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Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2001 / 9 Shevat, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Consumer Reports

Faith-based funding ain't kosher? -- PRESIDENT George W. Bush has kept a campaign promise. He's going to try to use the federal government to help religious organizations that help people. These "faith-based groups" run soup kitchens and day-care centers, teen-mentoring programs and drug-rehab clinics. The catch is that every now and then somebody mentions G-d. Maybe a few of them will ask participants to pray or - gasp! - read the Bible.

It goes without saying that Bush must be stopped. I mean, better a crack addict stay addicted than he read some psalms while he gets clean. Heaven forbid that someone get sermonized about the Ten Commandments before he gets a free meal.

The day Bush announced his plan, the American Civil Liberties Union acted on cue and released a press release headlined "ACLU Says Bush Initiative Represents Faith-Based Prescription for Discrimination."

The central concern seems to be that Buddhists in search of a way to get out of street gangs will be forced to recant their faith. I'm kidding, sort of.

"What the president is proposing today will open the Bob Jones Universities of the world to receiving federal funds without any civil rights safeguards," exclaimed Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office.

That's right. If Bob Jones University runs a meals-on-wheels program, with some federal money, homeless people might not have the civil right to take the food but refuse a couple minutes of religious instruction. It's not as if Catholic hospitals around the country - which receive plenty of tax dollars - require patients to take communion before having their gallstones removed.

Bush's critics claim that his affinity to faith-based programs derives from his own status as a born-again Christian and his affiliation with the hardcore Christian right of the Republican Party. This must explain why he appointed former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and University of Pennsylvania political scientist John DiIulio as the men to oversee the effort.

Goldsmith is Jewish and a renowned moderate policy geek. DiIulio (whom I've dealt with professionally) is Catholic, is a Democrat and has deep blue-collar roots in Philadelphia. He's spent the last few years working almost exclusively with inner-city black churches helping troubled teens. Clearly, two more Bible-thumpers.

The central argument supporting Bush's effort is the idea that religion helps people. This idea terrifies people like Murphy of the ACLU, no doubt because her family was wiped out by a marauding band of Bingo-playing Christians when she was a child.

"Priests, ministers and rabbis" are great, says Murphy. "But many individuals faced with drug addiction, mental illness and other problems need more than spiritual advice. They need people who are trained and licensed to address their specific physical and psychological needs."

This all true - and George Bush is not advocating the handover of social policy to churches - but common sense and, to a lesser extent, experience says that religion often motivates both the provider and the provided-for a lot more than simple bureaucratic governmental charity.

Alcoholics Anonymous - no fringe group - requires that its members surrender to a "higher power" because many people need to find strength outside themselves. They may not call it G-d and it may not work for everybody, but it's a hard example to dismiss. So, is the Salvation Army, which has been much more successful saving people (and their souls) then the federal government has.

And speaking of the federal government, the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and similar hysterical groups have embraced a totally mythological history of the United States. They believe - or they propagandize - that the Founding Fathers intended the Constitution to prohibit any fraternization between religion and government.

This is, quite simply, nuts. The phrase "separation of church and state" doesn't appear in the Constitution, nor does any "high wall." (The "separation of church and state" language comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson.)

One irony that bugs me is that while this separation of church and state stuff is largely made up, the Constitution is pretty clear about a separation of the Feds and the states. And yet, the ACLU, People for the American Way and others have for years argued that federal law and the federal courts should trump almost every local law and ensure a federal right to welfare payments and the like.

This brings up the only real concern I have with Bush's plan. I have no doubt in my mind that needy people will be much helped by the recruitment of those doing the Lord's work instead of government work. But federal dollars are addictive and government checks can do as much damage to institutions as they can to individuals. The last thing we need is the Feds requiring churches to surrender their mission to a higher power, and I'm definitely not talking about G-d.

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