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Jewish World Review May 2, 2001/ 9 Iyar 5761

Wesley Pruden

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Trouble's brewing in the amen corner -- THE faith-based initiative is running into trouble, and for the right reasons.

President Bush can probably save it, but not without some changes that its most devout purveyors will probably resist.

The most effective skepticism comes not from the left, where disdain for religious faith is sometimes cloaked in high-minded piety, but from conservatives who recognize a threat to the Great Commission when they smell it.

Many of these conservatives are among the signers of a letter to President Bush, setting out their opposition to the faith-based initiative in its present form. They argue that the charitable-choice provisions of the initiative "would entangle religion and government in an unprecedented and perilous way. The flow of government dollars and the accountability for how those funds are used will inevitably undermine the independence and integrity of houses of worship."

The letter, dispatched last week, was sponsored by an ad hoc coalition organized by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which rarely has nice things to say or think about conservative evangelical Christianity, and signers include the usual suspects of the neurotic left -- representatives of Planned Parenthood, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, People for the American Way, the ACLU and assorted goofballs -- Wiccan "priestesses," feminist "goddesses" and a Nebraska preacher who lost his frock for presiding over a fraudulent Methodist "wedding" ceremony for two homosexual men.

But the signers also include a lot of clergymen who arenīt skeptics of the faith, prominently including evangelical pastors in such well-known hotbeds of theological deviancy and steaming cauldrons of left-wing politics as Milledgeville, Ga.; Culpeper, Va.; Ashdown, Ark.; Aiken, S.C.; and Broken Bow, Okla. This is a protest that canīt be dismissed as inconsequential, unimportant to George W.īs core constituency, or merely the complaint of soreheads. John DiIulio, the director of the faith-based initiative who regards criticism of it as something like secular heresy, will scoff at his peril. More importantly, so will his boss.

These clerical critics answer to a higher power. "I want to reach people for Christ," says the Rev. Ted Fuson, pastor of the Culpeper Baptist Church, "but I do not want to get into the position where, if I had a school or ministry that feeds the homeless, I could not pray with those folks or ask them about their relationship with the Lord."

Mr. Fuson has a clear understanding of how loud money talks. "The folks that send the money tend to tell you what to do with it and rightfully so, if you are taking tax dollars."

Baptists, more than any other religious denomination, hold fast to a consistent tradition of antagonism toward anything and everything that smells of linking church and state. The very phrase -- "separation of church and state" -- that has become a mantra of American democracy first appeared not in the Constitution but in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. It was upon this rock that American constitutional law was built, founding political doctrine held so dearly that it could only be threatened by well-meaning people scenting federal handouts for a good cause.

Some of the presidentīs friends scent trouble for the initiative -- and ultimately for the president himself -- from another source. Kate OīBierne, writing in the Wall Street Journal, warns of the law of unintended consequences. "Dependency grows with time," she writes. "A church group may accept a grant with every intention of walking away at a later date if necessary. But will this intention be remembered after a few years, when the grant is built into the budget? . . . Worse, federal grants will affect which churches grow and which shrink. Churches that get grants will be able to provide more services than those that do not, and it is not unknown for people to join churches that gave them job training, counseling, or pre-school. Do we really want federal funding to affect Americaīs religious dynamics in this manner?"

This president has a compassionate heart, and unlike a certain predecessor whose name has been banished from this space (at least for today) he sees difficult problems as something more than mere opportunities for political exploitation. Because he is a man of faith, he recognizes the unique power of faith to change lives, and he has seen firsthand the phenomenal success of churches to accomplish miracles that government bureaucracies can only dream of.

But thereīs always a risk in letting compassion overpower the natural skepticism of a conservative mind, of forgetting where that road of good intentions, even if paved with federal dollars, inevitably leads.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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