THERE'S NO DRESS CODE IN the west Orlando neighborhood of Washington Shores, but there's a uniform nonetheless: baggy jeans, jersey from a favorite sports team, and often a stocking cap, despite the warm Florida winters. Every day the young men in uniform gather on the crumbling steps of low-rise apartment buildings or shuffle aimlessly past the liquor stores and check-cashing joints. There's really nowhere to go, and certainly no hurry to get there.
On Tuesdays, however, a different kind of uniform invades Washington Shores. The pinstripe-and-wingtip crowd doesn't exactly blend in around here, and neighbors at first must have been perplexed. Was someone in trouble? Who could afford such high-priced lawyers? Was some secret development deal going down?
The lawyers from the downtown firm of Holland & Knight are here for development, all right, but not the bricks-and-mortar kind. They're volunteering with Read to Succeed, a mentoring program sponsored by Frontline Outreach. "We're focusing primarily on urban children who need opportunities," says Arto Woodley Jr., Frontline's president. "They don't have a lot of people who care about them or see their potential."
Mr. Woodley sees potential where others see only problems. He's the kind of upbeat personality who hoards old pages from his Quote-A-Day desk calendar and leaves inspirational messages on his voicemail. ("Remember, every day presents a host of opportunities disguised as impossibilities.")
Driving through the neighborhood, he sees not only the gangs of listless, hostile-looking young men, but also their younger brothers who come to Frontline for sports and mentoring. He doesn't try to hide block after block of public housing-still grim-looking despite a coat of tropical-colored paint-but he also points out block after block with at least one church offering hope in the hopeless landscape.
Indeed, it's in those churches that Mr. Woodley sees the hope of transforming dozens of Florida neighborhoods like Washington Shores. Instead of importing mentors from downtown skyscrapers, he wants to recruit them from local congregations. Thanks to a four-year push by Gov. Jeb Bush, the state already has 130,000 mentors drawn from the ranks of government and business. Why not more of them from local churches, which have arguably the greatest stake in failing neighborhoods?
The answer is simple, according to Mr. Woodley. "People from faith communities have never felt welcome" in Florida's public-school mentoring programs, he says. "All this talk of church-state separation has fragmented our communities."
With an $80,000 state grant announced in late December, Mr. Woodley wants to help put those fragmented communities back together again. Using powerful GIS mapping software, he is identifying the state's 50 neediest neighborhoods, based on factors like juvenile delinquency, school dropout rates, and illiteracy. He'll then go to nearby churches and synagogues, asking for volunteers willing to mentor kids in the communities' failing public schools.
"If you look at the mentors across the state, most of them probably already attend services anyway," he says. "So it's not like we're recruiting a radical new kind of volunteer. We're just issuing a special invitation to people of faith. We're saying, 'We value your involvement. Lock arms with us in addressing this need in your community.'"
Before long, Mr. Woodley and the state of Florida may not be alone in issuing that "special invitation." As President Bush puts the finishing touches on his 2003 State of the Union address, sources say he'll call for a national mentoring program to help at-risk youth. If so, it would mark a return to the compassionate conservative agenda that did so much to define the Bush candidacy in 2000.
It's an agenda that hasn't fared too well in the first two years of his administration. There were minor victories, of course: Mr. Bush increased the adoption tax credit and earmarked some $30 million to help educate religious charities on winning a slice of the government social-services pie. Yet the vast majority of his compassionate conservative ideas stalled in the face of intense opposition in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
If Mr. Bush hopes to build on his very modest successes, 2003 could be a make-or-break year. In the House, where faith-based initiatives have already fared well, Republicans this year will enjoy a stronger majority after several years of declining numbers. New Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a fiery Southern Baptist, is eager to deliver everything the president could ask for on the faith-based front.
In the Senate, meanwhile, the newly ascendant GOP is itching for some legislative wins. Bill Frist, the incoming Senate majority leader, is widely viewed as Mr. Bush's ideological soul mate, and the message of compassionate conservatism perfectly suits his low-key, nonconfrontational style. With support from key Democrats like Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman, he may find it easier to pass the faith-based initiative than permanent tax cuts, the president's other major goal on the domestic-policy front.
Still, the window of opportunity will be relatively narrow. The White House knows that Congress traditionally is loath to pass groundbreaking legislation in a presidential election year, so by 2004 it will be too late. If Mr. Bush wants to be remembered as the president who fundamentally changed the way social services are delivered, 2003 may be his last chance.
At the end of 2002, he signaled his political rivals that he was ready to grasp that chance. With the stroke of a pen, he enacted by executive fiat some of what Congress had refused for months to do. On Dec. 13, newspaper headlines focused mainly on the president's tough comments at a Philadelphia conference in which he blasted Trent Lott's racially insensitive jokes. Largely lost in the Lott brouhaha was the substance of President Bush's speech, which backed the opportunity for religious charities to accept government funds and still hire only those employees who share their faith.
"If a charity is helping the needy, it should not matter if there is a rabbi on the board, or a cross or a crescent on the wall, or a religious commitment in the charter," he said. "The days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end.... Government can and should support social services provided by religious people, as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith. And when government gives that support, charities and faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission."
