The uproar over President Bush's faith-based initiative has been so intense that the White House has decided to pull it back for retooling. That makes this the perfect moment for a national debate.
Yet the debate we should be having is not on the hoary hot-button issue of the separation of church and state, but on two critically important questions at the heart of the initiative: How do you turn around troubled lives when so many of our social problems involve human behavior -- especially addiction and violence? And what is the proper role for government to play?
The evidence is overwhelming that it's infinitely harder to rebuild shattered lives without acknowledging the spiritual dimension of human nature. No, this doesn't mean accepting Jesus as your personal savior. It simply means that, as Alcoholics Anonymous and its many offshoots -- including Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, etc. -- have shown, acknowledgment of a higher power is central to recovery.
In fact, Bill Wilson, who co-founded AA, traced its guiding principle to Carl Jung's conviction that since "man is something more than intellect, emotion and two dollars' worth of chemicals," recovery too must be more than physical.
In the same way that astronomy wasn't able to move forward until Copernicus posited that it was the Earth that revolved around the sun -- also an unpopular view at the time -- our society will not be able to reclaim its proliferating human casualties until it comes to terms with the fact that healing revolves around the acceptance of a higher power.
Of course, there will always be people who believe there is no God, just as there continue to be flat-earthers, convinced that Copernicus had it all wrong. And, in both cases, that is their inalienable right, one that should be fiercely defended by the rest of us.
But as a culture, to continue to try and solve social problems while ignoring human beings' innate need for meaning and a connection with something larger than ourselves is as destructive as if we were to build our principles of navigation on the basis that the jury is still out on Copernicus.
Will there be abuses, instances where a free meal is accompanied by a side order of proselytizing? Sure. There will always be a few who cross the line, and we need to aggressively weed them out.
But people are suffering, and what we have been doing has clearly not been working. So we can either take the risks that are inherent in any new idea or just go on pounding our heads against old familiar -- and ineffective -- walls.
The trouble with Great Society-style programs is that they are, by nature, bureaucratic and impersonal. And as Bill Milliken, the president of Communities in Schools and a tireless advocate for at-risk children, puts it, "No life has ever been turned around without a loving relationship."
Rabbi Michael Lerner, whose latest book, "Spirit Matters," addresses the need to integrate spirituality into our culture, is an enthusiastic supporter of faith-based initiatives. "Because religious institutions are not afraid to talk about love as a goal," he told me, "they are likely to be more effective at providing community services."
The fact that the faith-based initiatives are being promoted by Bush -- the candidate of the religious right who famously cited Jesus as his favorite political philosopher -- makes a lot of people nervous, especially since there is no shortage of reasons to be distrustful of so many of his other priorities.
But the picture changes dramatically when we look at who has come out in favor of faith-based initiatives -- and who is lining up against them. Al Gore, for instance, proposed as part of his agenda a faith-based initiative all but identical to Bush's.
"I believe the lesson to the nation is clear," Gore said on the campaign trail. "In those instances where the unique power of faith can help us meet the crushing social challenges that are otherwise impossible to meet ... we should explore carefully tailored partnerships with our faith community."
What's more, Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, recently hailed Bush's proposal as "wise" and "convincing": "If the proper protections are in place, and the money can't be used for proselytizing, and there are secular alternatives for beneficiaries to opt into, and no one is coerced, what in the end is the harm?"
Adding their voices of support to the chorus are liberal stalwarts like Franklin Raines, director of the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton, and Peter Edelman, the former assistant secretary of Health and Human Services who resigned when Clinton signed the welfare reform bill.
Even John DiIulio, the man Bush chose to spearhead his faith-based agenda, is a registered Democrat who voted for Gore. But most important is the backing the proposal is getting from those actually working in the trenches -- the people focused not on process, but on results.
Jim Wallis, head of the poverty-fighting group Call to Renewal, asks, "Why not forge partnerships with the most effective nonprofits, whether they are religious or secular? And why discriminate against nonprofits just because they are religious?"
Jonathan Swift once said that you could tell a man of genius by the number of dunces lined up against him. You can recognize a good proposal the same way.
Leading the nitwit parade on this issue are two very strange bedfellows: Barry Lynn, who has made a career out of warning people of imaginary threats to the separation of church and state, and Pat Robertson, who is worried about "opening the floodgates ... of the federal treasury to aberrant groups" like the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas.
I guess Rev. Pat doesn't know that the Hare Krishnas have provided help to homeless veterans, recovering addicts and prison parolees with the help of government money for close to 20 years.
Personally, I'd much rather have "aberrant groups" distributing food, shelter and comfort to those in need than Robertson and company distributing voter guides along with their Sunday sermons.