An 'Army of Compassion' or an Army of Conversion?

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Volunteers serve food at St. Anthony's dining room in San Francisco

If you can't hear them yet, you will soon — President Bush's "armies of compassion" are marching your way.

Monday, surrounded by a carefully choreographed array of American clergy representing Jewish, Moslem and Christian groups, the President announced a plan to make federal aid funds available to faith-based service organizations. Bush hopes the strategy will open the giant network of faith-based community service programs to the Americans who need help most. But opponents of the plan are already speaking out against what they see as an unacceptable blurring of the lines separating church and state.

"There are deep needs and suffering in the shadow of America's affluence," Bush told reporters Monday. The new president also signed two executive orders, one creating a new office called the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, headed by University of Pennsylvania political science professor John DiIulio, a longtime supporter of similar plans. Bush also ordered five Cabinet-level agencies to begin work immediately to "clear bureaucratic barriers that make private groups wary of working with the government."

This move should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bush's presidential campaign. The then-governor first publicly championed the idea of a national faith-based aid fund back in the summer of 1999, when he was still gathering steam for his national bid. The specifics of that plan — $8 billion in new federal spending for use by charities and churches — are remarkably similar to those of the blueprint the President announced Monday. Even the idea of allowing religious groups to bid on government contracts to provide job training and other "bootstrap" services has been around for a while — thanks to Senator John Ashcroft, who insisted that just such a provision be inserted in the 1996 welfare reform bill.

Its familiarity, though, doesn't make it any less susceptible to criticism — from predictable opponents as well as less likely foes. There are plenty of conflicting reports as to whether or not faith-based community programs are more, less, or just as effective as those run by secular organizations — an uncertainty that only serves to fuel the fierce debate over entwining something as public as federal dollars with something as private as religious beliefs.

In the days leading up to the President's announcement, religious leaders appeared to be divided on the issue; some expressed worry that a governmental mantle could force their programs into a sort of purgatory of purpose — stripped of their outright religious intent but nonetheless considered less than legitimate by secular peers.

On the other side of the aisle, civil libertarians worry that Bush's plan violates the First Amendment establishment clause, which they say bars government from promoting and financing any faith-based agencies that integrate spiritual counseling into their programs. Civil liberties groups in Texas are already familiar with Bush's penchant for mixing faith and government — they've filed suit against the governor's faith-based welfare reforms.

"This whole thing is a religious-liberty nightmare," said the Rev. C. Weldon Gaddy, a Baptist minister and the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance. "You can't have federal funds supporting sectarian proselytizing," he told the Boston Globe. Critics who share the Rev. Gaddy's point of view worry that despite the President's assurances Monday that the funding will not "go to support the religious activities of any group," the very nature of faith-based groups means their clients will be subject to sectarian influences. What if, they ask, someone needed help getting out of an abusive relationship, and the only program available was faith-based? Would the victim be forced or even subtly pressured to accept some kind of religious belief system before help was given?

Still others applaud Bush's intent but question his strategy, wondering if funding religious groups will siphon money from parallel, equally needy government organizations.

Bush and others defending the plan counter that it's wrong to discriminate against groups that provide valuable social services simply because they have religious roots. And there is evidence from at least once source that faith-based groups are getting plenty of business — and attracting plenty of volunteer participation. Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization that supports the President's initiative, has issued a study underlining the social impact of America's 353,000 religious congregations. According to that report, nine in 10 congregations provide services beyond spiritual programs, including health, education and arts programs. It's precisely those programs, Bush emphasizes, already established as a trusted part of the community, that most poor Americans turn to in times of need.

Fine, say the plan's critics. But there are plenty of secular service groups making a difference in underserved communities. Wouldn't those groups — with no unspoken or overarching purpose but to serve — be a more appropriate target for federal beneficence?

Time will tell, and ongoing studies may help reveal the respective weaknesses and strengths in faith-based and secular service programs. In the meantime, however, these proposals are no doubt being studied by legions of lawyers with a trip to the Supreme Court in mind.