Uncle Sam and Social Gospel

Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush has tagged himself a "compassionate conservative." That's a mouthful of a phrase, meant to soften the GOP's anti-government image and win over women who vote Democrat.

But what does it mean?

Now we have an inkling. Mr. Bush used a recent visit to a church in Indianapolis to propose a partnership between government and religious groups to fight poverty and crime.

If elected, he would remove regulatory barriers that prevent such collaboration and he would set up more generous tax deductions for charitable giving to enhance funding for such groups.

On the face of it, much of what Bush offers on this subject makes sense. If all politics is local, maybe charity should be, too. Private charities, and particularly religious groups active in inner cities, are doing remarkable work.

And Bush is not alone in his ideas. Vice President Al Gore in May endorsed a larger role for faith-based groups in moving people off welfare. Some church groups already have federal contracts in this area. He, too, would boost charitable giving, though his would have government match contributions by companies whose employees give to religious charities, rather than change the tax code.

With these two leading candidates pushing the idea of closer teamwork between government and religion to solve social problems, the idea may be a key issue in the campaign. Despite its positive glow, the proposals will - and should - face tough questions. For instance:

*Does the emphasis on private charity merely provide cover for withdrawing government from antipoverty work? In Indianapolis, Bush denounced the notion that government's role could be filled by charitable groups. Public-private teamwork was his theme - and Gore's. The resources and scope of such groups are limited.

*What legal and constitutional issues arise from intertwining the government and religious groups? There has to be clear accountability whenever public funds go into private hands. How much and what kind of oversight is needed to ensure that local faith groups carry out governmental contracts as intended? Another concern is the Constitution's bar against official support for religion. Bush and others say support for social services offered by religious groups can be separated from support for specifically religious programs. Perhaps so, but sorting religious content from social programs could prove sticky.

*Can the federal government really know which faith-based charitable groups are appropriate? Local and state governments are more likely to know which groups are effective.

As these questions, and no doubt others, are addressed, Americans will get a better idea of just how sound a policy initiative this is.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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