February 19, 2004 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Faith, hope and politics

Before President Bush launched his faith-based initiative, activists on both sides of the political aisle paid little attention to the nation's Good Samaritans. But since Bush has done so much to elevate their civic importance, it's impossible to ignore them. In a way no one expected, that political fact threatens both liberal and conservative ideology.

The president's plan aims to end government discrimination against religious charities seeking federal funding. Some critics see only pandering to Christian conservatives, but that judgment misreads their involvement in politics over the last 20 years. School prayer, crosses on public property, the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance-this is the stuff of direct-mail campaigns.

Bush says next to nothing about these issues. Instead, he pledges millions in federal money for prisoner re-entry programs and drug treatment centers. True, Jesus fed the hungry, promised to "set the captives free," and spent a lot of time with society's down and out. But they've never been the focus of political action by religious conservatives. It's a revealing fact that Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and a tireless advocate for inmates, is one of the few vocal defenders of the president's initiative among self-identified evangelicals.

Critics on Bush's left face a different dilemma. They view spending for social services as government's highest moral obligation and love to quote the Bible to justify welfare programs. Democratic presidential hopefuls, mindful that African-Americans and Latinos aren't afraid of religion, are clumsily trying to find the right mix of God talk. "We've got to prove we're as God-fearing and churchgoing as everybody else," John Kerry told Vogue. Howard Dean has called religion and spiritual values "what this election is really about."

Nevertheless, liberal activists and political leaders mostly oppose Bush's faith-based agenda. To them, faith as the fix for drug addiction or crime sounds facile-maybe even dangerous. "We've worked so long and hard to combat the stigma that substance abuse and delinquency and mental health are a symptom of a breakdown of morality, and to convince people they are an illness," a spokesman for the National Association of Drug and Alcohol Counselors told The Washington Post. "This would roll us back 60 years."

Herein lies the president's argument against the secular state. It begins with a different anthropology: Religious approaches to poverty, crime and drug addiction are more humane than government remedies precisely because they are religious. They regard individuals as endowed with moral and spiritual capacities - and obligations. In this view, people made in God's image are responsible for their choices and, with divine grace, can make better decisions for themselves and their families.

"Many of the problems that are facing our society are problems of the heart," Bush told a congregation in New Orleans to mark Martin Luther King's birthday. "We want to fund programs that save Americans, one soul at a time."

It's not surprising that liberals dismiss such talk as empty moralizing; their blinkered gaze is fixed on the social conditions that help impoverish millions of lives in the inner city. But what of the faithful? Bush used the phrase "salvation" or "saving lives" 13 times in his Louisiana speech, for example, yet it got little attention in the religious press. Indeed, in many circles there's much more talk about "reclaiming America's Christian roots" than about rescuing families from the ravages of crime or addiction or sexual abuse.

There are legitimate First Amendment worries about the president's faith-based agenda, as well as the danger that government support will secularize religious charities. Yet it would be strange if Bush's theme of personal redemption - a message evangelicals understand so well - were drowned out by believers themselves in the frenzy of a presidential race. Indeed, when the spiritual condition of society's most vulnerable takes a back seat to all other issues, there may not be much left for the secularists to do.

Joseph Loconte, a commentator for National Public Radio and author of "Seducing the Samaritan" (Boston, The Pioneer Institute, 1997), is a fellow in religion at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

First appeared on the Scripps Howard wire.