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April 28, 2001
Column #1026


    WASHINGTON - Sen. Trent Lott, the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, stood in the ornately decorated Great Hall of the Library of Congress, speaking to largely African-American pastors at a ''Summit on Charitable Choice'' this week. 

     The words of America's most powerful Senator were startling: ''Two thousand years ago a man asked a wise teacher, `Who is my neighbor?' It was not a government bureaucrat, but a stranger from out of town who got off his horse to help an injured person in need.'' 

     ''At long last, we have a president and a Congress who understand that faith-based organizations are a critical part of what's needed to help give more opportunities - to reach out to a child in need, or someone with an addiction, who will be looked after as an individual. You are a treasured resource to make America a better place. You can do something government can not do. This is a great opportunity for you and for all of us.''

     Rep. Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House, compared a government-sponsored drug treatment program which had a 96 percent recidivism rate, with a religiously sponsored one whose rate was 36 percent, ''a great improvement.'' 

     Yet the faith-based initiative of President Bush has been surprisingly controversial. 

     Pat Roberston was horrified to discover the Church of Scientology might be funded. Other critics on the right, such as Marvin Olasky, who influenced Bush's thinking about compassionate conservatism while he was governor of Texas, urged revamping of proposed charitable choice rules, which discriminate against evangelicals who provide faith-based help for the poor. 

     For example, federal funds currently can not be used to fund a drug rehabilitation program whose centerpiece is a conversion to Christ. Of course, Americans for Separation of Church and State, oppose any such move ''unconstitutional.''

     On the other hand, Sen. Rick Santorum told the Summit that he regularly asks school children, which phrase is in the Constitution: ''separation of church and state'' or the ''free exercise'' of religion. The kids always cite the incorrect ''separation'' answer.

     Much of what is being proposed, however, is not controversial.

1. Expand private sector donations by allowing 70 percent of people who file a standard deduction to also deduct gifts to charity that could spark $14.5 billion of additional giving.

2. Create a ''level playing field,'' in which churches might compete with secular agencies to get federal grants to run after school programs, rehabilitate housing, help welfare mothers get jobs or care for the elderly. ''The President is committed to inviting religious organizations to the table to participate in ways that do not dilute their religious character as they teach right from wrong and behavior modification,'' said Don Eberly, Deputy Director of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

3. Give those in need a voucher for use in a church-run programs or secular competitors. If the choice exists, a ministry like Prison Fellowship which emphasizes conversion, would grow and be constitutional. 

     As one of the attending pastors at the Summit, Rev. LeRoy Sullivan of Bread of Life Church in Kansas City, Kansas put it, ''Don't penalize us because we are a church. If what we are doing is working, give us an opportunity.''

     Rep. J.C. Watts, who organized the Summit, gave its keynote address: ''Since 1965, the Federal Government has spent $5.5 trillion - not billion, but $5.5 trillion - on poverty programs. We have used all the wrong models. Many are in deeper poverty today than 1965. 

     ''It is time to listen to the stories all across America about how lives are being changed, Good Samaritan stories of true service, who are feeding the hungry, freeing drug addicts, rescuing men from gangs. Changed lives lead to changed communities and a changed nation.''

Pastor Sullivan shared one of those stories in a panel at the Summit. ''Marriage is an answer to many of our problems. Children from broken homes are 12 times as likely to be incarcerated as those from intact homes and 14 times as likely to be physically abused, according to the Heritage Foundation. 

     ''Since we trained mentor couples to help other couples make it, we have had no divorces in our church in three years. And we have worked with many other churches to create similar mentoring programs. The divorce rate in Kansas City, Kansas (and in a two county suburban area) has plunged 44 percent in only four years!''

     Pastors applauded and shouted ''Amen!'' 

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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