Nothing so divides conservatives these days as the notion of government money to support "faith-based" social services. If "compassionate conservatism" was to many conservatives an oxymoron, dispensing taxpayers' money to religious organizations, even to help others, is political blasphemy.
It's the "hot button" issue that's on slow forward. First Amendment defenders say it throws grenades against the wall separating church and state. For religious conservatives - the God-fearing men and women who often sacrifice to support the institutions of their faith - government money is the narcotic of power. Or to paraphrase Lord Acton: Money corrupts, government-money corrupts absolutely.
They fear that government support for faith-based initiatives will turn religious people into money grubbers, institutionalizing and sanitizing their faith on behalf of "professional" caring.
Conservatives were the first to show how government Welfare programs created a government dependency for those who lived on Welfare checks. Now they fear that faith-based organizations will suffer the same unintended consequences.
It's a challenging argument, that those who do good because they're religious will become tainted when the government dollar pays them to be Good Samaritans, that not even faith can withstand the lure of the luxury and largesse of the public till. Excessive paperwork and federal regulations might make an atheist out of Job.
These conservative critics see George Bush as a sort of religious Lyndon Johnson, which they don't mean as a compliment. In his commencement speech at Notre Dame, in fact, the president described his version of a "War on Poverty" by quoting Dorothy Day, the Catholic social worker who deployed "the weapons of the spirit."
Lyndon Johnson had "noble intentions," the president said, which failed in part because he fought with the armies of government alone. Instead of appealing to religious organizations in the urban trenches, he turned the religious into bystanders who watched platoons of poverty workers march off in a losing cause.
The president sees his faith-based initiative as a means to revive "the spirit of citizenship." Welfare reform in 1996 cut the Welfare roles in half, showing men and women the pride and self-respect that comes from work. But those were the easy cases. The more troublesome cases require assistance closer to home: When you dial 911, it's a local, not long-distance, call.
"Much of today's poverty has more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy," the president told the Notre Dame graduates. "And often when a life is broken, it can only be restored by another caring, concerned human being."
His speech soared with such rhetorical flourishes, calling for compassion on a human scale in the neighborhood where you are your brother's keeper. Addiction is not a demand for instant self-sufficiency, he said, "it's personal support on the hard road to recovery." Helping an abandoned child is not "a job requirement - it is the loving presence of a mentor." A pregnancy center, a home for battered women, a homeless shelter are not just benefits made possible with money, but offer worth, dignity and the promise of fulfilling God-given potential through personal "attention and kindness, a touch of courtesy, a dose of grace."
He might have added that such attention and kindness and grace should not depend on government support. In fact, some religious conservatives believe that the emphasis on faith may be the crucial ingredient in enabling religious helpers to help others and therefore can't be effective without a spiritual component in the counseling. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, calls upon the assistance of a "higher power."
The president's faith-based initiative might fail in Congress (and if not there, in the Supreme Court), but if structured in a careful, constitutional way (as with vouchers instead of direct payments to religious institutions), it could reap rewards that are inspirational in a secular way. Such a program could reprise the idealism of John F. Kennedy, who implored Americans "to ask not what your country can do for you, ask instead what you can do for your country."
At the Yale commencement, the president spoke without the appeal to the spiritual, but in the language of secular altruism: "The greatest rewards are found in the commitments we make with our whole hearts to the people we love and to the causes that earn our sacrifice."
He left the graduates at both South Bend and New Haven - and the rest of us - with a challenge that transcends his faith-initiative: "Will you be the spectator in the renewal of your country - or a citizen?"