Ira Chernus  


The Bush administration wants to give much more public money to religious organizations for welfare and social service work. Mr. Bush says, "We will not fund the religious activities of any group." But he also says he will give money to faith-based groups "without changing their mission," which is to promote their particular faith. Is the president confused?

He seemed pretty certain last year, when he wrote the preface to Compassionate Conservatism by Marvin Olasky. Praising the Texas professor and born-again Christian as "compassionate conservatism's leading thinker," Bush said clearly: "it is an approach I share." Olasky is perfectly clear too. He insists that religious groups can help the needy only if they dish out religious teaching and inspiration along with hot meals and job training. They might keep two separate sets of books, one for prayer and preaching, the other for spending federal funds. But if they try to keep the activities separate, our tax money will be wasted.

Here is how Olasky explains it. The root of the problem is that "man is sinful and likely to want something for nothing." Most of the needy got they way because they simply wouldn't control their sinful impulses. Their problem is bad attitudes: "appetite and lust and idleness." No amount of aid will make any difference until they decide to live a disciplined life. That requires an inner spiritual transformation strong enough to create "private character" and "order in their souls" (as the president put it in his inaugural address).

(I heard this theory as a college student. Back then they called it "blaming the victim." Now, in the White House at least, it is called "compassion." Language is a slippery thing.)

Olasky wants not just any religion, but the religion of the Bible, where God offers tough love. He makes stiff demands and expects them to be met. Those who don't measure up suffer the consequences. Without strict accountability, it seems, the needy don't have enough incentive to change their wastrel ways. They need constant challenge, testing, and scrutiny to learn the spiritual virtue of self-control.

Mr. Bush has to make a choice. If he really shares Olasky's idea of "compassionate conservatism," he must encourage religious groups to mix social service and divine service. If he really means to keep church and state apart, as he now claims, he must abandon the Olasky theory. He can not have it both ways.

He and his supporters can try to wriggle out of this by saying they want to fund religious programs simply because they happen to work best. Experts will certainly debate whether the statistics bear out that claim.

But the underlying question is why religious programs work, if they do. Olasky says it is because they save the needy from their sin. For him, this proves that lack of religious faith caused the problems in the first place. That is like saying that, since an aspirin cured my headache, I got the headache because I didn't take aspirin.

If the president wants to separate religious activities from social welfare, then apparently he does not think lack of faith causes social problems. In that case, turning to faith-based groups for solutions is not the best way to spend our tax dollars. It attacks only the symptoms. It would make more sense to spend our money on curing the underlying disease. Better to go to the doctor than keep buying aspirin.

Clearly, the new administration's plan is not based on careful logic. Might it be a way to repay Mr. Bush's most loyal supporters, church-going white Christians? He won their votes overwhelmingly, and lost everyone else's votes overwhelmingly. All faith-based groups can compete for federal funds. Let's keep an eye on who gets them.

Those funds are small potatoes compared to the really big prize, which goes to the nation's employers. According to Olasky, once the needy get orderly souls, they are quite willing to work hard, full time, at low-wage jobs. Indeed that is the best sign that they have conquered their sin.

But inflation is the real sin that Republicans are always out to exorcise, regardless of their theologies. Republican orthodoxy says that inflation comes from ordinary workers demanding too much pay. And when recession looms, profit margins depend even more on keeping up productivity while cutting wages. "Compassionate conservatism" offers a convenient solution, though it shows more compassion for employers than employees.

If Mr. Bush really agrees with Professor Olasky, he must ask us to spend our tax dollars for religious purposes. If he does not agree, he must give us some good reason for treating symptoms rather than the disease itself. And he must prove that he is doing more than paying off his political debts. One way or the other, he has some hard explaining to do.