'Armies of Compassion'

After a big-bang launch today, President Bush's initiative to support "faith based" groups that provide social services will likely generate more heat than a thousand points of light. At least at first burst.

Political heat will rise from those who say the disadvantaged are best served by government bureaucracies that, despite their failings, only need a bit of fixing, new ideas, and, of course, more money. (See story on page 1.)

Legal heat will be generated from those who say any official support of social work by groups of faith would end up either favoring or controlling certain religions, and thus violate the Constitution.

Both complaints are worth airing in Congress or the courts, but not before the Bush plan gets a full and fair shakeout.

Too many trends point to a public desire for a broader network of social engagement in which individuals can "love thy neighbor" with help from either religious institutions or government - or, as Mr. Bush suggests, both working together in a careful, mend-your-fences partnership.

Most of the nation's 353,000 congregations of all faiths already provide a range of social services, whether it's rehabilitating prisoners, delivering groceries to shut-ins, holding job fairs, or teaching drug and sexual abstinence to teens. That's because caring for the less fortunate or the most vulnerable in society is a natural outcome of a person's spiritual growth. Many congregations already receive local or state funding.

Such charitable work of churches, synagogues, and mosques brings love, hope, and one-on-one support to troubled individuals who often don't receive that in government programs.

Still, faith-based social work remains too small to supplant government efforts. Bush's proposed tax credits and funding of such groups will never replace social-welfare agencies. Rather, he wants to help the "armies of compassion" find their own level of participation in the work of creating a caring society.

Of course, taxpayer money should never be used to let a religion convert people or end up boosting a religion. And grants for social work should be given neutrally to both religious and secular groups. Bush needs to convince Americans he can uphold such safeguards. If not, then this noble experiment needs a fresh look.

Most of all, religious leaders would need to prevent government controls or the lure of federal money from corrupting the genuine, heartfelt efforts of the faithful to love their neighbors as themselves.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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