Why Bush's Faith-Based Initiative May Be Headed for Purgatory

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Evangelist Pat Robertson has criticized President Bush's faith-based initiative

President Bush thought he was preaching to the choir with his so-called faith-based initiative, a plan to funnel a portion of government spending through religious charities. Now, much to his surprise, it seems the choir is less than thrilled with his sermon.

At first blush, it sounds like every religious leader's dream come true: More government money for religious charity groups. But high-profile evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are reportedly balking at the program, citing concerns that government intervention will weaken their ministries. Some groups, mostly from the Christian right, are also fretting over the possibility that because the program pledges to provide funding across the religious spectrum, it will inevitably funnel money into what they consider less palatable religious sects. (Scientology is the most frequently cited example.)

This weekend, in response to those fears, the White House told the Washington Post it was "postponing" action on parts of the program to fund religious charities. "We're not ready to send our bill up," said Don Eberly, deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The proposal, Eberly told the Post, "may need to be corrected in some areas."

Both sides of the age-old church-state debate have taken up arms against the Bush plan. Liberal legislators and activists worry that the proposal will weaken the church-state divide, and that by providing certain groups with federal funds, the government will signal tacit federal approval — or disapproval — of certain religions or religious programs. Conservatives, on the other hand, argue in favor of that same barrier because they fear the constitutional restrictions placed on government involvement in religious activities will force religious groups to water down their message in order to receive much-needed funding.

Law professor Thomas Berg, who teaches courses in constitutional law and religious freedom at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., sees this seemingly unlikely liberal-conservative alliance against Bush's initiative as a reemergence of an old trend. "Historically, Protestant conservatives were very suspicious of government intervention in religious proceedings, because they worried the government would try to dictate doctrine. And liberal groups, who favored secularization, agreed with them, in terms of their purpose, anyway," Berg told TIME.com. "It was only about 30 years ago, particularly as once-trusted bastions of low-grade generalized Christian ethos, like public schools, became more secular, that Protestant conservatives began to reverse course."

Unlike Professor Berg, however, the White House was apparently caught off guard by conservatives' hostility toward the plan, and is looking into workable alternatives to direct federal funding of religious groups' work. One especially popular possibility involves vouchers — which would be distributed to individuals in need who could then choose whether to seek help from a government- or church-run group. This course of action would help smooth ruffled feathers on both sides of the debate by removing federal standards from organizations' quest for funding, and by placing the onus on each individual to evaluate and choose the best program for her personal needs — be they physical, spiritual, or both.