Gore gets religion

But can he co-opt the GOP's embrace of federal dollars for religious charities?

Published June 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's obligatory to complain that our presidential campaigns are devoid of policy
content and dominated by spin. As a result, it's gone largely unnoticed that we
already have, at this early point in the election calendar, a certifiable Big
Idea to chew on: Al Gore's proposal to funnel federal money to "faith-based

With his "new partnership" vision, Gore erased what could have been a major
difference between next year's presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential
nominees. Yet, in a very Clintonian way, Gore may also have set in motion
political forces that he wont be able to control, and which could end up burning
him. Gores justification for supporting faith-based groups with federal dollars
is the same rationale that supporters of private-school vouchers use to support
their argument.

Having set the faith-based organizations' ball in motion, Gore must now attempt to
maintain the distinction between religious drug counseling groups and religious
educational programs. That distinction won't be easy. He could make a narrow,
legalistic argument -- that schools are a unique government responsibility, for
example -- but that isn't going to cut it with the true believers. Just as
with Clinton and welfare, Gore could be steering the Democratic Party toward
defeat on vouchers through short-sighted rhetoric meant to score
political points in the here and now.

But that possibility has done little to slow the vice president as he
attempts to make an impression amid the white noise on the campaign trail. Gore
elicited amens from a gathering of Salvation Army members in Atlanta last month
when he called for a "new partnership" between the government and religious
groups that run drug-treatment and job-placement programs. Basically, he
proposed splitting the difference between an over-reliance on private volunteerism
(President Bush's "thousand points of light" route) and the public bankrolling of
the Great Society. If faith-based organizations can help addicts kick on a
shoestring budget, why not have Washington lend them a hand? Republicans,
including George W. Bush, were pushing this idea long before Gore, but the vice
president set it squarely before the electorate as no one else has.

But in the process of defending his proposal, Gore is treading into murky waters
for Constitutional purists who insist upon a clear separation of church and
state. Whereas Republicans see a seamless connection between using federal
dollars for faith-based groups and federally-funded school vouchers, Gore is a
staunch opponent of vouchers. Last July, Gore told cheering members of the
National Educational Association that vouchers were "fraudulent" and
"dangerous" -- a threat to public education.

In his search for a political "third way," Gore might have broken with the
Democratic tradition completely and argued that public money ought to go to
private and religious organizations of every stripe -- schools as well as church
charities. Instead, he has gone for a Clintonian compromise, endorsing Republican
principles yet deploying them in pursuit of slightly more centrist policies.
Even if you assume that his argument is heartfelt (Republicans have accused him
of simply trying to co-opt one of "their issues"), Gore is playing a dangerous

With his new policy statement, Gore is engaging in a standard political practice - taking jabs at the safest punching bag imaginable for an American politician: non-believers. He decried "the allergy to faith that is such a curious factor in much of modern society."

This is a truly bizarre complaint. As Gore pointed out earlier in the same speech, America has a higher proportion of citizens who believe in God than any other Western country, a staggering 94 percent.

Gore also asserted that the religiously inclined need assurance that they can take part in policy debates "without feeling that they must hide their religious beliefs." One might want to ask the stream of Republican presidential wannabes currently pandering to the Christian Coalition whether churchgoers are the shrinking violets Gore describes.

In an interview with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., Gore added a historical gloss to his culture-of-disbelief thesis. "What we're really seeing," he told Dionne, "is the end of a 400-year period of allergy to faith, where some over-read the implications of the Enlightenment to exclude belief in God, and adopted an easy and sometimes seemingly arrogant assumption that whoever believed in God is a little weak-minded, logically lazy, self delusional and insufficiently curious about the way the universe works."

"I respect those who hold that view," Gore said ("with a chuckle," Dionne notes). Then the utterly uncritical columnist adds: "But he's scored his point for God."

Surely, God is grateful for the plug.

Some scholars say there really is evidence that faith-based programs can help drug addicts and the homeless better than secular programs do -- provided, of course, that the participants want to embrace religion.

John DiIulio, a Princeton professor of public policy, has suggested that faith-based groups are "leveraging 10 times their own weight and solving social problems for us." A 1996 U.S. News & World Report cover story described the success of a job-counseling group in Detroit called Joy of Jesus, which claimed an 80 percent placement rate, even though its clients were indigent and unskilled. Michigan was so impressed with the results that it offered to subsidize Joy of Jesus -- provided that the group drop its emphasis on prayer, to keep the relationship constitutionally sound. But after the change, clients weren't gripped by the program in nearly the same way as their predecessors, and success rates dropped precipitously.

While it may earn him political chits, Gore's proposal may not be the silver bullet for helping America's poor. Even so, it would represent a simple evolution in policy -- albeit a rather big step -- rather than a revolution. National faith-based groups like the Salvation Army have long received public money, on the condition that the funds pay for food, counseling and beds, not proselytizing. In the past, some Salvation Army chapters have been asked to remove crucifixes from their walls or to delete the word "salvation" from stationery; those fights are rare now.

Through the efforts of Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., the 1996 welfare bill included a provision that opened the door for smaller, local groups to bid on social-service contracts. The Gore plan would make government money available to hundreds more. It would also make clear, once and for all, that faith can be a central part of the programs.

Lt. Col. Paul Bollwahn, the national social-services consultant for the Salvation Army, says the Gore-Ashcroft plan would do no more than "level the playing field." As he sees it, the government now discriminates when it shells out money for social services. When it does give religious groups money, it asks them to jump through hoops "to deny who they are." He says the Gore plan would end the quibbling over crucifixes and let religious groups get down to the business of helping the poor.

Critics like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, on the other hand, think the Gore plan would open a Pandora's box of problems. Taxpayers, in effect, would be required to contribute to religious groups they disagree with -- or even despise. Atheists would be financing fundamentalists. Fundamentalists would be financing Muslims. Homosexuals would be subsidizing anti-gay churches. Money is fungible, after all, and so subsidies earmarked for soup kitchens inevitably free up money for other purposes.

Moreover, although Gore didn't stress this point, his proposal would also release faith-based groups that take federal money from the grip of anti-discrimination laws -- a concession they have long pushed for. On one level this seems reasonable: Methodists would hire Methodist counselors, for example. But consider the implications: Federal money would underwrite positions for which, in various circumstances, Catholics, Jews, Muslims or homosexuals could not apply.

Gore insists that no one would be forced to use a faith-based programs. Every community would have a "secular alternative."

Given tight budgets, it is likely that large outlays of cash to religious charities would mean a corresponding reduction in spending on the secular programs that Gore comes so close to ridiculing. That's exactly what teachers -- and Democrats -- have been arguing would happen to schools if vouchers were approved: Public schools would get asphyxiated.

Gore now faces the prospect of arguing that Republican voucher plans would siphon off desperately needed money from public schools, while simultaneously making the case that his own faith-based organizations plan will not hurt secular programs. Dancing that dance is going to require near-Clintonian flexibility.

By Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea is a writer living in Washington.

MORE FROM Christopher Shea

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Al Gore Democratic Party Religion