Paying Tribute to a Good Idea

By Michael Gerson
Friday, July 4, 2008

If I may be permitted a moment of nostalgia, I witnessed the beginnings of the faith-based initiative.

It was the height of the Gingrich revolution in 1994. A few perceptive (and lonely) Republicans, including Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, were convinced that an exclusively anti-government approach would be both morally incomplete and politically self-destructive -- that a party with nothing hopeful to say about addiction, disadvantaged youths or homelessness would not remain a governing party for long. As a young staffer, I worked with Coats's legislative team on a package of legislation called the Project for American Renewal, designed to promote the work of community and faith-based charities.

The Republican leadership listened to our ideas politely, as one listens to a slightly batty uncle -- then proceeded to shut down the government in 1995. The Clinton administration did more than listen. By 1999, Vice President Al Gore was calling for a "new partnership" between government and "faith-based organizations." But it was Texas Gov. George W. Bush who ran with the idea as a centerpiece of compassionate conservatism.

So Barack Obama's recent announcement of "a new project of American renewal" that will "empower faith-based organizations" rang a peal of mental bells for me. The power of a political idea is largely measured by its influence on the other party. By this measure, the faith-based initiative is now a permanent feature of American life.

Obama's proposal immediately won the right supporters, including John DiIulio, one of the most principled compassionate conservatives of the early Bush administration. It also earned the right critics. When Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State says, "I am disappointed," Obama is on the right track. My own reaction: Obama has done himself and his country a service and reminded many of us why we found him a compelling political figure in the first place.

In his speech, Obama -- both presidential candidate and professor of constitutional law -- affirmed the central intellectual commitment of faith-based welfare reform: that government can support the secular social work of sectarian groups within the bounds of the First Amendment. And this, he argued, is not merely appropriate but necessary, because some problems are "simply too big for government to solve alone." So he pledged to keep a faith-based office at the White House, encourage larger religious charities to give technical assistance to smaller groups in getting government funds, and focus new efforts on summer education programs for disadvantaged children. DiIulio calls this a "balanced, centrist, faith-friendly plan" that avoids both "orthodox sectarianism and orthodox secularism."

Of course, Obama felt a political need to contrast his approach with the past eight years. Bush's effort, he said, was "consistently underfunded" -- which is hard to dispute. It was also "used to promote partisan interests" -- a charge that is not fair. Or maybe as fair as the charge of partisanship against a Democratic presidential candidate who announces his faith-based program in the battleground state of Ohio.

Obama is characteristically opaque on the issue of hiring -- seeming to promise that religious parent institutions can select employees based on their beliefs, while denying this right (depending on local law) to their social service adjuncts. And many of Obama's proposed reforms -- building local capacity and focusing on outcomes -- are a precise description of current Bush administration policies.

But Obama's attempt to brand the faith-based initiative as his own is a tribute to the idea itself. No politician borrows and expands a failure.

Obama's proposal is a sign of political maturity -- the rejection of a foolish notion that anything associated with Bush is irreparably flawed. It is politically smart, appealing to that margin (broad or narrow) of gettable evangelicals. But the proposal also has the virtue -- unlike Obama's recent ideological evolution -- of evident sincerity.

As a former community organizer, Obama is familiar with the geography of hope in American cities. He knows that religious groups are irreplaceable in desperate places -- and that a rigid secularism would decimate the very institutions that the poor depend on most. He also understands that these charities are often overwhelmed and that they deserve and require public support.

In his speech, Obama explained, "while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work." These are welcome words from a Democratic presidential candidate -- and a good example of moderation without cynicism.

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