DETROIT -- It's rather hilarious listening to liberals rail againstPresident Bush's establishment of a White House Office of Faith-Based andCommunity Initiatives.

Mixing politics and religion by providing taxpayer dollars to faith-basedorganizations would offend the Constitution, asserted the American CivilLiberties Union. Added a New York Times editorial: "There is also aninherent danger in government's picking and choosing which groups to help." Such qualms haven't stopped the left from favoring government aid tofaith-based groups of which it approves, however. One of the biggest isDetroit's Focus:HOPE, whose founder, Fr. William Cunningham, was an activistpriest. True, Focus:HOPE doesn't emphasize its religious, much lessCatholic, roots, but religious values still inform every aspect of itsoperations.

As for government picking and choosing which groups to help, that has longbeen a staple of left-wing politics. It is on display in the legal battleover racial preferences at the University of Michigan. U- M President LeeBollinger just the other day argued to a federal court that unless hisstate-supported institution were permitted to favor African-Americanapplicants to its law school, the cause of diversity would be seriouslyharmed. (An argument which, let it be said, seemed to undercut his othermajor contention: that racial preferences are just one factor among many inchoosing which students to admit.)

What Democrats really fear, of course, is that the Bush initiative mightdrive a political wedge into the heart of the liberal coalition. As the lastelection vividly demonstrated, Democrats hold a virtual monopoly on theblack vote. A mere 8 percent of African- Americans voted for George W. Bushnationwide. Republicans like Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, an African-American,have been urging their colleagues to take their case to inner-city churcheswhere the social conservatism of the GOP might have some appeal. That the Bush team might have some crass political considerations for itsfaith-based initiative, however, doesn't answer the question of whether suchan approach is a good idea. In truth, that's debatable. The right should bealmost as nervous about the idea as the left.

For while there is indeed danger in bringing religion into the heart ofpolitics, there is an equal danger in bringing politics into the heart ofreligion. The strength and energy of religion in America -- unlike inEurope, where organized religion is widely supported by taxes yet is in deepdecline -- comes precisely from the fact that it is seen as above politics.And the success of church-related social outreach efforts is closely relatedto their religious mission.

Church-run soup kitchens don't just feed bodies. They nurture souls, whichin turn makes it far more likely that those bodies will one day becomeself-sufficient and productive. George W. Bush understands that. He insiststhat his aim is simply to stop discriminating against faith-basedorganizations as potential deliverers of social goods. He also claims thatgood bookkeeping can prevent the use of federal funds for purely religiouspurposes.

But will that really be so easy? Even if the Bush team succeeds at thisdelicate balancing act, will future administrations resist the temptationsto pressure churches to do their political will -- just as African-Americanpolitical leaders like the late Coleman Young pressured inner-city churchesto vote the right way (or risk losing Head Start and other funds)?

To the extent Republicans have crass political motives at heart, they shouldbe warned: Two can play that game. Unless some bright lines between churchand state can be established, Democrats are likely to be better at playingthe game than Republicans -- whatever they may be saying now about the Bushinitiative. At least educational vouchers, which would have used taxpayerfunds to achieve a secular purpose, would have gone to parents rather thandirectly to schools.

The GOP might be better off arguing for an even bigger tax cut. That wouldgive citizens the ability to support faith-based organizations of their ownchoosing and then hold them accountable for results. Donors would have ahigher incentive than Washington bureaucrats -- even Republican bureaucrats-- to place their dollars where they will actually do some good.
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