President George W. Bush: 'Revive the Spirit of Citizenship'

Commencement address at University of Notre Dame, May 2001.

BY: President George W. Bush


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Notre Dame's own Lou Nanni is the former director of South Bend's Center for the Homeless -- an institution founded by two Notre Dame professors. It provides guests with everything from drug treatment to mental health service, to classes in the Great Books, to preschool for young children. Discipline is tough. Faith is encouraged, not required. Student volunteers are committed and consistent and central to its mission. Lou Nanni describes this mission as "repairing the fabric" of society by letting people see the inherent "worth and dignity and God-given potential" of every human being.

Compassion often works best on a small and human scale. it is generally better when a call for help is local, not long distance. Here at this university, you've heard that call and responded. It is part of what makes Notre Dame a great university.

This is my message today: there is no great society which is not a caring society. And any effective war on poverty must deploy what Dorothy Day called "the weapons of spirit."

There is only one problem with groups like South Bend's Center for the Homeless -- there are not enough of them. It's not sufficient to praise charities and community groups, we must support them. And this is both a public obligation and a personal responsibility.

The War on Poverty established a federal commitment to the poor. The welfare reform legislation of 1996 made that commitment more effective. For the task ahead, we must move to the third stage of combating poverty in America. Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide.

Government has an important role. It will never be replaced by charities. My administration increases funding for major social welfare and poverty programs by 8 percent. Yet, government must also do more to take the side of charities and community healers, and support their work. We've had enough of the stale debate between big government and indifferent government. Government must be active enough to fund services for the poor -- and humble enough to let good people in local communities provide those services.

So I have created a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. Through that office we are working to ensure that local community helpers and healers receive more federal dollars, greater private support and face fewer bureaucratic barriers. We have proposed a "compassion capital fund," that will match private giving with federal dollars.

We have proposed allowing all taxpayers to deduct their charitable contributions -- including non-itemizers. This could encourage almost $15 billion a year in new charitable giving. My attitude is, everyone in America -- whether they are well-off or not -- should have the same incentive and reward for giving.

And we're in the process of implementing and expanding "charitable choice" -- the principle, already established in federal law, that faith-based organizations should not suffer discrimination when they compete for contracts to provide social services. Government should never fund the teaching of faith, but it should support the good works of the faithful.

Some critics of this approach object to the idea of government funding going to any group motivated by faith. But they should take a look around them. Public money already goes to groups like the Center for the Homeless and, on a larger scale, to Catholic Charities. Do the critics really want to cut them off? Medicaid and Medicare money currently goes to religious hospitals. Should this practice be ended? Child care vouchers for low income families are redeemed every day at houses of worship across America. Should this be prevented? Government loans send countless students to religious colleges. Should that be banned? Of course not.

America has a long tradition of accommodating and encouraging religious institutions when they pursue public goals. My administration did not create that tradition -- but we will expand it to confront some urgent problems.

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