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Sounds of silence

Sounds of silence

Bush initiative gets through the House, but what now?

Three negative stereotypes surround Washington participants and observers. Politicians are ready for unprincipled compromise at the drop of a bill. Journalists cynically view orators as liars or intellectual losers. Professors get upset when their theories enter the legislative sausage-grinder and emerge a mixture of horsemeat and pork.

"Professor Olasky," one reporter asked, "are you opposing H.R. 7?" The stereotypes passed by my eyes. H.R. 7 (see cover story, page 18) is the legislative vehicle for President Bush's compassionate conservatism, and I am overcredited as the godfather of that, so would a "yes" be scorning my own child? I'm also a journalist, fighting back cynicism when politicians talk about H.R. 7 establishing a "level playing field" for all religious groups; it does no such thing. And although I'm far from a politician, I do appreciate their calling and don't think that compromise is always from the devil.

So why was I criticizing chunks of H.R. 7, while telling reporters that I really didn't know which way I'd vote on it? In WORLD we've already critiqued the requirement to segment "religious" and "nonreligious" activities-but maybe that and other problems are balanced out by the introduction of a voucher option. Was I being unrealistic? Maybe that depends on how you see the United States at present.

I respect White House folks who have studied the 1993-94 Democratic failure to achieve nationalized health care. They concluded rightly that the Clintons overreached by trying to pass their whole agenda in one step. They see Democrats now making crafty step-by-step advances, and they think Republicans need to learn from the opposition and do likewise with the faith-based initiative. But I wonder. Democrats need a Beltway strategy since they don't have public support for their power-centralizing schemes, but I see the faith-based initiative as something that could be taken directly to the people of what remains a religious country.

I appreciate the chess-playing ability of the Justice Department's Carl Esbeck. He has studied the Supreme Court. He concluded, in one memo, "Let's be patient. Another court appointment or two and we get it all. But a few missteps now and we could receive a setback in the Court that we would not recover from for another 25 years. Slow and easy. Patience. Don't push Justice O'Connor too far or she will side with the liberals." Many TeamBush members echo Mr. Esbeck's emphasis on placating Sandra Day O'Connor, but I'm more optimistic than that on this issue.

The larger strategic question concerns the emphasis on passing a bill as opposed to truly helping faith-based poverty-fighters. A TeamBush executive said the language of H.R. 7 works in Washington to "pacify people who have concerns. Ambiguity is to our advantage." But ambiguity is to the disadvantage of those on the front lines concerned with the likelihood of adversaries placing spies and plotting litigation. Teen Challenge President John Castellini says that ambiguous rules "will be of no use" to strongly evangelical groups. Family Research Council President Ken Connor is exactly right when he states that "Faith-based groups should not have to founder on the shoals of legalese."

It's true that H.R. 7 would stop some of the most overt kinds of anti-religious bias. Catholic organizations could keep crucifixes on the wall. But it's a superficial religious tolerance that allows religious symbols and bans religious teaching. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) believes that some pervasively religious organizations he's seen are "the most effective groups in the country," yet he said H.R. 7 has "nothing to do" with them; such groups will be left "about where they are now."

Veteran government watcher Michael Schwartz says it's easy for Washington hands to get so involved in the legislative struggle that they "just don't think the problem through from the viewpoint of providers."

Maybe I do think like a professor, because in the end a problem of principle just bugs me. H.R. 7 clearly prefers some religious groups (those that don't see worship, teaching, and evangelism as central) over others, and that violates the First Amendment ban on "establishing" one religious perspective as the favorite. Why should theologically liberal groups receive preference while evangelical and orthodox Jewish organizations become second-class citizens? I wish President Bush would fight to put an end to government hostility to all faiths, including those that evangelize.

Nevertheless, I still like Mr. Bush, and if I had been in that Capitol conference room where he pleaded for support, it would have been hard to say no. Politicians have it tough.