeks. "What if the Church of Scientology starts taking public money and treating people for drug addiction?" they ask.

Or what if some religious zealot generously offers some needy person a necessary service, but not-so-generously tells that person that he can get the service only if he complies with some religious requirement? What if a homeless person is told he must sit there for a minute while somebody prays for him if he wants to get a place to sleep?

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Or what if some recipient of public funds breaks faith (and perhaps the law) by discriminating in its hiring policies against somebody who is federally protected? What if some narrow-minded Christian group, for example, refuses to hire a homosexual drug counselor?

Or what if some religious organization gets so hooked on government money that a few years down the road, with a less favorable administration having come to power in Washington, new rules are imposed that might force the organization to choose between being faithful to its beliefs-or giving up its financial lifeline?

All of which, on the face of the questions raised, seem like legitimate issues. And that is why someone like John DiIulio, the former University of Pennsylvania researcher-professor who now heads the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, finds it appropriate to take a folksy but feisty, pragmatic optimism with him to the office every day.

Last week, I heard Mr. DiIulio defend his department's programs and ambitions to a roomful of prominent news gatherers and commentators. He does a good job of calming liberal skeptics' fears and disarming the deliberate distortions of critics. He prompts you to think that whatever legal impediments there might be to full implementation, a little good will and common sense will prevail. He thinks enough protections can be built in so that neither recipients' rights nor organizational faith distinctives need be endangered. He makes a decent-but not yet complete-case.

At the same time, I found myself wishing-while listening to Mr. DiIulio-that someone with his intellectual prowess and professional credentials would cut loose and tell the stuffy media people the way it really is.

I wish he would tell them-along with our whole country-how terribly misleading terms like "religion" and "faith-based" really are. If the media, and academia, and government, and all the rest of us could just get this one issue straight, most of the first four objections I listed here would fairly quickly disappear.

A person's "religion," in the end, is wherever he puts his ultimate trust. It might be the God of the Bible, or it might be a slightly edited god, or it might be Buddha, or it might be a federal program, or it might be herbal remedies or sports or a tax-sheltered annuity or his children. Your religion is that which claims your ultimate confidence. It's the same with "faith-based" organizations. Every organization in life is faith-based-for every organization has cast its ultimate confidence somewhere. The question isn't whether you have faith. The question is where you have put it.

So is there a danger, for example, that some wacky practitioner of religion will get some government money and embarrass us all with the way it gets spent? Of course. So what else is new? That's also exactly what's been happening every time a state university professor or a space scientist or a social researcher gets some government money to pursue whatever he or she is doing. Such people sometimes spend their money in a sufficiently reasonable manner that no eyebrows are raised; but sometimes such folks also stake their confidence in such goofy and outrageous places that the public has to say: "Wait a minute; we're not going to let you go there."

Nor is it just evangelists and missionaries who try to "proselytize." That's the work of every teacher in America (even those in state schools), the calling of every public radio or TV commentator, and the task of every politician. All of them are regularly asking you to adjust your worldview, to shift your point of reference, and to put your confidence somewhere besides where you have regularly placed it. They do this with abandon, and with no fear at all that Uncle Sam might swoop in and threaten to take away their funding unless they adjust their message. So why do they get federal funds to do exactly what others are prohibited from doing?

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