Some Aid for the Saints

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

January 30, 2001

Most Americans know someone hard at work in a religious organization whom they refer to, at some point or other, as “a saint.” They use the word not to make a theological judgment, but to describe the people whose satisfaction in life comes not from amassing power or money but from devoting themselves to others.

So many who do the work of helping poor kids to learn, or battered women to rebuild lives, or drug addicts to kick their habits, are not religious. But it’s also true that many of these saints can, indeed, be in churches, synagogues, mosques and other institutions connected to religion and faith. Yesterday, President Bush proposed that we take this work more seriously than we have in the past, and find constitutional ways of supporting these efforts with government money.

Bush is right to ask us to acknowledge that miracles do happen every day in scores of church basements, child care centers and prison fellowships. Even before the current interest in “charitable choice” programs to help faith-based institutions, government money often flowed through, near or around—and, in some cases, into—religiously based institutions. To pick the obvious: Bush didn’t invent the idea of Medicare and Medicaid money flowing to religious hospitals, or of government student loans helping students who attend private and religious colleges.

Bush is also right—and most liberals in the trenches helping communities and individuals know this already—that government alone cannot expect to solve every social problem. Our systems of public assistance would collapse if non-governmental organizations, including the churches, weren’t doing their share.

And in picking John DiIulio as head of his new office
on religious and voluntary initiatives, Bush has found a
good person to lead the effort. I’ll admit to either
genuine knowledge or bias—you can judge which—since DiIulio, a professor at the University of
Pennsylvania, is a friend and colleague. Among other
things, we’ve edited a book together on religion,
politics and faith-based organizations. I’ve met few people more genuinely
dedicated to the poor and to racial justice.

But what’s important from the public policy point of view is that DiIulio is not one of those policy entrepreneurs who thinks his favorite idea can cure everything that ails us. On the contrary, he thinks the faith-based approach will work only if debated honestly and evaluated carefully. In the questing spirit that DiIulio will encourage, here are a few of the challenges this new Bush effort should face.

First, the case for faith-based organizations cannot be that religious groups do their work better than non-religious groups, and that therefore the government should be biased in favor of the faith groups. For one thing, there’s not enough evidence to support that point, and plenty of evidence that voluntary secular groups do fine work, too. And it would be a constitutional disaster for government to show preference for religion, even “religion in general.”

The better case for the faith-based groups—and this, at least for now, is where Bush seems to be going—is that they’re part of a broader network of voluntary organizations (Big Brothers and Big Sisters being one of many examples) that deserve help, encouragement and, if carefully tailored, support from government. The point has to be to strengthen the voluntary sector as a whole.

Second, Bush’s generous words about the poor have to be tested against all of his proposals, not just this one. It will need to be said regularly for the next four years: A compassionate society doesn’t leave families without health care coverage, former welfare recipients without help in finding decent jobs, low-paid workers with no ladders out of poverty.

“Government will never be replaced by charities and community groups,” Bush said yesterday. It’s good that he said it. Now, by his works, and budgets, shall we know him.

Finally, Bush’s proper emphasis on personal responsibility—of parents to their children, of the addicted to recovery, of former criminals to rehabilitation—cannot be used as a way of denying social responsibility.

Millions of people are poor not because they are flawed or irresponsible but because of bad luck, discrimination, poor schools, dangerous neighborhoods and injustices created by the economy itself. Compassion is a good word, but justice is a better word. Bush’s compassionate conservatism should be measured not by its intentions but by whether it leaves our country more just than it is today. No society can depend on saints, even government-supported saints, to do it all by themselves.

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