George W. Bush unveiled his understanding of compassionate conservatism in a July 1999 speech that cited the Front Porch Alliance in Indianapolis as "the way things out to be." The FPA was primarily a city government's attempt to help church groups cut through red tape. Example: One pastor wanted to turn a hooker-used alley across from his church into a park. Because of bureaucratic reasons, 51 different government agencies and private groups had to sign off on the alley-to-park conversion. The FPA helped the pastor get that done, and prostitution took a hit.
The president-to-be continued: "Government can spend money, but it can't put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. This is done by churches and synagogues and mosques and charities that warm the cold of life." He announced his basic principles: First, "resources should be devolved, not just to states, but to charities and neighborhood healers." Second, "We will never ask an organization to compromise its core values and spiritual mission to get the help it needs."
He emphasized, in short, the importance of religious groups being religious. They would not have to become government look-alikes to gain access to resources. He specified a good way to decentralize: "We will provide for charity tax credits."
In practice, most resources have not been devolved, and charity tax credits were left behind amid early-2001 rapture about tax cuts. Still, good things are happening. President Bush recently signed an executive order creating a faith-based office in the Department of Homeland Security, and maybe it will shred the red tape that hindered religious and civic groups following Hurricane Katrina.
At the state and local levels, 32 governors and over 115 mayors have established their own offices for faith-based and community initiatives. If they are Front Porch Initiatives, great. If they contribute to decentralization, great. If they are pork-barrel projects, not great. But it's springtime, and optimism can still bloom.
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