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June 5, 1999
Column #927


     Who made this statement: ''Our severest challenges are not just material, but spiritual. Americans know that the fundamental change we need will require not only new policies but more importantly, a change of both our hearts and our minds. If children are not taught right from wrong, they behave chaotically....Without values of conscience our political life degenerates.''

     And who said this: ''Government does not have a monopoly on compassion. Who better to help those who need help than people of faith who are following a religious imperative to love their neighbors, feed the poor and help the needy? Government should welcome the help of faith-based institutions. Church and state should work together for our shared goals.''

     Did you guess Vice President Al Gore gave the first quote? The second is by Texas Gov. George W. Bush.  Not coincidentally, both are favorites for their party's Presidential nomination.

     Each is expressing a new interest in government funding of religiously-based groups to serve the poor, the addicted and the homeless.   The old belief in the need for separation of church and state is melting away among those running for office.

     Why?  Faith-based groups are often more successful in transforming the character of criminals and the indolent, than is government.  Teen Challenge, which helps drug addicts go straight via a one year immersion in Scripture, has 86 percent of its graduates remaining drug free.

     Yet in Texas in 1996, government bureaucrats attempted to shut down Teen Challenge because it did not offer the drug treatment of the preferred therapeutic medical model. Gov. Bush stepped in and halted the shutdown, saying that if religious people are able to help addicts recover, they ought to be commended, not terminated.

     That sort of stand is not surprising for Republicans, who derive much of their support from religious conservatives.  However, Al Gore's initiative was extraordinary, since Democrats get much of their support from liberals who want to keep the government and church separate.

     Speaking to the Salvation Army in Atlanta, he praised its ''powerful role of faith in nurturing a change of consciousness'' of men recovering from substance abuse who start their day in prayer before refinishing furniture.

     He cited the work of Rev. Eugene Rivers in Boston, who organized people of faith to face down the gangs that was so successful the city went 18 months without losing one child to gun violence. ''To the workers in these organizations, that client is not a number but a child of God,'' Gore said. ''I believe government should play a greater role in sustaining this quiet transformation.

     ''The 1996 welfare reform law contained a little-known provision called Charitable Choice. It says, simply, that states can enlist faith-based organizations to provide basic welfare services and help move people from welfare to work.

     ''As long as there is always a secular alternative for anyone who wants one, and as long as no one is required to participate in religious observances as a condition for receiving services, faith-based organizations can provide jobs and job training, counseling and mentoring, food and basic medical care. They can do so with public funds and without having to alter the religious character that is so often the key to their effectiveness.''

     Gore's desire to expand Charitable Choice was unanimously condemned by the board of People for the American Way, a civil liberties group. ''This proposal is bad for the Constitution and it is bad for religion,'' PAW said. Melissa Rogers, of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, agrees, ''A war on poverty doesn't have to include a war on religious liberty. Tax money and government regulation and control should stop at the church-house door.''

     Joe Loconte of the Heritage Foundation dissents: Gore's speech ''marks a repudiation of anti-religious bigotry that has dominated liberal forces for at least a generation. The hollow secularism of liberal government has run its course. That is a watershed.''

     Gov. Bush has worked aggressively to offer public funding for religious groups helping move people off welfare with very limited results.   Three years after passing such a bill only a few churches are mentoring welfare recipients in the Fort Worth area.

     However, a wing of a Texas prison run by Prison Fellowship immerses men in Scripture with spectacular results. Some inmates have actually refused parole so they could continue their discipleship in prison! Brian Snyder, 29, explained, ''I had just accepted Christ. I really wanted to change. I saw change in other guys' lives. They showed the fruit of the spirit, were always lovable, happy.  I have learned so much: patience and love.  Through Christ I can overcome anything. If I were not here, I would have failed long ago.''   

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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