Despite congressional inaction on his "faith-based" initiative, President George W. Bush continues to promote tax aid to religious social services in appearances around the country.
Most recently, Bush spoke at a predominantly black mega-church in Dallas, regaling the receptive crowd with a speech that contained a reference to his own struggles with alcohol, which Bush says he overcame through religious conversion.
"You've got to understand that sometimes, and a lot of times, the best way to help the addict, a person who is stuck on drugs and alcohol, is to change their heart," Bush said. "See, if you change their heart, then they change their behavior. I know."
Bush also promoted two concepts that seem mutually contradictory. He insisted that government does not want to fund religion, but a moment later promised to steer government funding toward groups clearly engaged in religious activities.
Bush insisted that the faith-based program is not intended to spur government funding of religion.
"But first, let me say, government has no business funding religious worship or teaching," he told the crowd. "They don't want the church to be the state, and we don't want the state to be the church. However, our government should support the good work of religious people who are changing America."
But elsewhere in the same speech Bush lauded the religious activity of faith-based groups.
"As I said, government can hand out money and we will, and that's an important aspect but it cannot put hope in people's hearts," observed Bush. "See, that's the disconnect. It can't put hope in people's lives. We must understand that amidst our plenty, there are people who hurt, deeply hurt. And the deepest needs are oftentimes found in the human heart. In order to help that need, people need to know they're valued and wanted. People need to know a higher power that is bigger than their problems. What the faith-based programs say, time after time after time, is that miracles are possible. When somebody puts their arm around a neighbor and says, 'God loves you, I love you, and you can count on us both.' Faith-based programs work. They are able to address the deepest needs of our heart."
Bush also asserted, "It's hard to be a faith-based program when you're forbidden from practicing your faith. It's hard to change hearts when you can't use the power you've got to change the hearts."
Americans United issued a statement pointing out that Bush's choice of venue in Dallas was ironic. Bush went to the Rev. Tony Evans' Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Oct. 29 to observe the dedication of a $23-million education and recreation center at the church that will house Operation Turnaround, a program that offers job training, job placement, literacy classes and other social services.
Church officials, however, say the program takes no federal funds. La Fayette Holland, the project's executive director, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the church would have to carefully examine the effect of accepting public money because faith is a component of the program.
"If it will prohibit anything we are doing," Holland said, "we would have to turn it down."
Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said the situation is a reminder that many religious groups are rightly wary of taking public funds.
"President Bush picked the wrong church for a photo op," said Lynn. "This congregation doesn't want government interference in their religious work, so they've chosen not to apply for public funds."
Continued Lynn, "Bush's faith-based initiative would inevitably entangle government with religion. That's why many clergy oppose it."
In other news about faith-based initiatives:
The Bush administration is teaming up with the Roman Catholic Church to help new immigrants make the transition to life in the United States. Immigration officials in late October announced the launch of a six-month pilot program that will pair new immigrants with mentors from the church.
About one in five immigrants are from Mexico, a predominantly Catholic nation. But federal officials insist that the church will be forbidden from using tax funds to promote religion.
Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland has signed an executive order establishing a Faith-Based Council and requiring state agencies to work with religious groups.
"I don't care what the press says, I don't care what anybody else says," Rowland remarked. "I know this is the right thing to do."