The question of religious discrimination in hiring practices was one of the major sticking points that had earlier doomed the faith-based initiative on Capitol Hill. With his bold end-run around Congress, the president showed he was not about to let the issue die. Indeed, a White House memo titled "Possible '04 Signature Issues" and obtained by the Associated Press in late December shows "faith-based services" coming in at No. 5 among Mr. Bush's top 10 initiatives.
Liberals were predictably apoplectic. "The president's executive order is not about helping the poor," insisted an ACLU spokesman on the PBS NewsHour show. "There isn't a single new dollar coming out of this program. What this is about is discrimination-government-funded discrimination. It's about allowing religious organizations to take federal dollars, and with those federal taxpayer dollars running federal programs to decide that they're going to hire only members of their own faith. So if you don't agree with their religious beliefs, you won't be able to participate in providing government federally-funded services."
Newspaper editorial writers were equally horrified. "Pushing us to theocracy," read one headline. "Executive order bashes wall separating church, state," huffed another. Most other headline writers carried on in the same vein: "Faith-based hypocrisy," "Turning back time," or simply "God help us." Journalists did not explain that existing secular programs already embody a worldview, one that is profoundly opposed to biblical understandings.
Though the left is sure to bitterly oppose any faith-based legislation in the next Congress, Mr. Bush has shown the ability to impose his will on issues he truly believes in. He overcame intense congressional opposition to his education proposals, for instance, and nearly everyone thought his 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut would be dead on arrival.
Some conservatives, however, have wondered aloud about the president's commitment to his own compassionate conservative instincts. During 2001 and 2002, in an attempt to gain Democratic votes in the Senate, he allowed his faith-based initiative to be watered down until it was all but unrecognizable to even its most ardent supporters. Directors of religious charities complained that the compromise bill would subject them to undue government meddling and stifle their core spiritual mission. Unloved in its final form by both the right and the left, the bill was left to die quietly in the Senate.
This year, if the president's speech and executive order are any indication, the resurrected bill should provide better guarantees of government noninterference. That would rally conservatives to the proposal, leaving it up to the president to sell moderates and independents on the idea.
The White House clearly thinks it can make the sale. In the wake of Sept. 11, polls have shown a strong majority of Americans believe the nation would be better off with more religious influence, not less. Moreover, the Supreme Court has weighed in with a series of rulings in recent years allowing church and state to work together more closely as long as there is no religious coercion.
From a strategic standpoint, Mr. Bush can be expected to press his faith-based initiative this year because he sorely needs to notch one or two major domestic wins in the midst of his international war on terrorism. White House advisers well remember the example of the first President Bush, who was accused of ignoring troubles at home while fighting a successful war in the Persian Gulf. They are determined not to repeat his mistake.
Mr. Bush's announcement of his executive order for faith-based organizations shows how the White House intends to use the issue to its political advantage. While most executive orders merit a short press release at best, for this one the president staged a full-scale road show, turning out dozens of community leaders in downtown Philadelphia for photo opportunities and interviews. It was the president's 17th visit to Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state in 2004. Blue-collar Catholics are a political force there, and Mr. Bush fared poorly with those voters last time around. But many active Catholics, particularly at the parish level, are enthusiastic supporters of the faith-based initiative. It's also popular with blacks and Hispanics, two other well-churched groups, so the White House hopes that good policy will also prove to be good politics in this case.
If the administration can gain political advantage in the debate over compassionate conservatism, activists look for additional action on two fronts. First, they say, expect more vouchers for social services rather than the traditional model of direct government grants. "It's a safer way constitutionally to get public funds into the hands of needy individuals who can use them at the provider of their choice," says Joe Loconte, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. By sending government money directly to needy individuals rather than to service providers, voucher plans remove much of the controversy over church-state separation.
Mr. Loconte says vouchers are now limited mostly to day care, but he expects to see the concept expand to drug treatment, welfare services, and after-school programs, as well. "It should be a no-brainer. It empowers the poor and protects the integrity of religious organizations," he says. "It's a terrific alternative to direct funding and grants."
Second, Republicans in Congress hope to push the president's proposal for additional tax deductions for charitable contributions. Currently only those who itemize on their taxes can take a deduction for their contributions, and the administration believes that acts as a disincentive to the majority of Americans who don't itemize. Broadening the deduction "would help increase support for charitable organizations by rewarding and encouraging giving by all taxpayers," according to the White House.
Of course, much of that money would end up going to religious charities, and that raises the hackles of many liberal Democrats. Indeed, although the House approved a $6 billion charitable deduction plan last year, the Senate killed the proposal. "The recent election hasn't changed the virulent anti-religious bigotry of the left," Mr. Loconte notes. "What happened with [the tax-deduction proposal] last year is a sign of how far the Democrats have drifted into the secular swamp."
Still, recent experiments like the one in Florida prove that people of faith are ready to get involved in the lives of the less fortunate. A few successes among such pioneering programs will be hard to ignore, even by staunch secularists. The coming year will provide plenty of battles on the faith-based front, but in the words of Mr. Woodley, they're nothing but "a host of opportunities disguised as impossibilities."