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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Faith-based legacy

Politics | President Bush has reshaped the public role of religious belief

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

Mark Twain once remarked that rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated.

Similarly, rumors of the death of evangelical faith influence in politics have been exaggerated.

The influence may be scattered but is finding its way into Democratic presidential campaigns. Several signs point to an emerging consensus in favor of religious influence in government, in contrast to a past informal consensus that religious beliefs are private and irrelevant to public-policy questions.

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Though he lost some battles with Congress, President George Bush has won a victory in the war over whether faith should have a seat at the table in the formation of public policy.

Some 35 states plus the District of Columbia have followed the president's lead in setting up faith-based offices that link churches and nonprofit groups with government social welfare programs. The top Democratic candidates for president are emphasizing their own faith in Christ, following Bush's example in emphasizing the value of faith in public life.

Historical context sheds light on the surprising extent of the shift. At the state and local level Bush and others made some headway in the 1990s, contending that spiritual faith could play a large part in helping government resolve tough social problems. The idea was to build partnerships with churches and other private groups to take on issues such as drug abuse and homelessness.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith remembers well the opposition he encountered in his early efforts as a mayor. Goldsmith now teaches at Harvard University and has been an adviser to the president on faith-based issues.

"A lot of faith organizations were under attack in those years," he told WORLD. "If you tried to work with them, you were criticized under the guise of the First Amendment. It was almost anti-religious. There was a sense that only professional bureaucrats could do good deeds for the poor."

In early attempts to build church-city alliances, Goldsmith encountered strong political resistance, even in a relatively conservative Midwestern city. "You always have to defend any contract, any relationship," he said. "Now the idea is widely accepted."

One illustration of the shift in the political consensus came in Ohio, after Democrat Ted Strickland was elected governor, succeeding Republican Robert Taft. Strickland came into office firing away at Taft's Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. But his complaint was that Taft had failed to use the office well enough to really help people in need. He vowed to do much better.

Similar offices have been established in 34 other states, with support from both political parties, with the offices enduring even when the ruling party changes following an election. More than 100 cities have established similar agencies.

Occasionally a state grant will prompt a First Amendment controversy, with a threat to sue on grounds that any group with a link to faith should not be getting government grants. But more often the controversy around these state and city offices is based on their effectiveness in helping people. Rarely does any candidate or critic plead for a complete separation of faith from public policy.

The Bush administration also has helped establish a consensus for faith by avoiding big fights with Congress. In 2001 before 9/11 the president offered initiatives to Congress allowing faith-based groups to receive federal grants. But they stalled on the question of whether churches and other groups should be allowed to hire employees on faith-based grounds, or be subject to government regulation for hiring.

The controversy is now a distant memory. Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, says he no longer fights those battles: "We went from seven years ago, when all the Washington voices were questioning whether there should be faith-based partnerships. Now the question is how we could do without them. It's now a pragmatic government strategy rather than a political debate," Hein told WORLD. "The more we have made it about problem-solving, the wider the consensus."

Hein thinks the change is not just about politics, but finding solutions for social problems.

"The best of government, which is national strategy and resources and reach, gets matched with the best of civil society, which is local and personal-the private, voluntary organizations which are often faith-based," he said.

Others credit Hein's personality for some of the acceptance of the Bush approach to faith and government. "Jay was the right man at the right time," said Mark Merrill, who runs the Family First program out of Florida. "Jay has a real talent to reach out to people from all walks of life and all faiths, and he has a gentle, mild-mannered and humble approach in working with those people."

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