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February 3, 2001
Column #1014


     For the first time in history, an American president has set a national goal of meeting social needs by looking ''first to faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives,'' as George W. Bush put it. 

     ''We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them,'' he said at the White House Monday. ''As long as there are secular alternatives, faith-based charities should be able to compete for funding on an equal basis and in a manner that does not cause them to sacrifice their mission.''

     Like what? How about running prisons? 

     The President noted that as Governor of Texas, he overcame the skepticism of prison officials to encourage an experiment three years ago in which the Christian ministry, Prison Fellowship (PF), created by Watergate ex-felon Chuck Colson - was allowed to take over the management of a prison wing with an explicitly Christian program to change inmate hearts.

     The result? Of the 80 inmates who have completed ''InnerChange,'' and been released back into society over the last 18 months, only three have been rearrested. That's a failure rate below 5 percent, compared to a national average of 40-60 percent. Not surprisingly, this success has led to PF running similar prisons in Iowa and Kansas and inspired invitations from 20 more to do so. 

     However, up to this point, virtually all of PF's costs of management have been raised privately, so that critics of church-state cooperation have had no targets to shoot at.

     Colson, one the national leaders of a faith-based ministry who was present when Bush announced his new initiative, has mobilized an extraordinary 50,000 Prison Fellowship volunteers who bring the Gospel to prisoners behind bars and delivered ''Angel Tree'' gifts to 580,000 children last Christmas. But PF had never been allowed to immerse prisoners in a Christian atmosphere until Bush gave the ministry an opportunity to do so. 

     Does this mean Prison Fellowship will be soon receiving federal dollars to run federal prisons or to begin working in more state prisons? Not necessarily, while Bush's press release proposed new funds for faith-based pre-release programs in prison. As Bush said the next day at the Fishing School, a Christian after-school program for at risk children, ''Government, of course, cannot fund, and will not fund, religious activities.'' InnerChange is thoroughly religious. 

     The problem, according to Carl Esbeck, an expert in ''charitable choice,'' is that the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits any step by government which ''establishes religion.'' However, it is increasingly tolerant of initiatives that treat people on a religiously neutral basis. The PF Board may also refuse to request federal funds, due to a limited capacity to manage additional prisons, or to a fear of becoming a target for a costly lawsuit.

     Some large charitable organizations have long accepted government contracts to provide services. Catholic Charities actually received the majority of its funds in 1999 from government, 62 percent of a $2.3 billion budget. World Vision accepted $90 million of funding, 23 percent of its funding, from government to provide disaster relief, child survival assistance and water programs. ''World Vision is not a church, but a religious organization,'' says Bruce Wilkinson, vice president. ''We do not proselytize, but work with partner agencies who do that.''

     Bush's hope is to fund grassroots religious and community groups who are working to relieve ''suffering in the shadow of America's affluence, problems like addiction and abandonment and gang violence, domestic violence, mental illness and homelessness,'' as he put it. 

     Dr. John DiIlulio, the new head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, studied 2,000 Philadelphia churches and found 91 percent had at least one major service to the poor, such as a food pantry, offered by 48 percent. A fifth had a prison program. He said, ''Virtually none of the congregations made a profession of faith a condition to receive the service.'' In Texas, encouraged by Bush, many churches are helping women get off welfare.

     Bush also sent Congress a proposal on Tuesday week to permit charitable deductions for 80 million non-itemizers. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study estimated those deductions should stimulate an additional $14.6 billion of charitable giving, an 11 percent increase in charitable giving and 11.7 million new donors! Other proposals: a $500-per-person state tax credit for poverty-related donations, and an expansion of tax deductible donations by corporations from 10 percent of income to 15 percent.

     Thus, President Bush is creating an extraordinary new opportunities for people of faith - to live their faith in ways to help others. It truly is compassionate conservatism.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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