The gospel according to Al Gore

Critics - mostly conservative - are ready to dismiss Vice President Al Gore's recent talk about faith and values as empty presidential sloganeering. But to do so is to neglect a profound cultural moment: a repudiation by Democratic leaders of the antireligious mood that has darkened liberal thought for at least a generation. Just as Bill Clinton once declared the era of big government over, Mr. Gore now admits that the "hollow secularism" of liberal government has run its course.

As Gore opened his presidential bid June 17 in Tennessee, he praised the work of religious groups in treating social ills. In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, he claimed that "faith and family are at the center of my life." And in a major speech on religion in May, he called for a "new partnership" between church and state, pledging to "put the solutions that faith-based organizations are pioneering at the very heart" of his administration.

Gore joins the same choir section as most Republican presidential hopefuls.

Over the last 18 months, for example, Steve Forbes has repeatedly argued that free markets are not enough to sustain a free society. What is needed, he says, is moral renewal, driven by religious groups and religiously inspired social movements. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has placed the efforts of religious charities near the center of his "compassionate conservatism." No state leader, in fact, has used his bully pulpit more effectively on behalf of the faith community.

Yet Gore is not alone among his liberal peers. Yale law professor Stephen Carter chides his liberal colleagues for treating religious activism as "presumptively wicked." Joel Kotkin, writing a few years ago in The New Democrat, was refreshingly frank: "No wound has afflicted the Democratic Party so deeply as its divorce from religious experience and community. In the name of opposing religious dogmatism, it has embraced a morally relative dogma that many Americans find shallow and uninspiring."

To be sure, Gore himself has not completely escaped his party's secularizing grip. In his May Atlanta speech he claimed that the Founders "believed deeply in faith," as if the object of that faith may as well be tapioca pudding. He fretted about the imposition of religious values in public life, as if laws embody no moral claims. And he warned against the proselytizing of "right-wing religion," forgetting that his Salvation Army audience consisted of evangelicals who make faith in Jesus the explicit goal of their programs.

And there is a danger, of course, in the new church-state talk: the watering down of religious commitment. "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar," Jesus once counseled, "but give to God what belongs to God." Officials at some of the largest religious charities - Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities - admit that Caesar's support carries a price: The good Samaritan is often strangled by bureaucratic rules, or seduced into giving help without offering faith and hope.

Gore seems awake to the problem. In a move that stunned his left-wing base, he recently backed the "charitable choice" law, a GOP amendment to the 1996 welfare-reform package. It prevents government from interfering in the hiring practices or religious outlook of agencies under contract. Civil-liberties groups are trolling for a test case. Whether it will survive a court challenge remains to be seen. But as Peter Berger, a Boston University sociologist, warns, "he who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon."

Nevertheless, the Gore rhetoric on religion suggests a watershed. He correctly argues that the real aim of the First Amendment is to protect religious freedom. He says religious approaches are overcoming human problems left unsolved by federal programs. And he insists that government help for faith-based charities should not invite government control.

"We can protect against the establishment of religion," he says, "without infringing in any way on its free exercise." For now, at least, that deserves a hearty "Amen."

*Joe Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation, in Washington. He is author of 'Seducing the Samaritan: How Government Contracts are Reshaping Social Services' (Pioneer Institute).

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