Muddy faith-based initiative

Posted: Mar 06, 2002 12:00 AM
It's fourth down and 20 yards to go. It's rained steadily for a year, and uniforms are so muddy that it's hard to make out the players' numbers and sometimes even which team they're on. The head coach says it's time to punt, and he's probably right. That's the story of President Bush's faith-based initiative: Mud Bowl, 2001-2. Good things are going on across the country, and some helpful regulatory changes are in the works in Washington, but it doesn't look like there will be much legislative progress this year. Oh, we may get a deal whereby the 70 percent of Americans who do not itemize on income tax forms will be able to deduct charitable contributions of up to $400 for an individual and $800 for a couple. That way, non-itemizers will gain an incentive similar to the one itemizers have. That should lead to an increase in contributions, and that's good news for all charities. But there's still disagreement on what groups that receive federal grants should be allowed to say and do, lest government end up -- the horror! -- funding an activity that includes the promotion of religious belief. Let's look at three real-life programs that raise questions. First, let's say Congress appropriates money for programs to help folks get off welfare and keep from falling back into dependency. Learning to budget and save is an important part of becoming independent. Let's say a study shows that a very effective program on budgeting/saving teaches not just the how-to but the
why of good stewardship by including in a budgeting class passages from Proverbs and other books of the Bible. If such a program is eligible for grants, is that "promotion of religious belief"? Second, let's say Congress appropriates money for programs to help homeless folks, many of whom feel inadequate and hopeless. At one homeless shelter, those who come are told after dinner that they are made in the image of a wonderful God and are therefore also wonderful. The next morning, if they want to join the shelter's Change Your Life program, they are expected to join a Bible study about people considered worthless (from Jepthah the Gileadite to Jesus, who was rumored to be illegitimate) who proved to have extraordinary value. Let's say a study shows that a higher percentage of those who come to this homeless shelter turn their lives around than do so at other shelters. Should the government supply this shelter with USDA surplus food, as it supplies others? What about dollars for the electricity that heats the food? Third, let's say Congress appropriates money for programs to fight alcoholism and drug abuse. Let's say a study shows that most of the alcoholics and addicts who complete a particular program are sober and drug-free a year afterward -- an extraordinary result in a field where most programs have success rates of well under 10 percent. This particular program, though, teaches that most people turn to booze or dope to fill holes in their souls, and that the way to fight an addiction is to let Christ fill those holes. Should an official who wants to help successful programs help this one? Or should a less effective but non-religious program received funds? These are tough questions. The Bush campaign position in 1999 and 2000 was that all these groups should be included, but politics and ideological pressures led to their exclusion last year. And even if, somehow, the powers in Washington agree on an inclusive position, questions remain about the appropriate mechanism for inclusion. Direct government grants are very dangerous, because they place great power in the hands of federal administrators. Vouchers or tax credits are much better, because they empower individuals rather than officials. Since there's no consensus in Washington on these questions, the Bush administration insisted that any deal reached with Senate Democrats this year be in effect for only two years. If conservatives do well in this fall's election, the whole question can be reopened in the next Congress, maybe on a drier playing field. So the Bush folks are punting now -- and given the past year's mess, I can't blame them.