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Jewish World Review June 14, 2001 / 24 Sivan 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Are Democrats Anti-Religion Or Just Anti-Bush? -- Al Gore got trounced last year among churchgoing Americans, and Congressional Democrats seem bent on keeping the trend going by throttling President Bush's faith-based initiative.

Gore tried to improve his party's image among the faithful by picking Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), an openly devout Jew, as his running mate and by endorsing the concept of federal funding for religious groups to help solve social problems.

The Clinton administration too had advanced the concept, expanding funds and authority for faith-based groups to work on welfare reform, mental health and anti-drug programs.

However, now that President Bush is trying to encourage large-scale involvement in social programs by religiously affiliated groups, an initiative called "charitable choice," most top Democrats can find nothing good to say about it.

Last week, for instance, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) opened his tenure as chairman of the Judiciary Committee by declaring he had "grave concerns about where [charitable choice] may lead us."

He cited every possible argument against the initiative, liberal and conservative, and made it evident that he'll kill it if he can. He seems to be speaking for most Democrats.

Even Lieberman, who has argued for the expansion of religion in American life and has supported or co-sponsored every past charitable choice-like initiative, now says Bush has failed to answer "hard questions" about the plan's constitutionality.

Lieberman told me he thinks there are ways around the problems and that he wants to solve them, but his staff predicts that charitable choice is a goner in the now Democrat-dominated Senate.

The plan will pass the House this summer, so it has a chance to survive in a House-Senate conference. But then it will be up to Lieberman to convince his Democratic colleagues to accept a compromise measure, a sure test of his leadership.

It's hard to tell whether Democratic hostility is a case of rampant partisanship or rampant secularism, almost religio-phobia.

Perhaps it's both.

Democrats were OK with Bill Clinton and Gore allowing church-based charities to participate in social welfare programs.

Suddenly, though, when Bush tries to do this, Democrats raise the specter that the constitutional stricture against an established religion is in jeopardy and there's a danger that Hare Krishnas will dominate the drug-treatment field.

Leahy cited two cases in Texas in which faith-based programs had mistreated children. He neglected to mention the countless cases of documented abuse by state-run child welfare agencies, foster care systems and correctional centers all over the country.

Moreover, Democrats have a deeper problem. They are aligned intellectually and politically with liberal groups harboring a deep fear of religion, for whom the prime characteristics of faith are prejudice, exclusionism, judgmentalism and theocracy.

The idea that religion inherently represents love, healing, redemption, generosity and liberation is something many Democratic politicians seem reluctant to acknowledge.

To the extent Democrats appreciate religious values, they tend to consider them something to be kept private and secret rather than the inspiration of America's founders, which they were.

The framers of the Constitution wrote the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a religion in order to foster the free expression of religion, not to suppress it.

In the debate over faith-based initiatives, there are some legitimate questions that need to be answered and language written into law to protect against abuse. But it can be done, and Democrats should try to find a way to do it.

Lieberman, for instance, is concerned about a provision in House legislation on faith-based programs that would expand the proviso that religious groups participating in social programs can favor members of their own sects in hiring.

Allowing such groups to require that employees follow the teachings or tenets or religious practices of the faith could lead to the exclusion of gays and lesbians, for example.

He is also concerned about religious proselytizing by groups receiving federal money. And he questioned whether all religious groups - Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, etc. - should be eligible to participate.

John DiIulio, head of Bush's faith-based initiative, says that under existing programs, religious groups form separate, non-religious entities to do social welfare.

Another option is government vouchers that citizens could take to religious or secular agencies as they wished - the way students take their Pell grants to secular or religious colleges of their choice.

Both traditional religious groups and marginal sects, DiIulio says, should be judged on the basis of whether they can perform social services well, just as non-religious welfare providers are evaluated.

Lieberman asked a good question in a recent speech: Does society have more to fear from a rehabilitated drug addict who got clean through an explicitly religion-based treatment program or from an untreated, unrehabilitated addict? It's a question he should pose to his colleagues.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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