Is Faith a Government Tool?

Bush, Gore diffaer on who will run the social safety net

Voters might well be alert to how the two main presidential candidates differ on a growing movement to use religious groups to administer social services. (See lead story on page 1.)

Gov. George W. Bush largely defines his "compassionate conservatism" around the idea of giving tax incentives to faith-based groups for such government-defined tasks as helping the poor and drug abusers. Texas is already a leader in testing the idea that local groups with spiritual purpose are the best social healers.

Vice President Al Gore is more cautious. As a Democrat living with the legacy of the New Deal and Great Society, he sees government as the primary caregiver. Last year, he denounced the "hollow secularism" of liberalism and called for a "partnership" with religious groups. But they would be only a supplement to government, while Mr. Bush would try to have religious groups as the main weaver of the social safety net.

These are not minor differences. Whoever wins the election will redefine the balance between church and state.

Republicans in Congress have already launched the nation down Bush's path. They put a little-known provision into the 1996 welfare reform law that allows faith-based providers to compete for federal welfare funds. These groups can keep their religious character. And welfare recipients acan choose to use a regular government office.

The results have been modest, one study finds. More research is needed, however, to answer many difficult questions before this concept expands:

1. Can nonbelievers be protected from pressure to join a religion in seeking government services?

2. Will religious organizations be protected from government? And will their members end up reducing their donations of time and money?

3. Are there enough faithful to do what government does now for the disadvantaged? Are churches up to this civic task?

4. Will all religions be treated equally by government?

Basically, voters need to decide if social welfare is a spiritual exercise. It was seen that way in the 19th century. In the 20th century, government saw it as just changing human behavior. What should it be in the 21st century?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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