Washington — Religious faith helped George W. Bush turn his life around. During a debate last year, he cited Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher. Now he wants to inject religious belief into the delivery of social services. President Bush's sincerity appears real, together with the passion he brings to the issue. He wants others in need to experience the same kind of enduring conversion he did when he stopped drinking at age 40. This is a noble cause, but one that is fraught with problems.
People don't like to support religious institutions they don't believe in. Picking winners and losers among the groups applying for federal funds will inevitably create charges of favoritism and/or bias. Does anybody seriously believe that the Church of Scientology or a Muslim sect will gain favor in the Bush administration no matter how effective their soup kitchens or job training programs? Bush counters such criticism by insisting that decisions will be made purely on performance. He would have us believe that his business-school degree will be paramount, not his leanings toward Christianity.
Money is fungible. That's what the Bush administration argued when President Bush signed a ban on family planning funds to international groups that also counsel abortion. Providing these funds freed up dollars to spend on abortion, the administration reasoned. Applying the same argument to Bush's faith-based initiative, funneling federal dollars into churches and synagogues frees up more money for bibles and religious proselytizing.
Bush confided as much when he met with leaders of Catholic charities. Unaware that his remarks were being broadcast over an open mike to reporters, Bush told the Catholic leaders that his faith-based initiative was tied into "a larger cultural issue" in the battle over abortion.
Directing federal funds into faith-based programs is not a radically new idea. The 1996 welfare reform bill passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton opened the door. Under a "charitable choice" provision, religious groups that help ease welfare recipients into the work force can compete along with secular organizations for government dollars. The concept works reasonably well, but there is the occasional horror story of clients being coerced into bible studies, or a job withheld unless the person is of a particular religious faith.
With the economy teetering on the edge of a recession, Bush may see an expanded social network as a safety net for people whose welfare benefits are running out. The five-year time limit established by law is coming due, and jobs may not be so plentiful, especially for the hardest of the hard-core welfare recipients. Pumping federal dollars into proven programs at the grassroots level could cushion the shock of an economic downturn.
During the campaign, Bush attached a price tag of eight billion to his faith-based initiative, but the proposal he introduced as president made no mention of additional funding. If all he's talking about is opening the bidding process to more contenders, he will encounter resistance from many Democrats who suspect the introduction of private religious groups into the social service mix may be just another clever Republican ploy to de-fund government.
Whatever the motivation, religion's new prominence has advocates on both sides of the political aisle. Former vice-presidential contender Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., joined Bush in calling for more government support of faith-based charities. Al Gore introduced a similar initiative during the 2000 campaign. But sharing the same goal does not mean that getting there will be easy. The mingling of federal funds with church goals will prompt lawsuits. The future of Bush's program will be decided by the same Supreme Court that made him president, an outcome that may account for his confidence.