The emergence of the term "faith-based organization" in the political discussion may signal one of the most significant new developments of American public life. Vice President Al Gore's recent speech in Atlanta on the role of faith-based organizations has raised the issue to another level. The most likely Democratic nominee for the 2000 presidential race proposed a "new partnership" between the government and the pioneering efforts of faith communities that are finding real solutions to the poverty and violence in many local communities around the country.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Gore's likely Republican opponent, already has been experimenting in teaming with faith-based groups for social service delivery, while Bill Bradley, Gore's only Democratic challenger, has been advocating a stronger role for the organizations of "civil society," including religious ones. It appears that the role of faith-based social programs will be part of the election debate.

The most important thing about Gore's speech is that he went beyond merely affirming the role of faith-based efforts as admirable or exemplary to speak of their potential strategic role. Gore offered faith-based organizations "a seat at the national table when decisions are made." He promised, "Today I give you this pledge: If you elect me president, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies in my administration." What that might mean will be the next order of business.

Two of the most powerful forces in the country are service and spirituality. The growing evidence of both is visible almost everywhere, and together they provide the most potent combination for changing our communities. They are growing streams of committed energy, which, as they begin to flow together, are creating a mighty river of action.

This "spiritual politics" is forging new solutions in local communities across the country by developing civic projects and partnerships committed not just to alleviating the effects of poverty but to actually overcoming it. The devolution of national social policy from the federal to the local level will only strengthen the role of religious communities. While faith-based communities have long provided the bulk of the nation's social volunteer force, now their successes are being turned to by politicians and social policy analysts searching for new answers.

In this new climate, faith-based ministries no longer would be looked to as merely "a shining anecdote in a pretty story told by a politician," to quote Gore again, but rather as contributors to new social policy formation on the critical problem areas of American life.

That holds the promise of something genuinely new. "Let us put the solutions that faith-based organizations are pioneering at the very heart of our national strategy for building a better, more just nation," said Gore. " . . . This focus on a new partnership, which emerges from the voice of the leaders of the faith-based organizations, will invigorate civil society."

But if faith-based organizations are indeed "invited to the table," our role will not simply be to make government more efficient but to make America more just. It will not be simply to "clean up the mess" created by bad social policy, or to take the place of legitimate government responsibilities but to bring a morally prophetic voice for new policies.

In this partnership, we will raise the common moral values on which our society must build and insist on a strong standard of the common good to guide public policy. We will argue that the development of public policy must be dictated not merely by the clash of power and competing interests but also by fundamental questions of right and wrong, shaped by asking what our moral vision is, what kind of people we want to be and what kind of country we want to have. For example, the national silence on the rapidly growing social inequality in America is stunning. That is a profoundly moral issue to which the faith community must speak as a biblical issue of justice.

Today an incredibly vibrant, direct citizen politics occurs in many local communities. Much of it is tied to nonprofit institutions, among them many faith-based organizations. National politics must wake up to that and begin to connect with all the grass-roots energy and innovation. Perhaps we are at the beginning of such an awakening, as more and more political leaders are showing interest in faith-based organizations. We must learn how to make the connections between spirituality and politics while vigorously protecting the First Amendment.

There is enormous potential here, not just for a few exemplary programs but for a new vision of real social change. It's a strategy that goes beyond left and right, engages the grass roots and, best of all, might really work.

The writer is the editor of Sojourners magazine and the convener of Call to Renewal, a new national federation of churches and faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty.