Putting Faith in Community

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

August 7, 2001

When President Bush created his White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, almost everyone immediately forgot the word ‘community.’ Yet if Bush wants to see his plan to assist religious charities realized, he’ll have to put more faith in community.

The Bush proposal passed the House earlier this summer, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is in no hurry to take it up. He has promised Bush a vote, but Democrats say it’s unlikely anything will happen until next year.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the one person who may be able to get something on Bush’s desk, thinks that may be just as well. The Connecticut Democrat says he needs time, because only by writing a new bill is there a chance of getting any bill through.

‘The bill as it passed in the House doesn’t have the votes to pass the Senate, it has to be changed,’ Lieberman said. The best bet, he says, is to ‘start again.’

Part of starting again, Lieberman says, is to remember that the effort to help religious congregations was always part of a larger mission: to strengthen community groups, whether religious or non-religious, that are close to those who need help and that give citizens in neighborhoods a larger role in solving their own problems. ‘The government does its best work,’ Lieberman says, ‘when it partners with the institutions of civil society.’

The initiative needs help, however, because it is still mired in political mistrust.

Religious conservatives who are, in principle, sympathetic to Bush’s initiative worry that any changes made to the House bill will only put new restrictions on religious charities as concessions to ‘secularists.’

Liberals inclined to support new programs for the poor not only worry about church-state separation issues, but also are skeptical that the Bush plan will deliver any new help to the needy.

Daschle, who has thrived by bringing up issues that united Senate Democrats, sees this one as doing just the opposite. Yet he does not want to kill Bush’s initiative for fear of giving Republicans the opportunity to run against Democrats as the ‘anti-religion’ party.

This is where Lieberman, who met last week with the president, becomes important to Daschle as well. Lieberman, who has warned his party of the dangers of seeming hostile to religious faiths, needs to give his Democratic colleagues a bill they can embrace. That’s why he says he hopes to write a proposal that wins support from a majority of Democrats, and not simply a small rump that would give Republicans just enough votes to succeed.

Some elements of a new proposal are already obvious. Lieberman got help last week when Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican and the Senate’s leading advocate of the faith-based initiative, said he would drop House provisions – offensive to many Democrats – allowing faith-based groups to circumvent state and local anti-discrimination laws.

Another option, Lieberman said, is to remove any mention of discrimination law from the bill. This might preserve what one Senate aide called ‘an uneasy truce’ between civil rights groups and religious organizations that has existed since Congress first expanded government help to religious groups in 1996.

But the biggest innovation would be to refocus the bill and increase help to all community-based groups, secular as well as religious. One idea would link the faith-based initiative to an expansion of the voluntary programs financed by the Corporation for National Service, including Ameri-Corps. Another would be to extend technical assistance and other help financed by the proposal to non-religious civic organizations as well as religious groups.

And Congress will have to come up with more money. ‘We’re not expanding the pie,’ Lieberman said. ‘I’d have more of a prospect for Democratic support if we could increase the funding for this.’

Bush is ready to give considerable ground to Democrats because he sees this as a signature proposal. Yet concessions made to win votes in the Democratic-led Senate could push away conservative House Republicans who voted for it the first time around. Believing that the faith-based initiative will become law thus still requires faith. But with many Democrats in the Senate wanting to signal that they, too, sympathize with the work of religious congregations, it does not require blind faith.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.