Keeping the faith

Review & outlook (editorial)

By the editors

The Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2000

Amid the parties and hoopla that defines a modern political convention, Republicans are making it clear that there are real policy stakes in the upcoming election. Take the GOP pledge to make more room for religion in treating America’s social problems — especially in areas where government intervention has proved a disaster. On Monday night, delegates were treated to a stem-winding address by the Reverend Herbert Lusk, speaking by remote from his Exodus Baptist Church in predominately black North Philadelphia. No doubt few of the delegates to whom he was speaking have ever been inside a black church. But they all clearly enjoyed it.

“We are supporting Governor Bush because we know he gives faith a chance,” boomed the Reverend Lusk in a revival-style sermon whose message was that what his people want is economic empowerment, not government pity. A few years ago, he noted, a local bank wouldn’t give his struggling church a loan. But things have changed. Today, he roared to thunderous applause, “We own the bank!”

The Reverend Lusk was more subdued but just as persuasive at a Sunday event at his church on the role of faith-based organizations sponsored by the Manhattan Institute. He decried the corrosive effects of welfare on his community, and along with other black ministers he presented evidence that the most effective anti-drug and anti-alcohol programs usually involve the life-transforming event of religious commitment. Marvin Olasky, author of the phrase “compassionate conservatism,” agrees. “The major flaw of the modern welfare state is not that it’s extravagant with money,” says Mr. Olasky, “but that it’s stingy with the help that only a person can give: love, time, care and hope.”

Tomorrow Governor Bush will discuss some of his own ideas on faith-based groups in his acceptance speech. These ideas include expanding the federal charitable deduction to people who don’t currently itemize. And he has a record of backing his words with actions. As governor of Texas, Mr. Bush had Charitable Choice protections written into all Department of Human Services contracts, which allowed religious groups to compete for federal funds without having first to take down their crucifixes or other emblems of their faith.

Probably this reflects a growing consensus in America that government has been too hostile to religious groups that better people’s lives. We’ve written about the Rev. Thomas Cross of Mason Cathedral Church of God in Christ in Boston’s Dorchester section, who lost his city funding for a summer day camp after an official witnessed — horrors! — a teenage¬†counselor¬†joining in the Lord’s Prayer. And it took a Supreme Court decision this year to reverse a decision taking away computer equipment from Louisiana parochial schoolchildren on the grounds that it might be used to download a religious image or something. President Clinton has signed national Charitable Choice legislation to limit such foolishness, but some cabinet departments such as Andrew Cuomo’s Housing and Urban Development remain bastions of old thinking.

Thus viewers who tune in to this week’s convention are likely to learn more in a few days about the positive role of faith-based groups than most secular media outlets have offered up in years. For the message here is that money without values is no solution, because it doesn’t help people change. Just ask Sister Connie Driscoll, who runs a “tough-love” homeless shelter in Chicago. “Cut off this easy government money,” she says. “People must be pushed to decide what they want to make of their lives.”

In fairness, Al Gore has given his own speech in favor of faith-based initiatives. But though both leading candidates support such work in theory, conversations with people who run such groups suggest that Mr. Gore would have a harder time in practice because so much of his base is opposed to or leery of them. “The world view of Al Gore’s supporters hasn’t changed enough yet for them to accept us,” says Bob Cote, a former homeless person who runs the Step 13 job program in Denver. Clearly the folks down in Philadelphia believe that in this new millennium, maybe it’s time our government stopped making mountains — and started letting our respective faiths begin moving them.