Bush's faith-based leap

Posted: Tuesday, January 30, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

George W. Bush advertised his compassionate conservatism repeatedly on the campaign trail, and this week he took a step that he said would help translate that rhetoric into action. The president signed two executive orders, one to set up a White House office to promote social work by religious organizations, the other to instruct federal agencies to play their part in cooperating with faith groups. The administration's contention is that faith-based social work often succeeds better than religiously neutral government efforts, especially when it comes to motivating people to turn a corner - for instance, kick an addiction or break a criminal habit.

Mr. Bush is right that "delivery of social services must be results oriented," as one of his executive orders puts it; if charitable groups do indeed deliver superior outcomes, they should be encouraged. Social scientists working in this field describe the evidence for faith-based social work as encouraging but tentative; serious efforts to measure their effectiveness began too recently to support firm conclusions. Just possibly, government support for religious groups may turn out to undermine them, either because they divert the groups' energy away from social work toward bureaucratic grant applications, or because their legitimacy in the eyes of those they serve is weakened by association with government.

Assuming faith-based social work is indeed effective, Mr. Bush still needs to tread carefully around the constitutional separation between church and state. There is no clear line here: Government money already goes to religious groups that run Head Start programs or other social services. Sometimes these groups set up non-evangelical subsidiaries to perform such services, thus keeping the public funding away from the religion. But many charities make evangelism a core part of the social work; it is precisely by instilling a religious sentiment that they turn people away from drugs or other afflictions.

If the Bush administration planned to subsidize one type of religion, or if it aimed to make social services available only to people willing to accept evangelism alongside them, it would be stomping on religious freedom. But Mr. Bush appears to know that. In a sign that he does not want his initiative to be seen as a sop to the Protestant religious right within his party, Monday's signing ceremony was attended by nonreligious as well as religious charities, by Catholic, Jewish and Muslim groups as well as by Protestant ones. The two officials Mr. Bush has appointed to lead his initiative, John DiIulio and Stephen Goldsmith, are Catholic and Jewish respectively.

The challenge for Mr. Bush will be to maintain this tone of careful moderation. It may sometimes prove difficult, for instance, to allow faith-based drug rehabilitation services without infringing upon religious freedom: How do you ensure that a secular alternative is just as readily available in the same community? In such cases, Mr. Bush must rein in his desire to assist religious charities. As one of his own executive orders puts it, America is founded on "the bedrock principles of pluralism, nondiscrimination, evenhandedness, and neutrality."

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